Pac Man Jones’ latest bodyguard is a sweet, white-haired man named Paul. He mans the door at Jones’ high-rise in Cincinnati, grinning at visitors and pointing out Jones’ 12th floor apartment buzzer. The label next to the button says, “Mr. and Mrs. Jones.” The elevator requires no code or key. The door to Jones’ apartment is unlocked. There is no music playing. There is no smell of anything other than baby powder. There is no one around except Pac Man’s fiancée, Tishana, his newborn daughter, Triniti, and the Bengals defensive back himself, in a white shirt and a black neck brace. The three of them are sitting on the couch, drinking water and watching TV.

It’s Saturday night at Pac Man’s place.

Pac Man Jones sitting around on a weekend night with his fiancée and his daughter is the NFL’s equivalent of Lindsay Lohan insisting she loves pancakes and appreciates the hard work done by traffic cops. Since he was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2005, Jones has been charged with everything from assault to felony vandalism to marijuana possession to public intoxication to disorderly conduct. Pac Man is by far the NFL’s most notorious miscreant –- the very definition of an athlete-gone-wild. Now he’s a happy homebody? Seems fishy.

But even an act would be a big step for Pac Man. Recall this is a guy so brazen and unconcerned with image that he went to a strip club the night before a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In the NFL, where a four-game suspension is heavy, Jones was banned for the entire 2007 season -– at a personal cost of more than $1.2 million in salary. Even his mom, Deborah Jones, says Pac Man was “out of control” and “hotheaded.”

Sounds about right –- last week he was ordered to take anger management classes in addition to serving 200 hours of community service for his role in a nightclub shooting in Las Vegas four years ago that left a man paralyzed. Jones is supremely talented and insanely fast -- less than a year ago, after several months out of football, he ran a 4.42 40 in a tryout for his current team –- but his list of transgressions (both real and alleged) is far longer than his list of accomplishments. In his NFL career, he has a whopping five interceptions and one sack. If this is an act, it’s an act with a tiny audience; not many will buy it.

But Jones is trying anyway. “What am I sorry for?” he says. “There are a million things.”

“I’m sorry for everything.”

***

Adam Jones has one lasting memory of his father, who was an amateur boxer in Atlanta. He was sitting on his uncle Nick’s shoulders, peering over a crowd to see his dad. It was at his father’s funeral. His dad was 24. Adam was 4. His mother remembers Adam being scared and confused. He looked up at her and asked, “You mean I’m never gonna see my dad again, Momma?” Then he saw his dad being lowered into the ground. He started to wail. Months later, Uncle Nick was dead too.

“None of the males on my dad’s side ever got to see 25,” Jones says. “My dad was shot and robbed. Nick was killed trying to rob somebody. My uncle Ant was stabbed on a bus. He was 23.”

Jones grew up thinking 25 years is pretty much all the time you get. That was the way it was in his Atlanta neighborhood. He committed to Georgia Tech but switched to West Virginia because Rich Rodriguez and his staff showed so much concern about his dying grandmother. Jones was shocked when he got to Morgantown. “It was the first time being around so many white people that embraced you as a person,” he says. “I didn’t have to worry about leaving the door unlocked.”

He loved West Virginia. He played well there and met a teammate who he still calls “the best friend I ever made playing football.” It was Chris Henry, the wide receiver who had about as much talent and got into about as much trouble. Henry died in a car accident in Charlotte in 2009. Jones couldn’t bear to attend the funeral. Instead, he put a huge painting of Henry in his apartment.

Jones is now 27; Henry was 26. Pac Man outlived his best friend, too.

That has put him in a strange place. He is now an old man, of sorts. But he has no roadmap for what to do in middle age, let alone his 30s. He has even avoided going out around the time of his birthday –- Sept. 30 -– because he was that much closer to the age at which his father and uncles died. So a man who never thought to plan for the future is now realizing he might actually have a future. He’s got two little girls now: Triniti and
Zaniyah, who just turned five last week. He proposed to Tishana, and will marry her this summer in Atlanta.

He also wants to be called Adam now, instead of Pac Man, which is a name his mom still calls him. That nickname came from the video game, which Deborah Jones loved to play while she was pregnant with her only child. When Adam was born and started breastfeeding, his feeding style reminded her of the little yellow circle on the screen. “His mouth would move like Pac Man –- gobble, gobble, gobble,” she says. Then when she saw on TV recently that he was trying to get rid of his old name and his old identity, Deborah called her son up in a huff. “Well,” she said, “what am I supposed to call you?!”

So Pac Man is still around. But without a posse, he's no longer Pack Man. And that may be the most important change of all.

***

Like so many boys who lose their fathers at a young age, Adam took on the role of head-of-household. He assumed responsibility even when he was too young to understand it.

“He likes to be everybody’s daddy,” says Deborah. “He tells you what to do and how to do it. He tries to make everything OK. He’s been that way for a long time. He thinks that’s what dads do.”

And so when Jones got to the NFL and got rich, he started taking care of everyone around him. “I’d say, ‘When I get this money, we’re going to Miami! We’ll have a good time!’" he says. “That’s what you do.” That’s how most entourages get going, and Pac Man was no different. What was different was how he lost his crew. Or, more accurately, how they lost him.

When Jones’ career spiraled after the Vegas shooting in 2007, and so much of his money vanished, his posse started to wander away. After he got released by the Cowboys in early 2009 and got offers from the CFL instead of the NFL, he found himself alone. “It’s amazing how many people run away,” he says. “It gave me enough time to see people show true colors.”

This isn’t finger-pointing as much as acknowledgment that he wasn’t living right. Jones’ fall gave him a chance to live without social shackles. Now that he’s back in the NFL, and in good standing with the Bengals, he says he’s boycotted all Atlanta clubs. “I get nervous there,” he says. “I’m vulnerable. You wouldn’t understand.”

Here he gets frustrated and short –- residue from the old temper. He’s hiding something, most likely the behavior that got him into trouble and the people who won’t let him move on from it. He says he’s tired of talking about the Vegas incident, and he says it in a loud voice.

“People were scared of me,” he finally says, quieting down. “People were scared of my people. There is always somebody out to prove something. I’m just trying to avoid being in any B.S. I don’t have to be in.”

So this isn’t the next Michael Vick, who is full-on hero after being full-on goat. Jones is a bit too jaded for that, saying of the Eagles quarterback, “They always love you when you’re up.” No, Jones is in somewhere between, somewhere on the long road from ne’er-do-well to do-gooder. He’s got too many pistons firing to go from 60 to 0. But as for now, he’s abiding by the speed limit. He hops around his apartment, playing with his dog, taking photos of his daughter, doodling on napkins, talking about his love of fishing, yelling at an NFL game on TV –- “That ref is my boy! He’ll let you get all the dirty work in!” -- and then completely forgetting his train of thought. This is his definition of “chillin’." And it seems to work for him, even though the two bedroom apartment seems way too small for his energy. “I don’t need no thrill,” he says. “I need to get 100
percent healthy.”

Jones goes to rehab every weekday for the neck injury that ended his 2010 season, and that’s the only thing on his agenda -- other than his wedding and maybe a trip or two with his new bride. Most fans will think, “Just wait,” but Jones has now gone two full calendar years -- 2009 and 2010 -- without a reported off-the-field incident. He’s never been a nuisance on the field. He loves his job, and he doesn’t want to lose it again.

“I don’t want to see anybody go through what I went through for being stupid,” he says. “A great athlete thinks about the future. I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was thinking about then.”

Now he says he wants to “sit across the table” from Tommy Urbanski, the bouncer who was paralyzed in the brawl in Vegas. “I hate what happened to Urbanski,” he says. “I’m a father. I understand.”

There’s some truth to that; the neck injury scared him when it happened. “Every time I got hit,” he says, “something was tingling. I was worried. I want to be able to walk and talk.”

It’s too much to say Jones has been scared straight, but the loss of his money, his entourage, his NFL career and almost his mobility was enough to change him. Take it from his mom, who was a track star in high school when she got pregnant with Adam:

“This boy has gotten more patient, more understanding. He’s grown up a lot. It’s not all about him anymore. Maybe it was the suspension. And the injury. I think that changed him. It slowed him up a little bit.

“At one point, you couldn’t tell him nothing. Now it’s, ‘Mom, what do you think I should do?’ In high school, we were like best friends. Once he went to college, hmm. Now it seems like things are getting back to normal. I missed him terribly. That’s my only child.”

***

Later on that Saturday night, Pac Man heads out. He says hello to Paul at the elevator and walks to the garage. He takes his Jaguar and weaves into the Cincinnati downtown before spotting a wings joint. He parks, walks in, sits at the bar and orders a glass of wine. (He says he quit hard liquor.) He’s got his phone, but he’s hardly looking at it. It doesn’t buzz or ring. Nobody is coming to meet him. A couple of patrons recognize him and he smiles and waves hello, almost sheepishly. Jones seems a bit exposed; there’s no buffer between him and the fans. But he’s done well in this town, and folks seem glad to see him.

Jones orders some food to go and throws down a big tip. He says he’s not hitting any clubs tonight. (And as if to prove it, he sends a text before 8 the next morning.) “Nothing good happens after midnight,” he says. “That’s what I’ve learned. And I’ve learned that anything you want to do after midnight, you can do at 5 in the afternoon.”

He laughs, grabs his food, and takes off, into the maze of the city, dashing away from the ghosts of his past and maybe, just maybe, strong enough now to attack them head-on.

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