A point guard for Purdue from 1986 to 1990, Jones left his mark in the school’s history books. In addition to playing on the 1987 and 1988 Big Ten championship teams, he is still third in assists (481), sixth in assist average (3.9), 13th in steals, 14th in three-point field goal percentage (.370), 17th in minutes played (3,355) and 43rd in scoring (1,041). He also was a major contributor to the 1989 U.S.A. men’s basketball team in the World University Games that brought home gold with a 6-0 record.
On and off the court, Jones' head had always been in the clouds.
Since age seven, he watched airplanes fly over his house in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his mom and dreamed of piloting one himself someday. When not looking skyward, he also happened to be an exceptionally good high school basketball player and track star. He knew he wanted to play hoops in college, but his life’s work would be in the skies. The challenge for him was finding a way to make both happen.
Growing up, Jones' drive to compete started early. “My neighborhood was all sports, all the time and was very competitive,” he said. Besides Jones, six of his high school friends went on to college as NCAA Division I student-athletes.
Sports have always been in Jones' blood. Hid dad played football at Alabama A&M and his mother has always been passionate about her teams. “Mom and I enjoyed watching sports on TV, but were often rooting for opposing teams, he said. “She cheered for Auburn and I was an Alabama fan. She loved the Cowboys and I was a Redskins fan,” he said. But when rival universities Indiana competed in basketball against Purdue, they cheered for both teams in support of Jones' dream to play basketball at a Big 10 Conference school.
It was in his freshman year of high school that Jones was called into the office of Keith Scott, his track coach and a man he would come to describe as a father figure. Jones says he always looked up to Scott for the example he set; that of a genuine, honest man who would always make time for him when times were rough.
Scott remembers Jones as a happy-go-lucky kid who, despite being a bit of a prankster, had an extraordinary work ethic driven by his desire to succeed and was always humble above all else.
On the athletic side, Jones would play for hall-of-fame coach Gene Keady in the Big Ten -- a basketball power conference -- competing against some of the best college players in the nation and learning from one of the best coaches in the collegiate game. On the academic side, he would major in aviation technology and work towards his coveted pilot’s license.
Right from the start, Keady felt good about recruiting Jones. He said Jones had all the ingredients that make up a first-class student-athlete. Plus, Jones' family could watch him play and Purdue’s aviation school was getting a great student.
“Tony was a great student as well as an athlete. And he had a team-first attitude that I really appreciated,” said the former Boilermaker head coach, “He was very focused and wasn’t afraid to put in long hours of practice to improve.”
Off the court, Keady remembers Jones as being gracious and having a great sense of humor. He always smiled and laughed a lot which helped him with the pressure.
Jones fondly recalls a practical joke he played on assistant coach Steve Lavin, now head coach at St. John’s. When Lavin left his keys in the ignition of his car to dash into a yogurt shop, Jones seized the opportunity to drive away with the coach’s car. Coach Lavin chased his stolen car for upwards to a quarter of a mile not realizing Jones was behind the wheel. To this day, the two crack up when recalling the hoax.
Humor was yet another puzzle piece Jones was assembling for himself.
Just as his aviation classes would teach Jones the importance of checklist discipline and hitting the books, he soon learned being a student-athlete required such things as self-discipline, time management, leadership and learning how to be a part of something bigger than him. Jones responded to the challenge by pushing the throttles forward and never looking back.
“I had to balance basketball, classes, and my flying,” he recalled. “Sometimes my peers were going out and I’d have to stay in and study.”
In looking back, he describes his regimented days at Purdue as clock work. There was a certain amount of time to study, to practice, to lift weights, to watch film, to play the actual games and to get his all-important flying lessons in. All with very little sleep in between. Through it all, Jones came to understand the puzzle pieces of time management, the magic of being disciplined and the need to be prepared. Whether it be an unexpectedly tough opponent on the court or, perhaps even more scary, an unanticipated red light in the cockpit, he learned to deal with adversity.
Off the court, his progression as a pilot was also on a similarly steady ascent. Unlike his earthbound teammates, Jones' laboratory was not in a classroom but in the air. He fondly remembers being selected to fly Purdue administrators and trustees around the country on university business as his skills in the cockpit became more polished.
Through it all, Jones says he relished the opportunities made available to him as a student-athlete such as traveling with the with the basketball team. Even so, Jones had its share of shaky takeoffs and bumpy landings both literally and figuratively. “Sure I experienced failure, but I didn’t make a habit of it and I didn’t make it catastrophic,” Jones said.
More importantly, the life-skills he learned on and off the court are still with him today. In fact, he says the transition from college to the working world was easier for him because of his student-athlete experience.
Knowing his basketball career would most likely end at the collegiate level, he worked hard to be ready for what came after. Just as the Boilermaker basketball team practiced plays for specific situations, he drew up a game plan for entering the working world.
“The biggest thing I did was prepare myself for transitioning,” he said. “I knew I needed to prepare myself mentally and put together a plan.”
At the time of his graduation many airlines weren’t hiring, so piloting jobs were slim pickings. That wasn’t about to discourage Tony who stayed pragmatic as ever.
“I just stayed patient,” he said, “I knew it would happen at some point.” The puzzle pieces were assembling.
He may have been exercising patience but that didn’t keep Tony from staying focused and keeping to his plan. For him, that meant getting his master’s degree in industrial science at Purdue after his eligibility expired and then joining the U.S. Air Force. Commissioned as an officer, he trained to become a KC-135 tanker pilot. Tankers are known as flying gas stations as their mission is to refuel other aircraft while flying at 35,000 feet while traveling upwards of 600 miles per hour.
Jones' training as a point guard would come in handy in his new profession. It took a cool head and a steady hand on the throttle to fly the plane as his Air Force teammates, the pilots in the receiving planes and the boom operator, positioned their aircraft only 30 feet below and behind his. A long tube, called a boom, was then lowered and connected to the trailing aircraft. The two aircraft would then fly linked together for several minutes as thousands of pounds of gas were transferred. Ultimately, the Air Force would take him to Italy, England, France, Germany, Iceland and Japan. He flew combat missions out of Italy during the Kosovo conflict in 1999 in support of NATO operations in the tiny Balkan country. He says the same competitive spirit that drove him to excel on the basketball court helped him excel in the air.
“Going into the military, flying classified or combat missions, flying in bad weather, whatever the situation, you wanted to do well. Being competitive drives that. It keeps you focused,” is how he describes it.
It also keeps you alive.
His missions these days are different than the military, but they still require the same set of skills. According to Jim Rouley, a fellow American Airlines pilot and 38-year veteran of the skies, Jones has an abundance of these skills. “You can teach someone to fly an airplane but the ability to make good decisions is a whole other thing. Tony’s personality and his time as an athlete serve him extremely well in this regard.”
Jones' decisiveness isn’t the only thing that has impressed Rouley over the nearly 15 years they’ve worked together. Rouley says Jones' time playing in the Big Ten left him with an uncanny level of eye-hand coordination and situation awareness. These traits are invaluable in the cockpit when manipulating the extremely complex flight systems and, as they say in the air, “being out in front of the plane” – staying totally aware of the surrounding environment.
"Back in college, Keady would look at me and say to the team 'Think ahead; fly a jet,'” Jones said, and to this day the lessons he learned on the basketball court and in the Air Force help him to be a better pilot.
Rouley says Jones is a great teammate and leader not only to his fellow pilots and coworkers but to his passengers as well. Jones consistently makes time, even in the most hectic of flight schedules, to greet his guests, reassure nervous fliers as they board, and teach excited kids about how cool the MD-80 airliner is.
As with any pilot, Jones has had his share of in-flight emergencies. He recalls one time while flying for American when his plane experienced a sudden and complete failure in one of the engines. Staying calm in a potential life or death situation, he kept a cool head and successfully piloted the plane to a safe landing with only one functioning engine.
Recalling the incident, Jones said unexpected or bad things can happen at any time and “it’s how you bounce back that matters.”
A highlight of Jones' commercial aviation career came in 2008 when American Airlines selected him to transport then president-elect Obama from Chicago to Washington D.C. to meet with President George W. Bush. Obama thanked him with a handshake on the exit ramp after they landed.
“It was quite an experience because I had no idea what all goes into transporting a president,” he said with a chuckle. With the president’s security at stake, Tony recalled seeing “more ammunition and guns” than he ever had seen on a plane including his Air Force days.
Besides the fire power, the biggest thing that stood out to Jones was the importance his flight was given.
“The air traffic controllers knew who we were, who was on board, and so we got everything we asked for,” he said. “As we were getting ready to take off there was a plane getting ready to land. The controllers made them go around because we were ready to take off. We definitely had priority.”
For someone who has spent the last 20 years in the air, Jones remains remarkably well grounded. He is currently a First Officer for American Airlines and lives with his wife and two kids in Algonquin, Illinois. Those who know him say Jones is not only a wonderful dad but an active member of his community – always willing to volunteer or help coach youth basketball despite his busy piloting schedule.
“I feel fortunate and blessed to be able to have been a student-athlete,” he said, “not everybody gets a chance to experience that and I did.” Tony tells young people to set lofty individual goals and to seek out and listen to others who have lived their dream.
“Every experience I’ve had has been like small puzzle pieces shaping me every step of the way,” he said. The trick he says is to learn from every experience – the pieces we assemble in the puzzle called life.