Donald Jones has been to New Era Stadium before. When he was in junior college, he played in front of a crowd of 200 people for a playoff game. As soon as he stepped out onto the turf during warmups, he called his father.
"I told him, ‘I’m standing in the middle of the Buffalo Bills home field and one day, I might play here.’"
Jones’ prediction came true. After transferring to Youngstown State University and going unclaimed in the 2010 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills were among three teams who called and invited him to try out as a free agent.
Hailing from New Jersey, Jones was a New York Giants fan from birth. But he passed on his hometown team, as well as the Kansas City Chiefs, and signed with the Bills because their receiving core was depleted and he knew he’d get to play. It was late April when Jones first arrived with his bags — and his preconceived notions about the city.
"If you’re not from Buffalo, you have this image that it’s always snowing. Funny enough, when I first got here it was snowing. But I could tell right away there was a definite family feel to the team and I liked that. Growing up so close to New York City, everything is so fast-paced.
I kind of liked this slow-down feel."
Jones quickly adjusted and began his NFL career on a promising note, despite battling serious kidney disease since his sophomore year of college. The symptoms caused a host of physical, emotional and mental symptoms, including high blood pressure, fatigue, mood swings, and swelling in his eyes and ankles. Playing professional football is physically challenging enough for someone who is healthy. For Jones, the added stress took a toll on his body.
"I’d feel fatigued and not like myself," he said. "Being tired all of the time was hard, because I had to work out the same as everyone else. And my teammates didn’t know. I kept everything to myself."
In spring 2013, Jones left Buffalo and went to play for New England. He says he was the sickest he’d ever been, and that his experience with the Patriots was far from enjoyable.
"It wasn’t my type of environment. Going from Buffalo to there, it was all business all the time. I felt like I was always on eggshells. And for me, being sick, I wasn’t concentrating on the things I needed to do, I wasn’t learning the playbook and I made things harder on myself. [Tom] Brady was yelling at me and so was [Bill] Belichick, because I didn’t know my stuff. And I hated it. But I knew my time was coming to an end."
After being cut from the roster, Jones made one final attempt to continue his football career with the Indianapolis Colts. During his initial physical, which included a stress test on a treadmill, his blood pressure skyrocketed. That was it. Jones knew he could no longer put off the one thing that would make him healthy again, yet simultaneously end his football career — he needed a kidney transplant.
Jones, now 29, says having to retire from football was hard, but getting the transplant was the best decision he could have made. Now he travels around the country sharing the book about his experience: "The Next Quarter — Scoring Against Kidney Disease." He also helps raise awareness about organ donation. And Bills fans can hear his voice every afternoon on WGR-550 during the "John Murphy Show," which he has co-hosted since last summer.
"I love talking about the Bills and everything about this city, but I also like talking about the NFL in general and breaking down different players. I like to talk football. And I like to give the players’ perspective," said Jones. "It’s different being on this side of things."
Recently, Jones started a sports-based after-school program with the West Seneca school district, and hopes to be able to offer the program to other districts in the area.
"The city has been great to me, and I’ve tried to give back. And I’m going to continue to try to do that. It gave me the platform that I have to all of the things I am doing now."