Now 39, Jones cuts up trees, not cornerbacks

December 18, 1990|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Evening Sun Staff

RUSTON, La. -- There were signs all over the room that this was not the office of your garden variety owner of a lumber mill and wood preservative plant.

Pieces of lumber were propped against the wall, yes, and there was the antique saw and the huge cash register from his father's lumber yard. But there also were a couple of golf bags, a hunter's camouflage clothes and, on the walls, a snake skin, a deer head, football photos and a Los Angeles Rams pennant.

Behind the large desk was a painting of football players in blue and white uniforms in a huddle. Crouched, as if calling a play, was the Colts' quarterback, No. 7.

The man at the desk, once No. 7, leafed through a stack of phone messages and grinned. This was Bert Jones today, at 39. No longer the strong-armed quarterback they used to call the Ruston Rifle, but still very much the outdoorsman, Jones and his brother Bill and a third partner own and operate Mid-States Wood Preservers Inc.

"It's been a madhouse today," Jones said. "Bill's not here, two forklift operators are gone and another's on vacation and I've been driving a forklift all day. It'll be the same tomorrow."

He glanced at the clock, saw it was almost 4 p.m., Central time, and picked up the phone and dialed a number. "Got to return these calls before the Eastern guys quit for the day at 5," he said.

Jones was with the Colts from 1973 to '81 and quarterbacked them to three straight AFC East championships from 1975 to 1977. His final year in the NFL was with the Rams in 1982, when he was obliged to retire because of a severe neck injury.

Last June, when he was 38 and "literally hadn't picked up a football in seven or eight years," he competed in a Golden Quarterbacks Challenge, a test of football skills, in Hawaii. He beat not only all the retirees, but most of today's quarterbacks as well.

"I guess throwing a football is like riding a bike; you never forget," Jones said. "Anyway, I didn't hurt my arm playing. I just broke my neck."

When word of Jones' performance reached Bobby Beathard, the San Diego Chargers' general manager gave Jones an "opportunity" to come out of retirement. The old quarterback was tempted. The money was "no problem" and he was "real close" to re-enlisting, but his neck gave him pause.

"Four doctors say OK and the fifth says no," Jones said. "So what do you do? This was in June. Before I knew it, camps were opening and the opportunity had passed."

He shrugged. No big deal. He picked up the phone to return another call. With a work force of 45 employees, Jones is prospering ("I love making lumber") and he manages to squeeze in some hunting and fishing now and then.

"Not as much as I'd like, though," he said. "I'm involved with the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. That takes time, making regulatory decisions concerning alligators, shrimp, oysters and the like."

Although he has been back in his beloved Louisiana since retiring from football, Jones misses some things from his years in Maryland.

"I liked the Baltimore environment," he said. "It's a fun city with a lot of good restaurants. I liked the Eastern Shore and the rolling hills of Western Maryland. I get back there a couple of times a year, sneak in for three or four days and then out. I'll be up there in March for a lumber convention and to visit friends."

At 4 o'clock, unable to make any more calls to Eastern customers, Jones walked outside and motioned his visitor to climb into the pickup truck for a tour of the yard. Sheds, gigantic stacks of lumber and a few buildings were scattered about the yard, which was perhaps the size of several city blocks.

"In 1979, when we bought this place, it was a watermelon patch," Jones said.

He stopped the truck near three workers who were running boards through a circular saw. Jones pointed to one of the men and said he was one of his teammates with the Colts.

"He's going back to Grambling to finish school," said Jones, who asked that the player's name not be used. "He wanted to borrow money, but I told him I was out of the money-lending business but could put him to work for a few days. He was here at 7 a.m. sharp today."

Jones waved to his old teammate. The man beamed in return.

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