Taiwan Jones’ birthday got off to a bad start.
His first phone call on July 26 was from his agent, who informed him that the Oakland Raiders – the team Jones had grown up watching in Antioch, Calif. – were trying to trade him. If they were unsuccessful, Jones was told, he would be cut.
Two days later, the Raiders followed through on their promise, releasing Jones after six years with the team.
“I definitely didn’t see that coming,” Jones recalled this week, “but that’s just how it is in this league.”
It didn’t take Jones long to land on his feet. He signed with the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 2, and couldn’t have been happier to see the opponent listed next to Oct. 29 on his new team's schedule. This Sunday, the Raiders will visit New Era Field.
"It’s definitely one that’s been circled," Jones said of seeing his old team this weekend.
Although he has just one touch for the Bills this season on offense, it couldn’t have come in a bigger spot. His 11-yard reception last week on a third-and-9 play in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers set the Bills up for a chip-shot field goal that provided the winning points.
“He was prepared and he took advantage of the opportunity,” coach Sean McDermott said. “That's what we expect from all our players, that they prepare, they respect the process, and when their number is called, they perform no different than Taiwan.”
Jones’ primary contribution to the Bills through the first five games had been as a gunner on special teams. While that’s a role he has embraced and done well in, he’s patiently waited for his opportunity to come on offense.
“I'm sure all players feel like they can help out the team, they can contribute,” he said. “Every time I go out to practice, I'm trying to prove that. After coach called that play, I'm starting to get the feeling that they see it. I've just got to be patient and wait until my number's called. I can't really control when I do go in, but I know when I do go in, I've got to make the most of it.”
Nicknamed “Crazy Legs” by his teammates, the 6-foot-0, 195-pounder did that against the Buccaneers.
“He's a very explosive player,” said Bills receiver Andre Holmes, who played with Jones in Oakland. “He has great play speed. He's a weapon that can be utilized in a big way.”
That’s the way it’s been going back to high school. Jones was the Contra Costa Times Player of the Year for Deer Valley High School in 2007. That year, he set a program record with 19 touchdowns, averaging 9.3 yards per carry and also making 37 tackles as a two-way starter.
Jones’ only scholarship offer, however, came from Eastern Washington University. That’s because he struggled with his grades throughout high school. When coaches came through Deer Valley to recruit, Jones always stood out on tape. But his grades left recruiters fearful he wouldn't be able to qualify academically. Midway through his senior year, Jones was diagnosed with dyslexia.
“School was always tough for me,” he said. “The moment we found out why, it made things better. I was able to get the help that I needed, and it made it a little easier down the road.”
With the extra time he was granted on tests and assignments, Jones qualified academically to play for Eastern Washington after a redshirt season. He wasted little time making an impact, taking his first collegiate carry 87 yards for a touchdown.
“I can still see the play,” he said. “That was an amazing feeling.”
Jones credits his father, Paul, with keeping him motivated when school looked like too big of a hurdle to overcome.
“I got to learn a lot of lessons through my dad,” he said. “Really my whole family. I’ve got a lot of older cousins that had great talent, but didn't apply themselves or go anywhere with it. My dad, he always preached to me, ‘If you've got that talent, don't let it go to waste.’ I understood early I needed to go to school and do well in school.”
This offseason, Jones attended the NFL Business Academy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He looks at that experience as the first step in completing his college degree.
“The Raiders were always on me, trying to get me to go back,” he said. “I just haven't got myself to do it yet. Last year was like my first step, ‘OK, I'm going to do the business academy and keep it going from there.’ ”
Jones set a program record for all-purpose yards during three years at Eastern Washington before declaring for the 2011 draft. He ran a reported 4.28-second, 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, and was chosen in the fourth round by the Raiders. His first NFL carry came on Sept. 18, 2011, in a game against the Bills.
“I was spoiled for the last six years, being able to play in front of my family and all my peers,” he said. “It definitely was a blessing.”
Jones' ability to play on both sides of the ball continued in Oakland. He switched back and forth between cornerback and running back with the Raiders, but so far has been just an offensive player for the Bills.
"While I'm here, I think I'm finally at home" at running back, Jones said. "I love football. It doesn't matter what position I'm playing. Whatever they ask, I'm willing to help out the team."