Donald Jones knows he can still play in the NFL.
But the former Buffalo Bill prefers to look at life with the attitude of what he has done instead of what could’ve been.
The six-foot, 214-pound wide receiver from Youngstown State was coming off his best season in the NFL in 2012. He caught 41 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns that year for the Bills and grabbed the attention of teams around the league. After being cut by the Patriots during training camp, he was brought in by the Colts a few weeks later for a physical.
On that day, his life changed forever.
“During the stress test my blood pressure just went up too high when I was on the treadmill,” Jones said. “It went up to the point of where you’re about to have a stroke or heart attack or something serious like that.”
Jones had battled kidney disease with medication his entire life, but it got to the point where it became too dangerous for him to play the sport he loved.
“The training staff was trying to get me to understand that my playing career was going to come to an end and I could’ve possibly died on the field,” Jones. “That was the position that I was in. For a good while they were trying to get me to understand that, but it’s hard to get a player to understand that he can’t play anymore because of a health issue. Not because of injuries, or because you’re not good enough, but because you’re sick and your body can’t handle it.”
That day in Indianapolis wasn’t the end of Jones’ dreams and aspirations. Since his retirement at the age of 25, Jones has done just about everything—and then some.
First things first, Jones had to take care of his kidneys.
Jones attributes his inability to make New England’s roster in 2013 to the fatigue caused by his disease. Doctors eventually told Jones that he needed a kidney transplant, but he didn’t have to search far to find his donor.
“When I first found out that I needed a kidney transplant, my dad was like, ‘Listen, if I can be a match then I’m going to be the person to give you the kidney.’ Everything you have to go through to be a donor is not an easy process,” Jones said. “The work that they put you through. If I was him, I would have been like ‘Man, listen. I don’t know about this.’ But he stuck it out.”
After the transplant, Jones’ competitive fire still burned, so he started playing the sport he grew up with: baseball. Amazingly, he was on the field only four months after the kidney transplant.
Jones played for two teams, including the Somerset Patriots of the Independent Atlantic League.
Again, because of his kidney, Jones couldn’t pursue that sport, but he isn’t shy about his abilities on the field.
“I was serious about a baseball career,” Jones said. “I hit a bunch of home runs, I stole a bunch of bases and I played centerfield. I enjoyed it, but my body couldn’t even take the training for that. But it was fun. Just to be able to do that and to bounce back like that was great for me.”
From there, Jones wanted to tell his improbable life story. Undrafted to starting 22 games in the NFL to retiring all in less than three years is basically unheard of. So, he wrote a book. That book, “The Next Quarter: Scoring against Kidney Disease” became a New York Times best-seller.
Jones also owns a hat shop in his hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey and is now a partner in a pudding company that is expanding to Buffalo. But he is most proud of his involvement with the cause that is nearest to him.
He shares his story regularly at National Kidney Foundation speaking engagements. He says that a lot of the time people have lost confidence and need to hear about somebody living out their dreams despite health problems.
“There’s always a way to do the things you want to do and even if you can’t because of health, it doesn’t mean that’s the end of the road,” Jones said. “It doesn’t mean that that’s the end of your life. It’s just about staying positive. Once you have a negative mindset with a health issue, your body is going to follow. I always try to maintain a positive outlook on everything.”
Since August, you can find Jones on your televisions and radios as the co-host of the John Murphy Show. Jones studied communications at Youngstown State and always kept a keen eye on the media covering the Bills in Buffalo. He said being on that show has allowed him to finally embrace football again.
“It’s great to be back around the players, and studying the game,” Jones said. “I had kind of stepped away from watching football in totality since my surgery just because I was very upset that I couldn’t play anymore.”
With the rocky end to the 2016 Bills season, Jones is also finding out some of the trials and tribulations of his new role in the media.
“The last few months have been rough for John and I on the show because we’re the ones that have to deal with all of the phone calls,” Jones said with a laugh. “We are the only ones in the organization that people can talk to.”
At 29, his story is far from over. If the last four years are any indication, nobody—not even Jones—knows what’s coming next.
“I’d love to be here (in Buffalo) for a while, but at some point, I’d love to see if I can end up on an ESPN or something like that,” Jones said. “For me, I’m a very ambitious person. I never really get satisfied with anything. I’m just wired that way. Endless opportunities.”