The top offensive lineman in the Canadian Football League first walked into the Giants’ locker room last spring to embark on an NFL career.
Let’s just say his teammates were less than impressed.
“I thought he was a meatball,” defensive tackle Jay Bromley said of his first thoughts when seeing Brett Jones. “A little short dude. A compact, SpongeBob-kinda guy.”
“He was real little,” fellow defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins added.
It probably seemed to them that something had been lost in the exchange rate between the two countries. Here was a guy who was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2013 and the league’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in 2014. Yet he had the physical presence of a Saskatchewan snowman.
He played like one at first, too, getting pushed around on the field in 2015 training camp practices and preseason games until he suffered a knee injury and was placed on injured reserve. He spent his first season in the NFL getting acclimated to the game and the league, the subtle differences in technique and the massive ones in talent. He was back on the field this summer and he made the team out of camp.
It’s hard to look unimposing at 6-2 and 312 pounds, but Jones pulls it off. His constant grin and charming sense of humor do not seem suited for the brutal life in the trenches of professional football. Yet last week, when Justin Pugh’s potential Pro Bowl season was put on hiatus by a knee sprain, it was Jones who jumped into his spot at left guard and got the Giants through the game with a win and without any glaring errors.
On Monday night, he will most likely get his first NFL start against the Bengals. Against All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins. It appears to be a mismatch, but Jones has proved to be pretty good at going against perception. Just ask his teammates, the players he faces in practice each day.
“I learned a long time ago that football is not a game of looks,” Bromley said. “It doesn’t matter how you look or how imposing of a figure you are — can you get it done or not between the lines? He gets it done.”
FROM GREY TO BLUE
Jones grew up dreaming about playing in the NFL, which is not what kids from Weyburn, Saskachewan, do (his bio in the Giants media guide eventually notes that he “also played hockey as a youngster”). He started playing Pee Wee football at age 10, always a lineman, always one of the biggest kids on the field. He played through high school and then played at the University of Regina for four seasons. He wanted to attend medical school rather than play pro football, but when that did not work out he was drafted by the Calgary Stampede. He played two years for them at center and helped them win the 2014 Grey Cup.
“That was one of the best games that I ever played in,” he said of winning the CFL title. “Those are some great memories that I have with those teammates. I cherish that game.”
It also was the last time he started in a game. After that, he set his mind to signing with an NFL team. He even went to a sporting goods store and bought an official NFL model football — “The Duke,” named after former Giants owner Wellington Mara — so he could practice snapping it. Several teams showed interest in him, but he signed with the Giants on Feb. 11, 2015. His head coach with Calgary was John Hufnagel, a former Giants offensive coordinator, which likely helped both sides make decisions.
It’s significant for Jones, and maybe more so for those who know him back in Canada, that his next start likely will be on Monday Night Football. Because the CFL does not usually play on Sundays or Mondays, Jones said those prime-time NFL games are big events up north.
“It’s an excuse to hang out with the guys and do stuff,” Jones said. “That’s what we would do. Those are the games we always watch. Thursday nights too. We watch them all. You dream about playing here. When you get a chance, it’s very cool.”
Even so, Jones is working hard to temper his excitement.
“I just try and look at it as any other game,” he said. “It’s a big game because it’s the next game. Definitely being in Canada, everyone would get excited for Sunday and Monday Night Football. Especially at university. We would go after practice and watch. It’s a big game. But it’s just a big game because it’s the next one . . . I’ll go out and do the job, whatever that job is.”
DAY AND NIGHT
The Brett Jones who takes the field against the Bengals will not be the same one who was overwhelmed in his first NFL experiences last year.
“From the first day to now is day and night,” Jones said. “Just learning the game. There is a lot of nuances to the game that you don’t even realize. Just playing with one yard [space across the line] in Canada versus no yard here. It’s definitely a lot different. I’m just working on those things every day.”
The Giants are also very confident in Jones’ ability to make good decisions on the field.
“He does a good job of communicating,” center Weston Richburg said. “He’s kind of a second center out there. He’s very smart, so we should be able to communicate very well.”
“He knows the offense just as well as Eli [Manning] because he plays center and he’s a really smart guy,” Hankins said. “It’s good to have two centers out there who can play and know what’s going on.”
Jones won’t be playing center, though. He’ll be at guard. It’s a position he did not practice at much before Pugh’s injury. As offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan pointed out, when Jones had breakfast last Sunday he had no idea he’d be needed at left guard.
“[He] just had to rely upon his work ethic and preparation,” offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said of Jones’ play against the Eagles. “The guy is a student of the game, he’s a grinder, he’s a tough guy and he’s going to be put to the test this week.”
Luckily, he’s had time to prepare for that test. Jones has taken practice reps at guard this week.
“These guys are relying on me to know what I’m doing and to keep winning,” Jones said. “Those are things that I really take pride in and would like to keep up.”
The Giants players’ first impression of Jones was not a great one. On Monday night, most viewers will have their chance to see him in action for the first time. Will their assessment be different? Will Jones be different?
“He’s progressed a lot,” Richburg said. “I think he’s seen a lot of growth in his game. It’s shown up. Everybody can see it.”
On Monday night, every football fan in two countries will be looking for it.