Ravens safety Rondell Jones becomes more appreciative of life every time he stands shirtless in front of a mirror and looks at the one-foot scar running down his chest.
Three years ago, Jones had an illness that could have cost him his life. Now, he is competing for the Ravens' starting free safety job with rookie Kim Herring.
"Anytime you have major surgery, especially like I had, there is always the risk you may not come out. I've been blessed in a lot of ways. There are not a lot of things I take for granted," said Jones, 26, a native of Sunderland, Md.
One of those things is playing football. When the Ravens went into the free-agent market looking for a safety to replace Eric Turner during the off-season, they were looking for someone with similar characteristics.
They wanted a hard-nosed, competitive player who was physical enough to play the run (Jones is 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds), but still fast and smart enough to play the pass. The call went out to Jones, a total team player.
"We thought he was one of the better special team players in the league," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "But when he had a chance to play defense, he demonstrated he could get the job done when he started. Alvin [Reynolds, secondary coach] had a relationship with him, and spoke highly of Rondell."
Reynolds and Jones broke into the league together -- Reynolds as a coach and Jones as a player -- in 1993 with the Denver Broncos. During Jones' first year with the club, he played mostly on special teams while backing up Pro Bowl safeties Steve Atwater and Dennis Smith with the plans having Jones eventually taking over for Smith.
But in March 1994, Jones felt weaknesses in different areas of his body and noticed drippings from his eye lids. He was eventually diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that affects the development of the immune system.
Jones underwent surgery in April 1994 and spent two months in the hospital after doctors opened his sternum to remove his thymus gland in an effort to combat the disease.
"I was one of the fortunate ones because they caught the illness early," Jones said. "This disease could really affect your respiratory system and make it difficult to swallow or hard to walk. This wasn't like an injury where they operate on your knees or elbow, and you're out of the hospital in two weeks. It was a long process."
One could never tell by Jones' comeback. He played in 16 regular-season games in 1994, starting three at free safety before the Broncos re-signed Smith. He finished the season with 55 tackles (37 solo) and led the team in interceptions with two.
Did someone see the phone booth in which Jones changed?
"I knew one assistant coach who had a similar surgery for a heart condition and thought it was impossible for a player to come back in that short period of a time," Reynolds said. "They actually had to open up his chest and split it wide open.
"He played a little bit until he got his strength back, but it was a great recovery. Rondell has always been a smart, athletic and aggressive player," Reynolds said. "He's not as physical as Ronnie Lott, but he's able to bring down runners. In 1995, the Broncos brought in a new coach, and Tyrone Braxton moved ahead of Rondell. But here Rondell has a chance to compete for a job, and he is picking up the scheme well."
Jones vs. Herring should be one of the more interesting battles for a starting spot in training camp. Jones is the favorite to win the spot early in the season, because the Ravens are expected to start two rookies at linebacker when and if holdouts Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper sign.
So Jones' experience gives him a clear advantage. But team officials have already hinted that Herring is their free safety of the future.
Jones has heard those rumors too, but he isn't sweating. He is a man who has beaten a disease that almost cost him a career in the NFL.
"The biggest adjustment is getting used to the terminology, the language," Jones said. "I'm getting more familiar with it. As for Kim Herring, all I can do is try my best and everything else will take care of itself. I came here to Baltimore because there was a chance for me to play more, and I plan on taking every advantage of the opportunity."
Pub Date: 7/21/97