Before the start of training camp this summer, the New England Patriots released wide receiver Donald Jones.
For those who think that was the worst news Jones received this year — or that it would break his spirits — they should realize he’s heard much worse information recently, and that he’s vowed to battle it all head-on.
Jones, a member of the Buffalo Bills for the past three seasons who suffers from a kidney condition known as IgA nephropathy, told FOX Sports Wednesday afternoon he’s decided to retire after a recent scare during a physical with the Indianapolis Colts when his blood pressure accelerated to abnormally high levels. Having been told by doctors back in January he might one day soon need a kidney transplant, Jones has realized the medical risks of playing in the NFL are too great.
The 25-year-old Jones walks away from a career that was on the uptick last year when he caught 41 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns in only 12 games.
"I’ll always look at it like I was definitely an up-and-coming guy who had a bright future ahead of him. But if I look at it that way, I’ll just get down," Jones said. "I just try to be positive about everything and realize everything happens for a reason. Playing in the NFL, for me, was bigger than just playing. I want to get (kidney and health) awareness up. Playing in the NFL was just a stepping stone to get my awareness up."
Jones is a former undrafted free agent whose kidney issues surely resulted in many teams passing on him during the 2010 draft. He signed a three-year, $3.41 million deal with the Patriots in the spring. That deal came after the Bills told him privately they would not retain him because of his health issues.
Jones said he didn’t listen to doctors early in his career when they prescribed him medications that might have helped keep his kidney issues in check because he was worried his on-field performance would be affected. It’s a decision he said he doesn’t regret, even though his creatinine level is now 5.2. (A normal level is around 1.0. Jones said doctors have told him when his levels reach 7.0 through 10.0, he will need a transplant.)
During his visit with the Colts late last month, while running on the treadmill for a stress test, Jones’ blood pressure reached 250 over 110, he said. Trainers stopped the test right there, and Jones soon decided it was time to put an end to his career as well, especially since hits to his kidney area and overall dehydration during games could be dangerous.
"That," Jones said of his heightened blood pressure during his Colts workout, "was definitely a new thing."
Jones’ deal with New England included no guaranteed money, and he was released before a $200,000 reporting bonus was due. But Jones said the Patriots, who knew about his increasing creatinine levels and the possibility he’ll need a transplant soon before signing him, handled his situation very well.
Internally, Jones was battling conflicting emotions during his time in New England.
"In the beginning, I was down when the doctors first told me that in the near future I’d have to get a transplant," he said. "I was down, depressed for a little while. I was taking a lot of medications and it was kind of messing with my mental state. My family really just talked to me and let me know everything was going to be all right."
As did former NBA center Alonzo Mourning, who was treated by the same doctor who treats Jones. Mourning, who underwent a kidney transplant in 2003, called Jones to provide him with plenty of support and advice.
"He let me know what he was dealing with and he let me know everything was going to be all right," Jones said. "Now, I’m definitely handling it well."
As for his retirement this week, following his visit with the Colts and one more with the Tennessee Titans, Jones said he didn’t wrestle with it very much.
"It made my decision easier, that it’s a health issue. So I have to be smart," he said. "I have a son. I have to be here for my family."
Jones now plans to coach for a local high school near where he grew up in New Jersey. He’s also in the process of building a sports-training facility. His other plans include speaking on health-related issues and raising awareness for kidney disease, as well as talking to NFL players about the transition to their post-football lives.
That last part is something he’s experiencing much sooner than he thought he would.
"People see athletes, celebrities and entertainers or things like that, especially athletes, they think sports is everything. They don’t really realize people are dealing with the same issues," Jones said. "People have to realize people in the entertainment field have the same issues as normal people."
He added, "That’s why I want to work along with the NFL to get that awareness (of life after football) up because you never know when it’s going to end."