Every professional football player had that moment where everything clicked, where they realized, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do for a living.’ D.J. Jones had a few.
Back in the 1990s, D.J.’s dad, David “Big Dave” Jones, was the executive chef for the Dallas Cowboys, bringing his unique, homegrown BBQ flavor to some of the NFL’s best on and off the field.
“Many days going to work, I brought D.J. with me and my other nephew,” said Big Dave. “On one occasion, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin were coming through the doorway, and they wanted to meet them really bad. I’m looking down at them, and [told them], ‘ask them for an autograph,’ you know. I looked down; they were frozen. They were like little statues.”
Who would’ve thought one day his own son, D.J., would be the one little boys and girls look up to in the same way? Big Dave certainly didn’t.
“We walked through the corridors of NFL facilities of the Cowboys, we worked for the Panthers during their inaugural season, and I also worked with Dan Reeves of the Atlanta Falcons,” said Big Dave. “Barbeque has opened up a lot of doors for us.”
First, it was the business side of football giving the Jones family opportunities, then the game itself did, too. But that would take much longer.
“I had three girls and a boy,” said Big Dave. “You won’t believe this, but when I first took him out to the field, he was not feeling it.” The skills to be a good football as a youngster hadn’t clicked for D.J. just yet, but that would come later.
“I got him out there a couple of times, and one day he hit the kid the right way, and it’s like the heavens opened up,” said Big Dave. “He just began to enjoy going to practice all of a sudden.”
But, like any parent of a young athlete, Big Dave never could have predicted what his son would turn the game into years down the road.
“I never saw that,” said Big Dave. “[In high school], they were running some drills, and Coach Jeff Tate walks over to me and whispers in my ear, ‘That kid’s going to the NFL.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Success on the football field runs in the Jones family. Big Dave’s father played, and so did his uncle, Bobby Riley, who was a local legend playing college ball at Elizabeth City State University, where he was a four-year starting guard and tackle playing both ways. Riley was eventually inducted into the ECSU Sports Hall of Fame.
“It runs in our family,” said Big Dave.
That legacy on the gridiron carried on to Big Dave, who played at North Carolina A&T and later to his only son, too. D.J. starred at Wren High School in Piedmont, South Carolina, and then at East Mississippi Community College, where he helped his team to two national championships and a blemish-free record as a starter. Jones’ efforts were enough to earn him a spot at the University of Mississippi in 2015, where he’d become a menace on the defense, recording 70 tackles, six sacks, and 8.5 tackles for a loss.
Seeing him blossom on and off the field still isn’t real for Big Dave.
“I don’t have the words for that,” said Big Dave. “I can simply tell you; it’s humbling. I’m still pinching myself. I mean, you know, every time I watch a game or read an article. But it’s humbling. We haven’t gotten used to it yet.”
Big Dave also passed on his love for helping people to Jones. Not long after Jones was drafted by the 49ers in 2017, he launched the D.J. Jones Foundation, which benefits inner-city youth through football camps, holiday meals, and gift and educational tool giveaways.
“The kids absolutely love D.J. because he becomes a kid [with them],” said Big Dave. “He gets down and dirty, crawling and doing drills with them.”
According to Big Dave, seeing the Foundation actually raise funds for its mission has been slow going in its early years. Putting on the events themselves leaves little left over for the kids the Foundation serves. That’s where barbeque comes in once again.
“One night at four o’clock in the morning, I’m trying to figure out a way to raise funding for the foundation, and it just hit me,” said Big Dave. “I sat up, and I said, ‘Well, how many people got a son [that’s] an NFL player? He’s got a platform. Let’s try to put him on the label.’”
Now you’ll see D.J. Jones in his 49ers uniform on the side of Big Dave’s All American BBQ sauces.
“Every time we sell a bottle, proceeds go to the account for the foundation,” said Big Dave.
The sauces were born in the Jones family kitchen in the early 90s while Big Dave was healing from a workplace injury. Those same signature sauces later paved the way for Big Dave’s restaurants and cooking for NFL franchises.
“During that time at home, I began experimenting and playing with herbs and spices,” said Big Dave. “I was looking for a unique flavor. One day I’ll never forget, my wife came home, and she got to screaming that my sauce was on the ceiling and dripping off the wall. She like, ‘What have you done to my kitchen?’ and I just went, ‘Taste this.’ She tasted, and it was magical,”
From that moment to their first restaurant, to the halls of the Cowboys facility, to a youth football field in South Carolina, to Levi’s Stadium, each step paved the way to Jones’ success in the NFL.
“Anybody can burn a piece of meat, but the secret’s in the sauce,” said Big Dave.
Maybe that’s true for Jones’ football career, too, for which Big Dave has a simple message for his son: “Play the way your dad cooks, like your hair’s on fire. Play like I run my grill, hot and wide open. Leave it all on the field,” said Big Dave.
Anyone can suit up in pads, a helmet, and a jersey. But in the NFL, and for D.J. Jones, the secret has always been in the sauce.