WHEN LANDRY JONES decided that his NFL career might be over, he called a local construction company. It was February 2019, six months after his unexpected release from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had worked out for roughly 20 NFL teams, and nobody wanted to sign the veteran backup quarterback.
So he reached out to John Huffman, the owner of Black Door Renovation, who'd recently drawn up plans to remodel Jones' Fort Worth-area home. "I want to learn more about construction," Jones said. "Are you guys hiring?"
Not exactly, Huffman explained. There weren't any management positions available, but there was one job: The guy who drove the dump truck had recently quit. It was by far the lowest position at Black Door Renovation, a messy, hard-labor gig. Whoever drove the truck had to fill the dump trailer with demolition debris, then haul it to the landfill for minimum wage.
"Heck yes," Jones said. "I'll do it."
From 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, Jones and his co-workers filtered through clients' homes in the Fort Worth suburbs. He'd park the truck in a driveway, then walk through the front door with blue jeans, safety goggles, work gloves and a sledgehammer. He'd smash and rip chunks of drywall. He'd tear out cabinets and countertops. When the dump trailer was full, he'd drive 30 minutes to the stinking landfill, press the hydraulics button, and watch the junk tip and tumble onto piles of trash.
One time before a demo, he walked into a house with his sledgehammer and safety goggles, and the owner gave him a strange look.
"Are you ...?" the man asked.
"What are you doing here?"
"I don't know," he said with a laugh. Then he tore up the man's bathroom, removed his sink and got rid of his tub.
Jones tells this story from a Fort Worth sports bar eight months after his five-week stint at Black Door. He's wearing a scraggly beard that stretches down his neck and a black polo with the insignia of the Dallas Renegades -- one of the eight teams in the rebooted XFL, which kicks off this Saturday. Last August, Jones was the first player to commit to the XFL, reuniting with his former University of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops. The league went so far as to put out a news release hyping Jones' arrival, and he became the XFL's centerpiece player, whether he wanted it or not. "His heart and desire to play football epitomizes the type of individual we want in the XFL," commissioner Oliver Luck said.
On this evening, Jones and Stoops were the featured guests at the Renegades Rally meet-and-greet, but the autograph session was cut 15 minutes short due to low attendance, and no one in the sparse crowd asked a question during the public portion of the Q&A.
Now, sitting at the bar after the event, Jones is talking about construction. He had grown miserable waiting on NFL sidelines, and even more so sitting at home as an unsigned backup. Construction offered structure and predictability. The XFL, on the other hand, offers anything but that. Spring football leagues have never worked before, and the first time the XFL premiered in 2001, it ceased operations after one season.
That uncertainty is worrisome, especially at age 30. But Jones, who's questionable for the Renegades' opening game with a minor knee injury, is willing to give this a go. He would still love another shot at the NFL, or maybe a prolonged career in this experimental league if it's a success. But right now, what he seeks is much simpler.
"Really, I'm just excited about actually getting to play football again."
THERE ARE MANY days when Jones looks back on his professional career and can think of only one word: failure.
He had experienced so much success on the football field before he made it to the NFL. He was a four-star recruit who went to Oklahoma and led the Sooners to two Big 12 titles, and he currently ranks No. 3 in NCAA career passing yards. But he wasn't selected until the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft. At the time, he was thrilled and relieved to have finally been picked by the Steelers. "But in the coming weeks, I was like, 'Oh, I'll probably just be a backup there,'" Jones says. "Didn't really matter what I did in Pittsburgh, they were going to start Ben. Nobody's going to beat that dude out."
Back then, Ben Roethlisberger was a 31-year-old two-time Super Bowl champion and face of the franchise. Jones didn't play until his third season, when Roethlisberger was sidelined with an injury and backup quarterback Michael Vick got injured midgame. The Steelers were down 10-6 against the Arizona Cardinals in the third quarter, and Jones rallied them back to win. He'd play six more times that season, twice as a starter, with mixed results.
That was the story of his NFL career. Jones started five games in five years as a Steeler, "popcorn starts," he calls them -- one game here, one game there. "Never a four- or five-game stretch where I could go out there and play," he says.
Sundays became the worst days. His job, every week, was to prepare to be the starter, just in case. And then game day hit. "The whole day, I'd have butterflies in my stomach for no reason, because I knew most likely I wasn't going to get on the field," he says. "I did all of that work and preparation, and I didn't get the reward of Sunday. That wore me down. I was always frustrated."
But the NFL still validated his identity as a football player, even if he wasn't playing. And the multimillion-dollar salary supported his wife and kids, even though it was for work that nobody really saw or cared about. Being in the league meant he was afforded surreal perks. He loved standing on the field at Gillette Stadium or Lambeau. At as many games as he could, he'd steal a game ball emblazoned with the opposing team's logo as a keepsake.
On cut-down day at the end of every preseason, he and his wife, Whitney, would wait by the phone and hope it wouldn't ring. By 2018, they weren't worried. Even though the Steelers had drafted Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph in the past two drafts, Jones felt he had cemented himself as Roethlisberger's backup, a veteran with five years of experience who knew the offense as well as anyone. He worked with the second team throughout training camp, and whenever Roethlisberger had the day off, Jones would work with the starters.
The Steelers gave him the playbook for Week 1 against Cleveland -- a gesture that all but guaranteed his spot on the roster. But minutes before the deadline, Jones heard his phone ring as he played in the basement with his kids. It was coach Mike Tomlin.
"Looks like you're the odd man out on this deal," Tomlin said. "We need you to come in and bring your playbook."
JONES HADN'T PREPARED for what life would look like without football. At 29, it was all he'd ever known, so he and Whitney moved their family back to their offseason home in the Fort Worth suburbs and waited for a phone call from an NFL team.
The first one came after Week 1 of the regular season. The Cowboys, considering signing a veteran backup behind Dak Prescott, wanted Landry to come in for a workout. The opportunity was so perfect it made him nervous. AT&T Stadium was a 40-minute drive from their home -- practically his own backyard -- which meant he wouldn't have to uproot his family.
But Jones had never done one of these workouts before and wasn't sure what to wear. So he treated it like a formal interview and wore a blue suit.
"And when I showed up and met all the coaches, everybody was in sweats," Jones says. "I'm like, 'So ... I wasn't supposed to wear a suit?'"
He changed into the clothes they provided and threw for the coaches. But they didn't offer him a contract.
That's how the next two months went. He'd get a random call during the day from an NFL team, grab his pre-packed suitcase and catch a flight unsure of when or if he'd return home, all so he could throw for coaches and the general manager. It didn't matter that he'd grown miserable with life as an NFL backup.
"I was so blinded by the fact that I wanted to get back into the league so bad that I didn't really care where I was going," Jones says. "I was just like, 'I want you guys to sign me.' With each workout, I was looking at the areas around it to see if it could possibly fit with my family."
He did this for roughly 20 NFL teams. But every Sunday, he was back at home, watching games with his wife from a couch. "We were watching to see if somebody got hurt," Whitney says. "It was this yucky feeling."
In late October, Jones signed a contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars to be their third-stringer when the team thought Blake Bortles might be injured. Jones moved his then-pregnant wife and two toddlers to Jacksonville. Three weeks later, he was released.
After that, he tried a more desperate approach. Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden's cell number was still stored in his phone from when he participated in ESPN's "Jon Gruden QB Camp" before the 2013 NFL draft. No freakin' way this guy still has the same number, Landry thought. He cold-called, and Gruden answered. "Hey, I'm still trying to get back into the NFL," Jones said. "If you guys ever need any help or are in a bind, let me know." Gruden didn't have anything available.
Landry and his wife felt stuck. Each enrolled in online master's classes -- Whitney in counseling, Landry in finance -- as a contingency plan in case football was over. But Landry couldn't picture what his future looked like without the sport he loved.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says. "I didn't know what I was good at."
Bob Stoops back in the coach's seat with the XFL
Former Oklahoma Sooners coach Bob Stoops returns to the field but this time as a professional football coach with the Dallas Renegades of the XFL.
AS JONES COMPLETED his tour of the NFL workout facilities looking for a backup job, he did have one offer on the table to play football. Soon after he was released from the Steelers, Charlie Ebersol -- the guy who'd founded the latest attempt at a spring football league, the Alliance of American Football -- called to see if Jones wanted to play for the San Antonio Commanders in the league's inaugural 2019 season.
The two swapped a handful of calls. Ebersol offered Jones a seven-figure salary. But whenever Jones asked how he'd be paid, the responses were murky. Eventually, Jones declined the offer. He was wary of this league and of secondary football leagues in general. The concept has never worked long term, from the United States Football League to the World Football League to the Fall Experimental Football League. Each one failed -- mainly due to money issues -- and soon, so would the AAF. Nine weeks after it began, Ebersol and the league filed for bankruptcy midseason.
That's why Jones was suspicious when he received a similar phone call from Bob Stoops in February 2019. Days earlier, Stoops had made national news when he unretired to become the first head coach in the XFL -- yet another spring football league, one that would begin in 2020, 20 years after the first (and only) season of the league's previous iteration.
This time, creator Vince McMahon was prepared to invest as much as $500 million to see it succeed. He hired Luck, a former executive with the NCAA, to be his CEO and commissioner, and Luck would implement a much clearer focus.
"We're spending a lot more time, energy and resources on the football part of this," Luck says. "Whether it's coaches, players, training facilities, rules, broadcast partners -- you name it. All of those things that touch football will be fundamentally different than what was around in 2001."
The league would target guys with college and NFL experience who were stuck on sidelines or practice squads with little opportunity to improve. "Guys who were in that sort of category that were getting what we called 'yo-yoed,'" Luck explains. "You're up, you're down, etc."
Now, Stoops was pitching his former college quarterback on the idea of pairing up again. "Start thinking about it," Stoops said to Landry on the call. "It may fit you like it fit me."
Jones trusted and respected Stoops. He knew his old coach would never get involved in something that wasn't legitimate. But the opportunity didn't excite him. Landry wanted to play in the NFL and wondered whether a gamble on this experimental league would only postpone the inevitable. Football would end at some point, and maybe it already had. With two toddlers and a third baby on the way, was he wasting his time?
He told Stoops he'd think about it. Then a couple of weeks later, he called a local construction company and sent it his résumé.
"Seeking experience to broaden expertise," Landry wrote under the professional summary section, and among the bullet points under Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers, he wrote: "Handled 7 day work weeks with rigorous hours while maintaining performance and positivity."
PART OF THE deal at Black Door was that every week for an hour, Huffman would sit with Jones in his office and teach him the estimating and sales side of construction. Other than that, Jones spent his workday demo-ing homes, then driving the dump trailer to the landfill.
There was a tangible sense of accomplishment to this job. When the dump trailer was full, he'd drive to the landfill and empty it. When a wall needed to be removed, he'd smash it to bits. He loved seeing a closed-off kitchen transform into a big, open dining room, knowing he had played a role. Even better, he started every morning surrounded by his family with a short commute to the office. Often, on the drive back home, he'd reflect on his NFL career. What was I doing? he'd ask himself. Why was I even doing it if I wasn't really enjoying it?
Whitney noticed a change too. It was the simple things that made him happy, like having somewhere to be every weekday morning. But there was something else. Years ago, she herself went through the transition of leaving her athlete identity behind after starring on the Oklahoma basketball team.
Now she was watching Landry take those first steps.
"As an athlete, you don't really get to identify with things outside of athletics. So it's kind of awkward to get back into the real world," she says. "Especially for a 29-year-old, you're not supposed to be discovering. That usually happens when you're 22, so you feel a little late to the game. Him discovering other interests and navigating those waters is probably why he found so much peace.
"It was cool for him to just realize it himself -- that he was more than just a sport."
But one month in at Black Door, Jones received a call from the Raiders. The team wanted to fly him in for a workout, and Jones felt the pull. After speaking with Whitney, he said yes. Then he called his boss.
"I'm really sorry to leave you in a lurch, but can I please have Monday off?" Jones said. Huffman asked if everything was OK, and Jones explained the situation.
"Yes," Huffman said, laughing. "You can miss work driving the dump trailer to go work out with the Raiders."
The audition went well. Jones signed a contract with Oakland on March 26, becoming the fourth quarterback on the roster. He'd fly in during the week to practice, then fly back to his family in Fort Worth on the weekend. The travel was tough, but Jones was swept back up in his NFL dream. He loved Gruden and the team's offensive scheme. He grew close with starting quarterback Derek Carr. He saw himself succeeding in Oakland.
Two months later, he was cut.
NOW IT'S MID-JANUARY outside of Globe Life Park in Arlington, where in just a few weeks the Dallas Renegades will open their inaugural season at the former home of the Texas Rangers. But it doesn't feel like it. There are no black and light-blue banners outside the stadium. No "Welcome Renegades fans!" signs or any sight of the silhouetted outlaw logo. Inside, the stadium is still transitioning from baseball diamond to football field. Outside, the XFL still feels like an idea.
The Oakland audition had Jones craving football again. He didn't return to Black Door. Instead, he waited until August for another NFL team to call, and when none did, he committed to the XFL for one season. There were only so many years left for him to play, he figured. But it's also hard to leave the thing you love.
Maybe the XFL will combine the best of football and construction. No, this wouldn't be the NFL, as evidenced by minicamp, which was held at a local high school where he and his teammates sometimes saw students en route to the practice field. And his contract, one of the few six-figure Tier 1 salaries given to quarterbacks in the XFL, is well below the $2.5 million he made in his last year with the Steelers.
But Jones will finally get to play football again and maybe help build something that lasts beyond him. He's the oldest player on the Renegades and has something in common with every one of his teammates: "There's a reason why we're all here and not in the NFL," he says.
For wide receiver Jeff Badet, it's because he could never graduate from the Minnesota Vikings practice squad, eventually leading to his release before the 2019 season. For running back Lance Dunbar, who played six seasons combined with the Cowboys and Rams, it's because of injuries. Each will earn around $55,000 over the 10-game season -- the same salary most players will be paid.
"I just want an opportunity to show that I'm healthy so I can get back to the NFL," Dunbar says.
This is a real concern for the XFL: What happens when star players or coaches get good enough to leave?
Vince McMahon and Oliver Luck have stated that this will not be a developmental league for any other organization. "But we also realize that the vast majority of players in our league want to go play in the NFL," Luck says. "After these guys sign their contracts, they're locked in for our first season. At the end of our season, which will be after the championship game, if they have an NFL opportunity, they're free to take that opportunity and we would wish them well."
Luck isn't exaggerating about the locked-in part.
A month after Landry signed his contract with the XFL, Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 of the NFL's regular season, providing Steelers backup quarterbacks the extended look that Jones once dreamed of. After Roethlisberger's injury, Jones wondered whether his former coaches would give him a call since he knew the offense well and left on good terms.
He never heard anything -- but the XFL did. League personnel received a call shortly after the injury inquiring about Jones' availability. "And we said, 'He's under contract to us, he's not interested in any opportunities in the NFL. Thanks very much,'" Luck tells ESPN.
News of the Steelers' interest in Jones was first reported in a Tampa Bay Times Q&A with Luck on Dec. 11. Problem is, that's when Jones first learned of it too.
He understands why a move to the Steelers wasn't possible. He had committed to the new league. And even if he could have gotten out of his contract, it was bad timing, as his wife was due with their third child. "But I wish I would've gotten a phone call," Jones says. "These are people's lives and careers."
It's stuff like this, and the track record of spring football leagues in general, that makes Jones skeptical. As with all startups, problems are bound to pop up. He and everyone else on the team already weathered the rumors of Bob Stoops potentially leaving the Renegades to coach Florida State, which he did not. Above all, Jones' biggest fear is that the XFL will suffer the same fate as the AAF, which stopped midway through the season. For now, things are running smoothly. He has enjoyed his teammates and coaches. His paychecks have arrived on time. The only real blip was a knee injury he suffered in training camp -- and even still, he's already back training ahead of Week 1 and is likely to play in the Renegades' first or second game.
Many have asked what he hopes will come of this. "I could never close the door on the NFL and being a backup," he says. But this could just as likely lead to an extended playing career in the XFL, or no football at all. "I am truly open to whatever," because after driving a dump trailer around the Fort Worth suburbs, Jones has already seen the other side.
At the end of the season, he'll have to make another big life decision. For now, he wakes up every morning surrounded by family with somewhere he needs to be -- a ballpark 40 minutes away from his house that sits right beside AT&T Stadium.
"I'm playing football right in my backyard," he says. "What's the worst that could happen?"