Think you know Adam Jones? Try seeing him through the eyes of an 18-year-old cancer survivor
DENVER – There’s the version of Adam Jones who most football fans think they know. That’s Pacman, who was once the poster child for NFL players acting badly. Now 34 years old and in his 12th year in the league after signing with the Broncos late last month, Jones doesn’t make excuses for the arrests and incidents that made him one of the league’s most notorious players.
But there’s also the version of Jones who Lilian Schaffer knows. That’s the guy who most NFL fans have probably never seen.
That version of Jones is like a big brother to Lilian, the 18-year-old daughter of Jones’ longtime agent, Peter Schaffer, and a guy who initially bonded seven years ago with Lilian over their shared love of horses, and the player who has dedicated his 2018 season to Lilian’s cancer fight.
“She’s strong, man. I saw every video. After chemo, she would go and ride her horses. She would work out. It’s unbelievable,” Jones told The Athletic. “You have to have real drive and dedication and heart. I’d tell her, ‘Baby, you’re a star.’ To handle herself in the way that she handled herself. She never thought about anything else but winning.”
The relationship between an NFL player and his agent is a unique one – a combination of business partner, advocate, financial adviser, legal counsel and therapist. For Jones and Schaffer, it feels like family.
Jones signed with Schaffer in 2010, five years into Jones’ tumultuous NFL career, and after the bulk of Jones’ off-field trouble. Jones was suspended for the 2007 season and part of 2008 as punishment for multiple arrests dating back to 2005, when he was a first-round pick out of West Virginia by the Tennessee Titans. The most infamous incident was the 2007 shooting at a Las Vegas strip club that injured two men, including one who was left paralyzed. Jones pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct. He also lost a civil suit filed by the shooting victims.
“When you go through stuff and you deal with certain things, a lot of it had to do with myself and my choices and my decisions. Some of it had to do with some people just being assholes, but either way that it is, and then you look at being in those dark corners, when you don’t have nobody to call. I’ve been in situations where I’ve taken care of so many people, all of my family, and just needed a phone call, but didn’t have nobody to talk to, you know what I mean?” Jones said. “Thank God it happened to me when I was young. I was able to get over the hurdle and do a couple things to at least get my family in a position to be all right. At the end of the day, when that tunnel is dark, there’s not too many people you can call on.”
Schaffer became that voice on the other end of the phone. Jones was beginning his career rebirth in Cincinnati when he joined Schaffer’s agency, and soon realized just how much he’d depend on his agent.
On Aug. 15, 2010, in the middle of Bengals training camp, Jones’ then-girlfriend Tishana went into labor with the couple’s daughter at 22 weeks. Triniti weighed just under two pounds, and could fit inside the palm of Jones’ hand. She was so tiny that Jones broke down and had to rush out of the room when doctors asked him to cut the umbilical cord.
Baby Triniti stayed in the hospital for five months, during which time Jones returned to football and suffered a serious neck injury that October, before finally being released shortly after the baby’s original due date.
Last month, Triniti turned eight. She plays basketball, loves math and got straight A’s on her last report card, Jones said.
So it was from one father to another that Jones immediately knew that something was wrong with Schaffer when he made one of his near-daily calls to his agent just after Halloween last year. This call would be different. There would be no BS’ing, no venting, no football.
“Adam, you should sit down,” Schaffer said.
Then the bombshell: Lilian had cancer.
After six months of misdiagnosis and non-answers from specialists ranging from allergists to psychiatrists, all trying to find a reason for Lilian’s extreme fatigue, inexplicable and uncontrollable full-body itching, insomnia, fevers and night sweats, oncologists at Denver’s Children’s Hospital finally discovered a football-sized tumor in her chest.
She was immediately admitted to the hospital on Oct. 27 to begin treatment, starting with surgery the next day and her first of 70 chemotherapy sessions within the week.
“You’re just in a state of shock,” Schaffer said.
The next seven months were a blur of hospital stays and chemo treatments and 14 rounds of radiation. Lilian was able to graduate from high school, but fell short of finishing the requirements for her International Baccalaureate diploma. Through it all, she found strength in riding horses, and from the support of her dad’s wide network of NFL colleagues.
Jones and Panthers running back C.J. Anderson, who played for the Broncos from 2013-2017 and was a constant fixture at the Shaffer house, were the first of Schaffer’s clients to post tributes to Lilian on their social media accounts. Browns great Joe Thomas soon followed.
Schaffer sought counsel from Chiefs head athletic trainer Rick Buckholder, who provided insight into safety Eric Berry’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, and former Colts coach and leukemia survivor Chuck Pagano sent Lilian an inspirational video.
On Nov. 5, just a week after Lilian’s diagnosis, Jones had a picture of Lilian riding her horse printed onto his cleats, game-day towels and a T-shirt he wore for the Bengals game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He later shared the link for her fundraising efforts, and in July, the Instagram video he posted of her ringing the “Warrior Bell” at Children’s Hospital to celebrate entering remission received more than 40,000 views.
“He kept in touch the whole journey,” Lilian said.
Perhaps it is serendipitous then that Jones wound up here in Denver after signing a one-year free-agent deal with the Broncos in the final week of the preseason. He made the 53-man roster a week later and by Week 1, had established himself as the Broncos No. 3 cornerback and punt returner.
It means those frequent phone calls to Shcaffer and his family have been replaced by evenings spent at the Shaffer home, sitting around the kitchen counter as Schaffer’s 14-year-old son Gavin learns to cook, and talking about horses, music and fashion with Lilian.
Lilian is now taking a gap year before she enrolls in college. She’s focused on cancer awareness and has raised nearly $15,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night walk that will be held later this month in Denver, where she’ll be joined at Washington Park by Jones and several of her dad’s other clients, like former Broncos safety Steve Atwater.
And next week, Lilian and Jones will finally get to ride horses together, seven years after it was horses that first brought them together. That Jones’ wife and Triniti plan to join them should make the day even more special.
“I’ve never been through the stuff that Peter and his family have been through, but I’ve been through stuff with my kids that I couldn’t control, and when you need somebody to talk to, in a dark moment, when you need to cuss or do whatever you’ve got to do, he’s been there for me, and vice versa,” Jones said.