Posted: 4:25 p.m.
The locker room competition and friendly rivalry has spilled across the international dateline and into prime time.
Keith Rivers calls his middle linebacker in the Bengals defense and tells Dhani Jones he's doing his Pro Bowl workout in Santa Monica, Calif., running the stairs. Jones says, that's cool, he's doing his Pro Bowl workout running through airports in Singapore and Russia and Surf Life Saving in Australia.
"He says I'm too old and I say he's too immature," says Jones, laughing, finally back home in California. "He says he's going to have more tackles than me and I say he won't beat me."
One tackle Rivers won't get playing the WILL backer next to Jones in 2009 is the one Jones gets for the next two months as host of the Travel Channel's "Dhani Tackles The Globe," a sweaty, bruising version of "American Idol" and "Survivor," with a little "Candid Camera" thrown in. Except the judges are familiar to every culture.
"That's the beauty of it," Jones says. "Not only do I get to experience the culture and the people, but for eight days, everywhere I am, I get to practice a sport before getting into competition. It's cross training."
Half of the episodes were shot before last season (he had two days off before training camp) and the other half were shot following the season, which, not so coincidentally, turned out to be the most prolific of Jones' nine NFL seasons at age 30. Jones has never been to a Pro Bowl, but that doesn't mean it's not a goal at age 31.
The Bengals coaches charted him for a team-high 165 tackles in all 16 starts, but he says he's tired this week only because of "all the talking I've been doing about it," as the series promotional machine snaps into high gear.
If he delighted defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer with smart, resilient play that finally filled the middle since Odell Thurman, then Jones overjoyed Michael Klein, the Travel Channel's vice president of content, with an ESPN complement to the "No Reservations" series featuring chef Anthony Bourdain.
"He uses the prism of food to explore other cultures. Dhani is the companion to that show and the portal is sports," Klein says. "I think it resonates with a broad variety of people. Dhani has the perfect personality. He's engaging, he's got an insatiable curiosity. He's got an Everyman quality to him."
Which is a little different than "The Renaissance Man" tag that Jones has had so long that he's gone through three reincarnations of the Renaissance with the Giants, Eagles and the Bengals.
Now Jones, he of the poetry, bow tie empire, and Al Gore environmental initiative, has no doubt that his televised international cross training contributed much to last season's success.
"Genetically, he's got a huge engine; it can go on forever," says Tim Adams, Jones' personal trainer. "He's finely tuned. They say there are Ferraris and dump trucks. Dhani is a Ferrari. But he's an environmentally sound Ferrari because he's so efficient. Not only does he not waste fuel, but he cruises and gets 50, 60 miles to the gallon."
It's supposed to be reality TV, so the off-field stuff can get as dicey as the sports. There are apparently some uncomfortable moments in the first episode when Jones stumbles into a tourist hot spot in Thailand that happens to be in a red-light district.
"You can apply all the sports to football," says the 6-1, 240-pound Jones. "I've never been more ripped than after muay Thai. Dragon boat racing is basically paddling. Do that for two miles. Great for the lower back movement. Schwingen (Switzerland) is wrestling, which is pretty much tackling.
"Life Saving Surfing is all about recovery. It's swimming. Rugby (in London) is obviously the most like football, but if you ask me, the sport least like football, sailing, you can apply it just as much because you've got 17 people on a boat working together and you've got to communicate. It's a chess game on water, a lot like what we do on the field."
Of course, when Jones is playing the Steelers and Ravens he pretty much only has to worry about the guard or the occasional fullback.
But in Australia he was on the lookout for sharks while swallowing water in six-foot swells. In Switzerland he lost his usual freeze-dried demeanor when faced with eight straight wrestlers. He fought with world champions in Russia and got the cold sweats when he went into a gym in Cambodia after being presented with a list of diseases specific to the country. He couldn't help notice "Japanese encephalitis."
"The guy with me had 99 percent of his body covered in (insect repellant)," Jones says. "I was freaking out for a minute there."
Given Cincinnati's starting middle linebacker was hanging out his hide in varying degrees of risky business, all ended well for both parties with no injuries.
"I love playing for the Cincinnati Bengals," he says. "I love being in California. I love poetry. These are all things that are a part of me and make up the puzzle.
"I know what I have to do to get my body ready. My body is used to high-loading. I feel like there is somebody up there looking out for me and protecting me."
If he got hurt doing something exotic off the field, his pay probably would have been in jeopardy for '09. But there don't seem to be any problems with what Jones has done down at Paul Brown Stadium.
Carson Palmer probably would have had a hard time pulling it off at $130 mil, but Bengals president Mike Brown has high regard for Jones and as an old school guy who remembers when players had to have other pursuits in the offseason, Brown admires Jones' passion for experiencing other life forms that aren't football.
"Let's face it," says Adams, whose Web site makingbestbetter.com sums up Jones' offseason approach. "Dhani is one of those guys that is going to be getting ready for the season no matter what he's doing. He's a guy you never have to worry about."
Bengals strength coach Chip Morton has a good relationship with Adams and he's looking forward to watching the show, observing, "It's better than sitting around playing video games."
Plus, Jones had Adams to make sure he didn't get creamed. When they walked into the Thailand gym and saw a national champion machine gunning bags with invisibly quick arms and legs, Adams gulped and was on the lookout for the right competition.
The show gets a little edgy during Switzerland's version of wrestling, Schwingen said, because Jones gets, well, ticked.
"Unfortunately we did have a language barrier and at times it could be a little bit of a problem," Adams says. "That was something we had to deal with a little bit. Here's this NFL player and he's coming into their place and their sport. There is a pecking order. He ended up not getting a break, or any water and they kept coming with the eight guys and Dhani got a little frustrated."
"It was like," Jones says, "a linebacker drill and you had to keep tackling."
Adams is extremely proud of how Jones competed in the combat events, particularly Sambo in Russia and Pradal Serey in Cambodia. In Russia he says Jones beat one world champion and drew with another.
"He had never competed in anything like that before and he had to learn it all on the fly and, oh yeah, he took some big shots," Adams says. "He's got a wrestling background and once he got those guys on the floor (in Sambo), he dominated."
Jones enjoyed Russia, and not just because they toasted him with homemade vodka on his 31st birthday last month that started at 100 proof and had to be watered down when it came off the stove.
"I got to study the form of Sambo that their military uses and that was a challenge," he says.
The Cambodians knew he wasn't Obama, but that was their name for him, and in a lot of places they wanted to touch his hair. Jones hopes the series will help NFL players let their hair down.
"You'll hear guys say, 'Why did you do that?' " Jones says. "But I find that guys do want to talk about their passions and they should take advantage of the situation they're in. Traveling is one of my passions and I hope this will help open it up to guys to express themselves and pursue something they really want to do."
There is also even time to needle his young WILL backer.
"Keith Rivers says he's doing his Pro Bowl workout," Jones says. "Well, so am I."