Notre Dame senior wide receiver TJ Jones enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience earlier this month when he had the chance to swim with sharks at The Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

Swimming With Sharks

July 24, 2013

by Joshua Dempsey, Media Relations Student Assistant (’16)

Notre Dame star wide receiver TJ Jones could not be found in the weight room, on the practice field or in his dorm room. During most weekend summers at Notre Dame, Jones would be on campus hanging out with his teammates.

But two weeks ago, Jones was boarding a crack-of-dawn flight bound for Tampa, Fla., to spend some time away from campus in a very unique way. He was not going there to soak up sun and admire beachgoers; he was there to strap on a wet suit and dive into a tank full of sharks as part of the weekend-long job shadowing venture that Jones participated in at The Florida Aquarium.

Ask any elementary school student what they want to be when they grow up and I can guarantee you will get some interesting responses. Topping the list will be energetic responses of “firefighter!” and “policeman!” sprinkled with the occasional shout of “astronaut” and “pilot”.

Now, go back to those same students 15 years later and ask them what they are actually doing for a living. It’s very likely that most, if not all, will have gone on to pursue different careers than what they listed off to their teacher in a third grade classroom, understanding that their original choice was just a whim and fleeting goal at that time in their life.

Jones is not like “most” students. If his elementary school teacher had asked him one day what he wanted to be when he grew up, you’d be surprised to hear him say something other than “a football player.” If you caught 10-year-old TJ the day after his family vacation down to SeaWorld, he probably wouldn’t be able to decide what to tell his teacher. He would have likely become tongue-tied trying to say “diver,” “marine biologist,” and “marine animal trainer” all at once.

The trip was one which has stuck with Jones to this day. Sure, the excitement of a trip to SeaWorld and the subsequent aspirations to work in marine life and aquatics may have been dulled as Jones grew up, but it never disappeared.

As any kid with a prolific talent might, Jones devoted time in high school to honing his skills as a wide receiver. Obviously not being the biggest guy on the field, Jones’ time and effort must have been given to hours of practice and weight training — football and a college education being the prominent idea on most star players’ minds. By his senior year of high school, Jones was considered to be one of the top 20 wide receivers in the nation and was Notre Dame-bound.

College is a big turning point in most people’s lives. In high school, the goal is acceptance into college — it is the finish line and the finale of four years spent in high school classrooms.

The end goal of college? The rest of your life.

Jones picked up on this quickly. Although he had wanted to study something along the lines of marine biology, it would have been difficult to tailor a schedule to exactly fit his interests. Seeing this, Jones, now a film, television, and theatre major in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, decided that sports broadcasting might be the best option to pursue.

“I’ve always had an interest in aquatics, but decided to put it to the side because there wasn’t a degree here for it,” Jones says. “Instead, I decided I would try to step into the broadcast world.”

Although taking classes to prepare him for a career in broadcasting, Jones was unable to shake his lifelong interest in aquatic biology and marine life.

“I don’t know when my mind changed, but I decided to contact Reggie Brooks, the manager of football alumni relations for the Notre Dame Monogram Club (and a former All-America running back for the Fighting Irish), to see if we had any connections in the aquatics and marine life field,” Jones recalled.

Brooks was able to get Jones in touch with Casey Coy, the director of dive operations at The Florida Aquarium, and forwarded Jones his contact information. Jones did not need any goading to make the phone call to Coy; he was extremely proactive throughout the entire process and took matters into his own hands. This was not just a publicity stunt; it was a true passion for Jones.

All suited up, Jones (left) and one of his fellow divers get set to enter the shark tank at The Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

The day began with Jones arriving at the aquarium early to become acquainted with the diving suits and apparatuses that he and the divers he was shadowing would be utilizing later in the day. Next came a condensed lesson on the sharks that Jones would be sharing a tank with. This involved a short history of sharks, as well as some basic anatomy and psychology of them. Just like a linebacker might be looking to take Jones’ head off on the field, an ill-tempered and agitated shark might wish to do the same, so it was quite useful to study his opponent’s game plan and understand how he thinks. Finally, it was time to suit up and dive in.

Jones has been in countless stressful situations throughout his football career, but none could prepare him for diving into a tank full of sharks. Let it be known that the only other “diving” experience Jones had prior to this was a short snorkeling excursion done in the spring of his sophomore year of college. Despite this lack of experience, Jones kept his cool and simply performed.

“I wasn’t anxious at all; I was actually pretty calm. I was more ready to soak up the atmosphere and the experience. I really had no worries or anxieties at all,” Jones noted.

So what was Jones’ biggest fear before plunging into a tank full of aquatic carnivores?

“I just hoped the water wasn’t too cold,” Jones said with a laugh.

The trip was also quite an educational one for Jones.

“Being inside the tank, you get to see the aquarium from very different perspectives. You get to see up close and in real life the way that sharks, fish, eels, and turtles all interact with one another. You get to see that sharks aren’t really as ferocious and violent as everyone thinks. You leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone,” Jones explained.

Since the experience was a lifelong passion for Jones, he obviously couldn’t keep from having some fun with it.

“Kids were outside the tank saying, `Is he going to get bit?’ and asking why I was in there. You can’t hear that being in the water, but it’s a form of entertainment for me because you’re doing something that they could never see themselves doing,” Jones recalled.

Even if Jones does end up with a career in the National Football League, it does not mean that he will have to give up diving and his interest in marine life. Jones will have the opportunity to volunteer there during the offseason and balance his time with an NFL schedule. Being there during the offseason would allow Jones to get more and more dives in which would help him reach the necessary number of dives to become a Divemaster — essentially, a professional diver.

Jones’ story is really a testament to the alumni network that Notre Dame has established throughout the years. Just because the curriculum he deeply desired to pursue was not offered during the academic year, it did not mean that his dreams had to be squandered. All it took was his reaching out to Brooks to find the right connection.

It does not always have to be an alum who contributes to the networking process; It can be families and benefactors who have ties with the school. In Jones’ case, it was Coy who helped Jones get his job shadow opportunity. Coy was not an alum, but rather just a tremendous Notre Dame fan. This speaks volumes about what Notre Dame means to people around the country, and the opportunities it creates for students of the university.

Jones’ special weekend shows that you can always hang on to that third-grade dreamer inside you — because those dreams can be realized one day. On the gridiron, or in the shark tank, TJ Jones has one bright future ahead of him.

— ND —