PLANO, Texas – Never ever more have I been so envious of what another person's been able to do.
Until shaking hands again with Nate Jones.
You remember Nate Jones, don't you? Seventh-round draft choice of the Cowboys in 2004, defensive back from Rutgers, 205th pick that year, and in fact, the first of the Cowboys' three seventh- round picks.
Nate played four seasons with the Cowboys, mostly as a reserve DB/special teams player, then four more in the NFL, two with Miami, one with Denver and then a split season in 2011 with Miami and New England, where he was active in a divisional-round playoff game but ended up inactive in Super Bowl XLVI when the Giants beat the Patriots, 21-17.
Played 106 career games in the NFL, starting 11. Nice career for a seventh-round pick.
Now he's embarking on his _second_ NFL career, one not many former players ever pursue. Jones will be one of two former NFL players in their first years as an NFL official. A field judge, back there 20-25 yards off the line of scrimmage on the sideline with a flag in his back pocket.
"Hard work, persistence, sacrifice," Jones said here Friday while being introduced at the four-day NFL Officiating Clinic.
Being an official, umpire, referee, had always been a deep-seated dream of mine, especially once my fifth-grade teacher at Saukview Elementary on the final day of school went around the class one-by-one to predict what each student might end up doing in their lives. For me, Mrs. Hughes said, "Mickey, you will officiate some kind or sport."
She might have been right had I not become romanticized by the newspaper business, bound and determined to be a sports writer. The closest I ever came to fulfilling that childhood dream was officiating collegiate intramural games – softball, basketball, football – and filling in behind the plate on a couple girls' fast-pitch softball games and umpiring 18-and-over baseball games, uh, from of all place, behind the pitcher on a one-man crew.
Covering sports, with all those weekend assignments, ended up trumping officiating on the weekends, too. Good thing. There is only so much criticism one can take.
Envious of Nate is one adjective. Respectful is another.
Understand, you don't one day decide you want to officiate football games, as he did that time when walking through the NFL offices one day in 2013, and then the next have that coveted NFL shield on your striped-shirt chest.
As he was seeing what opportunities were available that day in the NFL office, he was told, "We're thinking about training some former players (to become officials), getting a program going, would you be interested?"
And his response on the spot?
"Heck yeah," Jones said, and on the way he was to his first officiating clinic, that being in Baltimore that same year.
From there, it was back to Dallas, a retired NFL player starting from scratch, officiating high school junior-varsity games and working his way up to varsity games. From there, on to college, first the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, you know the MEAC world of Bethune-Cookman, Morgan State, Florida A&M, Delaware State. Then came Conference-USA. And then the Pac-12, one rung on the ladder at a time.
There would also be CFL this year, along with the AAF during its brief existence this year.
And at the same time with all this was going on, we'd see Nate for several years coming out to The Star and The Ranch volunteering to work Cowboys practices, basically for a free lunch and the opportunity to gain more experience.
"It did help," Jones said, "just to see the NFL guys, get back into the game with the guys I played with. Different calls, different rules (from high school and college), so that helped."
He'd run into former teammates still practicing, with some now coaching.
"You'd get heckled," Jones says with a smile, and remembers the first day he appeared in an officiating uniform for a Cowboys practice, "D-Ware saw me, and it was, 'What the . . . ."
But Jones was determined. Even though he would have made several million dollars during his NFL career, he remained determined with this career re-start, even though there were no guarantees where the shot he was taking would end up. He was willing to pay his dues.
"Like anything else, I knew it was going to take time, how long it was going to take, or how much, I did not know," Jones said of basically following what was in his heart. "There were no promises of even getting to this level at all."
"But just knew if I excelled and worked hard, just like as a player, putting the time in, the possibility was there."
He didn't leave everything to chance, though. Jones, who finished second with 12 special teams tackles for the Cowboys in 2005 and played a total of 51 games in those four years, backed up his officiating bet. After all, officiating high school/college games, is not a full-time job. Neither is officiating in the NFL.
So, two years ago, he extended this sort of Walter Mitty-ish existence by becoming a firefighter for Dallas Fire-Rescue Department. That's the day job now at age 37, and one flexible enough for him to juggle schedules to free himself up for his weekend officiating assignments.
Now, instead of his weekends taking him to places such as El Paso, Hattiesburg, Miss., Murfreesboro, Tenn., Eugene Ore., Pullman, Wash., and Tucson, Ariz., over the past six years, Jones will now be making trips from Dallas to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans and Denver. And who knows if he'll get the opportunity to do an NFL game at AT&T Stadium.
That, my guess is, would be a Cowboys' first, having a former player officiate one of their games, probably home or away.
Not a bad gig, Jones becoming one of six first-year NFL officials for 2019 and one of four former players now employed as NFL officials.
And how crazy would this be? Nate Jones throwing a flag on Jason Witten for offensive pass interference, one of two of his former teammates he knows still is playing in the NFL, the other being Tom Brady with New England? (Hey Tom, sorry bud, but that was intentional grounding.)
Or what about getting chewed out on the sideline by his former Patriots head coach Bill Belichick? Or by former Cowboys assistant Sean Payton, the Saints head coach? Or his former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips with the Rams? Or his first NFL defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer of the Vikings?
Or, uh, the guy who was the Cowboys offensive coordinator his rookie year, Jason Garrett?
But hey, awkward maybe, but who cares. Not just anybody gets to do this officiating stuff, and Jones, after three years in the NFL's "ODP" – Official Developmental Program – says he's just excited to "get back on the grass."
And also "just thankful and blessed to get back to working for the _shield_" at the still young age of 37, just a kid from Newark, N.J.
Allowing me to live vicariously through him now, doing what Mrs. Hughes thought I always should have done.