Dhani: Thirty is something

Posted: 9:15 p.m.

Next to football, Dhani Jones' great passion is probably travel.

But after a TV stint in England and a family vacation on the tiny French island of St. Barts, football and travel are finally going to settle down for him in the unlikely transience of Fountain Square's Westin Hotel in the heart of Cincinnati.

"I'm really excited about coming back to a team where I'm allowed to play like I want to play and be who I want to be and not worry about somebody judging me," says Jones of his new three-year contract with the Bengals. "It's nice to play for an organization and coaches that realize in the end that I'm a guy that will come across the line to make a play, speak his mind, and try to help teach younger guys."

It is a Tuesday afternoon in Manhattan and Jones is eating healthy at Houston's with a burger and a spinach artichoke salad, a day after getting back from the island. Jones' vacations itineraries are most people's wish lists.

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Jones

"I'm exhausting all different aspects of my personality and then when the season starts I'll exhaust my football personality," he says. "You have to turn the light on and off. You can't have a dimmer."

Now that he's turned 30 (Feb. 22), Jones can see the light in so many hues. So he has decided that even though he's got a three-year deal (reported as $5 million or so), he's still going to lead the life of a street free agent he led last year in an effort to shake the perception that football was just one of his many interests.

Which means he'll continue to stay at the Westin instead of an apartment or house. And go across the street to the French bistro on Thursdays and eat at Morton's on Fridays. He'll continue to eschew a car in favor of the Fixie, his fixed-gear bicycle.

And he'll continue to stay late on Wednesdays and Thursdays in the Paul Brown Stadium defensive auditorium and study to the sounds of everything from Morgan Heritage (reggae) to Michael Jackson (pop) to Miles Davis (jazz).

Which means he'll drench himself in the game, again, as he tries to realize one of his goals.

"I've always wanted to be the quarterback of the defense," Jones says. "That's where I spent my time in high school and college: at the front of the huddle. It's something I really want to do. That's where it all begins. You make eye contact, you set the defense, you get it all started."

Jones did a little bit of it last year like he did everything for the Bengals: In an emergency role. Meatball defense, the NFL's answer to MAS*H battlefield surgery. He did it a few times for the Giants and Eagles, but not enough to quench his thirst.

With Landon Johnson's free-agent departure to Carolina, Jones figures now to be the guy that has to get the Bengals defense lined up. His 109 NFL games are one more than those of the combined number of the remaining linebackers under contract, a number that expands when Cardinal Darryl Blackstock officially signs on with his 46 games and, the club hopes, when Odell Thurman's 16 get reinstated.

Jones also has the most experience of the linebackers in terms of seasons (eight) and the most respect as the guy that arrived off the street last season Sept. 19 and was special teams captain a month later.

And with Rashad Jeanty's 16 starts on the strong side, Ahmad Brooks' seven starts in the middle, and his own eight straight starts on the weak side at the end of last season, Jones' 83 career starts dwarfs the 47 of the rest, including Blackstock and Thurman.

"I don't know who they're going to draft. I don't know who else they're going to get in free agency," Jones says. "So I can't feel like I'm going to get handed anything. I've still have to go into training camp trying to establish myself."

After getting cut by the Eagles and Saints within three months last year, Jones did more than that providing ballast for a Bengals defense sinking with injuries. He had two 10-tackle games and in the eight games he started he helped stop the bleeding in a stretch that the Bengals gave up an average of 300 yards per game, 93 on the ground and 17.6 points compared to 397, 133 and 27.3, respectively, in the first eight games.

Jones admitted his total commitment aided by a new lifestyle helped his game.

"I really do feel like life begins at 30. You feel like you're 20, but you know more," he says. "I'm on a different timeline now. It's like you're driving a car, and instead of everything going quickly past, it slows down. Kind of like on the field. I'm evolving into a different person. It's not just about being a football player."

Jones has had a thirtysomething offseason. Last week, as sort of a late birthday present, he organized a family reunion on Saint Barthelemy, a sub prefecture of Guadeloupe not far from St. Martin. His East Coast parents, and his sister and niece from Virginia were among 19 people gathered.

"It seemed like a good time to reconnect with people I don't get to see very often. We're just so spread out all over the place. There were uncles, aunts, close friends," he says.

He doesn't count last month's trip to London as a vacation because he was working for the Travel Channel. But he got to play.

As a flanker.

In rugby.

For Blackheath, the world's oldest open rugby club, against Launceston in the EDF Cup. For the last 15 minutes of their playoff loss.

"One tackle, one assist and I didn't get to carry the ball," he says. "In rugby, it's just the opposite from football. When you're losing, you throw it around in football. But in rugby, everyone stays close to the scrum."

No question, Jones says of the toughness question. Even though they hit with less equipment in rugby, there is more of it in football.

"It's a game of levels in football. There is the offensive line, and the tailbacks, and trying to get off blocks," Jones says. "In football, you can get hit anywhere, any time. In rugby, everyone is on the line. It's pretty much only the guy with the ball that gets hit. It's one-on-one. Pretty much no gang tackling."

Just the kind of thing Jones is going to be guarding against come summer.

Finally, the best guess is, in front of the huddle. At least to start things off.

"Defense is a community thing," says Jones, no longer journeying for a niche. "It's all about working together as one."

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