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  • Peter Schaffer

How Pacman Jones, NFL poster boy for bad behavior, stepped in for fallen teammate’s family

After the strip clubs and the suspensions, after the man who drafted him sixth overall called him “nothing but a disaster off the field,” after two NFL teams gave up on him, the CFL decided he wasn’t worth the headache and he flunked what he figured was his last chance at pro football, Adam “Pacman” Jones stood inside the tunnel at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, overweight and out of shape, his hamstrings screaming, his career in peril, and cried.

It was all slipping away, and Jones knew it. This mid-winter workout for the Bengals in early 2010 after a year in football exile felt like his last shot.

He needed a job.

Jones had become the NFL’s poster boy for bad behavior, arrested or questioned by police in eight separate incidents since being drafted in 2005, including a 2007 shooting outside a Las Vegas nightclub that left a man paralyzed and cost Jones $11 million in damages. He was brash, boastful and admittedly immature — “I was just being rebellion,” he once famously said — perpetually flirting with trouble and often finding it. At one point, the first defensive player taken in the 2005 draft was suspended 22 of a possible 28 games.

So the Bengals offered him a workout and nothing more. Jones arrived in terrible shape and pulled both hamstrings, limping off the field in frustration. He stood in the tunnel afterward with coach Marvin Lewis, tears streaming down his face, and begged for another shot. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” Jones said. “I’ll live in one of those stadium suites if I have to. I’ll come in and compete with the rookies for a job …”

Lewis stopped him. “Adam, you need to get in shape,” the coach told him. “Then maybe we’ll revisit this.”

It sure seemed like it was over. Too many mistakes. Too much baggage. Pacman Jones had once been worth the risk, his ability too great to ignore. No more.

“Hell yeah, it was close to going sideways,” he says now.

To that point, his play had never been the problem. He was a competitive freak steeled by a hardscrabble past, a product of the Atlanta projects, 8 years old when his father was killed in front of him, 10 when his mother went to prison on drug charges. He brawled every day in middle school, picking fights incessantly, and years later, that aggression, that bitterness, bled its way onto the football field, where he played without an ounce of fear.

Pacman — the nickname his mother gave him because he changed directions so quickly as a toddler — craved the inherent violence of the game. He was most at home amid the chaos.

His hunger was contagious. Coaches came to love it. At West Virginia, Jones would bait and badger teammates who’d coast during drills, driving them crazy. One happened to be a lanky, soft-spoken wide receiver from Louisiana dripping in talent but short on drive. Everyone called him Slim, and Pac antagonized him mercilessly.

“Man, I worked his ass every day,” Jones remembers. “Until finally, one day, it just clicked.”

Slim took off. Pac, too. They warred every day in practice, refusing to go against anyone else in 1-on-1s. They became best friends — “brothers brothers,” Jones says. They lifted the Mountaineers into contention, made it to the league, then almost blew it. Arrests. Altercations. Shootings. Suspensions. So much promise nearly squandered by so much irresponsibility.

One of them turned it around. The other never got the chance.

Which is why, a little over a decade later, when Jones saw Slim’s two boys growing into their own without their father there to guide them — and starting to garner some serious attention from college programs — he knew they needed a voice in their ear. He’d stayed in touch over the years, checking in with their mother and hauling the boys to football camps, sending them endless boxes of Nike and Under Armour gear.

Still, he told himself, Slim would’ve wanted more. So Pac called.

“Y’all need to uproot and move up here with us,” he urged Loleini Tonga, the boys’ mother. “We’ll help you out.”

. . .

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