Keeping up with the Joneses

Lake Forest - Bears running back Thomas Jones and his younger brother, Cowboys running back Julius, get to spend Thanksgiving together at Texas Stadium in front of a national-TV audience.

"In my family, we're definitely excited," said the Bears' leading rusher. "We've been looking forward to this game all year. Me and my brother are very close. We have an opportunity to both be starting running backs in this game, and that's definitely a blessing for us, so we're happy."

Though they're three years apart, Thomas and Julius grew up playing football with each other almost non-stop. Thursday's game could hinge on whoever plays better.

Julius suffered a fractured scapula in the second game of the season and missed eight weeks but returned last week to rush for 81 yards on 30 carries. Thomas, who has 570 yards on 135 carries (4.2-yard average), missed almost three full games before returning last week and struggling for 59 yards on 18 carries.

Growing up, neither struggled much at all.

"We played football all day," Thomas said. "We played football in school. We played football with our crayons, and sometimes we'd get in trouble in grade school for playing football. We just lived football."

The Joneses grew up in the small town of Big Stone Gap, Va., and they started early on the path that has led them to the NFL. Thomas was the Cardinals' first-round draft choice (seventh overall) out of Virginia, and Julius was a second-round pick this year from Notre Dame.

"My father (Thomas Sr.) really pushed us growing up," the older brother said. "He had us doing push-ups and sit-ups at night ever since we were 5 or 6 years old. I realized that made us mentally tough because sometimes you would be tired and you wouldn't want to do them, but we were just dedicated to doing them because my father said that would make us good football players."

That mental toughness benefited both during the 2002 season. Thomas was in the final season of a three-year drought in Arizona with the hapless Cardinals, and Julius was sitting out a one-year suspension for failing to meet academic standards at Notre Dame. Thomas, who by then was widely considered a bust, struggled through a disappointing season that included a sprained ankle and a broken right hand. Julius had to deal with questions about his future at Notre Dame and whether he'd get to the NFL at all.

Both emerged better and stronger, mostly because of each other.

"Arizona wasn't good for me, and I think if you're not a strong person, sometimes things can get the best of you," Thomas said. "Things were said about him when he left Notre Dame, but I think we just kept our mental toughness and stuck together."

Thomas convinced Julius to spend his suspension with him in the desert in order to get back on the right path.

"I just wanted him to see the situation that I was in firsthand and understand that you can have opportunities, but they can be taken away," the big brother said. "I wasn't happy, and he came out there just to get away from everything. I wanted to use myself as an example for him, and we worked really hard.

"It was kind of like we were shut off from the world that year and we just had that as incentive to get back on the scene. We would work out in the morning -- maybe three, four o'clock in the morning sometimes at Gold's Gym by ourselves."

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