Former All-American, NFL Veteran Dhani Jones Tackles Life

Feb. 23, 2011

By Joanne C. Gerstner

It was first suggested as a cute throwaway line in a 2009 GQ magazine article about Dhani Jones.

Does he take inspiration from super-cool, super-spy James Bond?

Jones, part of Michigan's 1997 national champion football team, already displays many key traits of a 007: world traveler, sharp dresser, physically fit enough to take out bad guys, lover of snazzy British sportscars and a great cover job as an NFL linebacker.

Jones, back then, said he hoped to become James Bond.

Two years later, thanks to a committed dedication to making the world a better place through philanthropy, maybe Jones has done one better.

"I'm getting closer to really being James Bond now, except I don't carry a gun and I'm going to save the whole world," Jones said, laughing. "I want to change the world, make it a better place, all the while living life to the fullest. I tell people I make the 24-hour day have 28 hours. I need all that time to accomplish my goals. I want to bring people together, all through the power of the bow tie.

"It's all about how you choose to live your life -- are you being a force for good, a conduit for change? That's what I am all about."

Dhani Jones in the NFL

Jones' life reads like an amalgamation of 10 people. He's traveled the world for his Travel Channel show, Dhani Tackles the Globe. Last year, he started a New York-based creative ad agency, VMG Creative, with friend and fellow Michigan graduate Luke Raymond, a café in Cincinnati, did numerous charity engagements around the country and designed bow ties for fundraisers, such as U-M's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

This year, he's already started the groundwork for his own national non-profit foundation, hosted Michigan's annual "Mock Rock" fundraiser and shot a secret TV project.

And don't forget he's still a good pro football player, most recently playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. Jones clearly displayed the beginnings of his original streak while at Michigan, the rare All-America linebacker who writes beautiful poetry.

"Every part of who I am today is because of the University of Michigan," Jones, 33, said. "My opportunities in life were shaped by my experiences at the university, from playing football and being in Ann Arbor. My first glimpse of Michigan was a pamphlet that had the globe on the cover. I realized that meant I could do anything in the world, get involved in any capacity.

"The faster you realize the opportunities that are before you, the more you can tap into them. Michigan is a wonderful place, but like anything else, you have to work really hard to have it pay the true dividends. And I did."

Mock Rock judges

Another event during Jones' time at Michigan also shaped his future. Kunta Littlejohn, a childhood friend, became perilously ill with lymphoma during Jones' senior year. Jones wanted to support Littlejohn's fight against cancer, and asked him what he could do to help.

Littlejohn told Jones he should be unique.

"He was really clear to me, 'You've got to rock the bow tie. If you want people to remember you, if you want to be somebody, you rock the bow tie'," Jones remembers.

Jones was understandably skeptical. Bow ties seemed to be the province of nerds, Pee-Wee Herman and those who didn't have Jones' emerging fashion sense.

But a dear friend asked, and Jones complied. And he soon discovered Littlejohn was correct.

"It's a funny thing about a bow tie, it always starts conversation, always gets attention," Jones said. "It's actually a powerful thing."

Littlejohn's fashion edict in 2000 still shapes Jones' life today.

Dhani Jones at Mott Children's Hospital

The bow tie has become the inspiration for the Bow Tie Café in Cincinnati, the Bow Tie Cause foundation, and fundraisers that have sold 2,500 custom-designed bow ties and raised $130,000 for 13 charitable organizations since last May.

"It's a fascinating thing, the bow tie has an amazing effect on a room," said Chad Williamson, who works closely with Jones as his foundation's director of philanthropy. "I have to admit, I didn't get it until I saw it in person. The entire dynamic of a room can change, because it breaks the ice, it gets people talking, it puts people in this better mental space."

Jones has become an expert in showing novices how to "rock" the bow tie, giving impromptu tying lessons at charity galas. He gets the men to shed their traditional ties, purchase a bow tie for charity, and then tie it on correctly.

Every bow tie designed by Jones comes with a message. And Jones puts a lot of thought into what he is trying to communicate.

"That's what makes each tie special, when somebody asks you what it is, you can say, 'See the white lines, those are the hash marks on a football field, showing we are advancing forward for Mott Children's Hospital'," Jones said. "People are then moved, they want to know more, they want to know how to help. And that's the power of the bow tie, you get people engaged and inspired. You look good too."

Jones' new charity, called Bow Tie Cause, looks to harness the power of Jones' drive and growing influence to help others.

The core missions are still evolving as the foundation gets rolling, but Jones wants to focus on educational opportunities for young black males, and helping charities and foundations work better together to best utilize resources.

The café, which opened in late Fall 2010, is also aimed at fostering conversations and change, as Jones figured people best communicate over good food and drink. Or as he says, "Cocktails, coffee, conversation and change." It's not the ideal economic time to open a café, but Jones hopes the friendly and philanthropic vibe of his place will attract patrons.

Dhani Jones at U-M (left) and as a Mock Rock celebrity host

Jones' ad agency partner, Raymond, said he's continually amazed with his friend's ability to manage his time to give every project its due. Jones' offseason remains heavily booked with workouts to keep in prime NFL shape, and he packs the rest of his intense life around his daily sessions.

"Dhani's not a silent partner here, he's involved in everything," Raymond said. "We work in unconventional ways, around his workout schedule, which means we do things like a phone call from the airport before he's waiting for a flight or like the other night, where we took a three-hour walk through New York just talking and hashing out ideas and plans.

"Dhani's a risk-taker, which in business can be scary. He has the brainstorm, and I sometimes fight him because it seems too crazy. I hate to admit it, most of the time, he's right and it works out perfectly. It's amazing the sense he has to just go for it. Dhani doesn't do anything half-way."

Williamson puts Jones' unrelenting drive in different terms.

"I tell you, Dhani Jones will change the world," Williamson said. "Dhani can do whatever he wants because he has an amazing ability to inspire people and get them motivated to make a change in the world. We work really hard, but it's so satisfying because you feel the force for good. Dhani's the force for good."

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