Back in 1985, Gatorade established an award honoring the nation's top high school student-athletes. Since then, the Gatorade Player of the Year award has recognized more than 12,500 state and national winners in 12 sports.
Gatorade Player of the Year alumni include household names like Kobe, LeBron, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, Candace Parker, Kerri Walsh and Abby Wambach. A distinguished group, indeed.
This week we're catching up with former NFL running back and 1995-96 Gatorade Virginia Football Player of the Year Thomas Jones.
When Thomas Jones was awarded high school sports’ highest honor in 1995, most people assumed the best was yet to come in his career. They may not have realized, however, that his biggest impact play wouldn’t happen until his football days were over.
The 1995-96 Gatorade Virginia Football Player of the Year while playing for Powell Valley (Big Stone Gap, Va.), Thomas told ESPN New York his plan to donate his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute for studies of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same affliction discovered in late NFL linebacker Junior Seau’s brain among other players.
Seau’s 2012 tragic death and apparent suicide sent shockwaves through the sports world and has raised awareness about the long-term effects of CTE, which can only be diagnosed through an autopsy. Jones hopes to continue to shine a light on the aftereffects of the multiple concussions so many pro football players endure.
"Honestly, like I couldn't give you a number (of how many concussions I had) because you just play with them," said Jones, who played 12 seasons in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs from 2000-11. "You can't know; nobody does. I think the guys counting the concussions were the ones that got knocked out. It's like taking a fresh, ripe apple and tapping it with your thumb over and over again."
Jones’ pro career included nearly 3,000 touches, which of course doesn’t include any hits he may have sustained all the way back to his playing days at Powell Valley. Given the sometimes brutal nature of some pro sports, it’s no wonder that Jones is one of 600 living athletes who have agreed to donate their brains to science. Life after football, he’s discovered, is just as exhilarating as life on the gridiron. He hopes all players, past, present and future, have the chance to discover that.
"Once you've bought everything you want,” he added, “you realize there is more you want out of life.”