Randy Hollis, Deseret News
Editor's note: This is the third of an occasional series spotlighting former athletes with ties to the state of Utah.
FIRTH, Idaho — Rulon Jones is, both literally and figuratively, about as far away from the National Football League as a guy could get.
These days, the former Utah State star who went on to become an All-Pro defensive end for the Denver Broncos almost 30 years ago can be found living a comfortable but far-from-luxurious existence in the shadows of the Blackfoot Mountains.
His large, lodge-like home is nestled in the foothills where his 10,000-acre Broadmouth Canyon Ranch — one of three such hunting ranches the Utah native owns — is located, several dirt-road miles east of this tiny Idaho outpost.
Indeed, Firth is a quiet, sleeply little place whose population — 477, according to the 2010 census — would've surely made it a candidate to earn a special salute from the TV show "Hee-Haw" back in the day. Technically, it's about an hour southeast of Idaho Falls and a few miles northeast of Blackfoot.
As for Broadmouth Canyon Ranch, well, you might never find it using MapQuest, so maybe the best directions on how to get there would be to simply go to the middle of nowhere and turn right.
But for the last seven years, this has been home for Jones, his wife Kathy and their 16-year-old special needs son Parker, the youngest of six children they've raised together during a marriage that will celebrate its 37th anniversary in September.
"We like our privacy," said the 56-year-old Jones, whose nearest neighbor — if you could call 'em that — might be more than 10 miles away. "We're pretty much off the grid up here.
"We had our ranch down there in Utah in the Ogden Valley, but after the Olympics that area started to populate a little bit more and people kinda found out about that Ogden Valley. We could see that it was getting too many people so we started looking. And gosh, we looked a lot and it's hard to find ranches with this view like we have down the bottom here with the pines and everything.
"A friend of mine just happened to tell me about it," Jones said. "He had a helicopter and flew me up here and we looked at it and it was like, 'Hey, that's the spot' for what we wanted to do. But it was a long process and we looked for a long time."
Since then, Jones has also opened a taxidermy business that employs three full-time employees who can do everything from head mounts to full-body mounts of big-game animals that are killed during the hunts, as well as a butcher shop in Firth to help process and package the meat that is harvested.
"We can take care of everything in-house now," Jones said. "It's been easier to just handle all of it ourselves."
Perhaps it should be no surprise that running a hunting ranch — or three of them — is something Jones would wind up doing. After all, as a boy, he grew up an avid outdoorsman with plenty of places to hike, hunt and fish, and plenty of wild game animals to pursue in the picturesque countryside of Liberty, Utah.
"That was always in my blood — the hunting," Jones said.
Yes, it definitely was. After all, his father, Larry, who will turn 88 years old in October, was a legendary bow hunter and well-known wildlife cinematographer whose films were shown at schools throughout northern Utah for many years.
Rulon's parents got divorced when he was in high school and, after living for a short time with his mother, Betty, who is now deceased, Jones returned to his Ogden Valley roots as a teenager. He became a multisport athlete at Weber High in Pleasant View, where he played football, basketball and participated in track and field before graduating in 1976.
But for this big outdoor enthusiast, football became his ticket to a big-time collegiate and pro career.
A STAR IS BORN
"I was lucky," Jones, who in his prime stretched a muscular 260 pounds over a long, lean 6-foot-6 frame, said of the way his gridiron career blossomed. "I remember I got there at Utah State and they threw me in as a freshman. I actually started as a freshman, and I really was uncoached. I only played a couple years in high school, but I broke my arm my first year so I really only had two years of high school football in high school.
"Then I got to college and they didn't really have a very good defensive line coach. And they threw me in there and I was getting my butt kicked; I was just getting killed. Plus I was light, I reported (to USU) at like 207 pounds — 6-6 and 207 pounds, yeah, I was skinny — and luckily they had a guy by the name of Rod Marinelli who was a grad assistant, and he got the D-line coaching job my junior year. And that guy made me — you know, he was amazing.
"For me, he was perfect for my personality," Jones said. "I was just so unmanaged, really. I came from a divorced family and was just undisciplined and had no coaching. So he helped me not only my personality but my football. He'd been a drill sergeant in Vietnam, and he just drilled you. And that's exactly what I needed. He just really pretty much molded me, and he really did a great job.
"It's luck; there's a lot of luck involved. I mean, you have to have the personality and the talent and all that, but you've gotta have that guidance, and for me, I had to have that coaching. He really did it for me."
Jones met the woman who would become his wife, the former Kathy Larsen of Logan, during their freshman year at Utah State, and they got married when they were just 19 years old.
After the Aggies endured losing seasons during his freshman (3-8) and sophomore (4-7) seasons, they went 7-4 in 1978 and 7-3 during his senior season of 1979. They also shared a pair of Pacific Coast Athletic Association titles during his last two years in Logan, going 4-1 in 1978 and 4-0 in '79 under head coach Bruce Snyder.
Jones was a two-time, first-team all-conference selection in 1978 and '79, led the team tackles in 1978, and was named the PCAA Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-American by the Sporting News in 1979, when he was also selected a second-team All-American by the Newspaper Enterprise of America.
Jones represented the Aggies in both the East-West Shrine game and Senior Bowl in January 1980, and later that year he was selected in the second round of the NFL draft by the Broncos, who took him with the 42nd overall pick.
9 YEARS WITH BRONCOS
Jones spent his entire nine-year NFL career in Denver, where he was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1986, was a two-time Pro Bowl selection (1985 and '86) and helped lead the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in the 1986 and '87 seasons, losing to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, respectively.
He retired from football following the 1988 season at the ripe old age of 30 after playing in 129 NFL games — he started in 99 of them — and piling up 52 1/2 official quarterback sacks, plus 21 more in his first two NFL seasons before sacks became an official statistic in 1982. He also had 10 fumble recoveries, three safeties and realized every D-lineman's dream by scoring a touchdown during the 1984 season.
"It's funny," Jones said. "(The late, great USU legend) Merlin Olsen asked me right after I retired. He said, you know, 'How ya doin?' And I said, 'Fine.' I was ready to retire. I had scoped my knee and it just didn't come around and I don't know, I felt like I was getting old.
"I think I was probably rehabbing too hard because I remember down in our ranch in Utah, I was chasing cows and it was swollen in my knee and I couldn't even hardly walk on a side hill. And then literally about two months later, I felt great again. And looking back, you know, they scoped it and I think I really was just rehabbing so hard, it just needed rest."
By then, though, the time had come for him to learn how to go back to being Rulon Jones the "normal person" again and not Rulon Jones "the football star." It was not an easy transition. For most pro athletes, it never is.
"At first, before I got busy into the hunts, it was a little hard, honestly. That's kinda when it was a little funky to watch football," Jones admitted. "It's weird; they even have a name for it — post-football syndrome. Now you've heard so much about the brain injuries and all that. But the thing that I think more than anything is, you've been this thing — I even see it with missionaries — they're a missionary for two years, that's their identity. And then they go home and then they wonder, 'Who am I?' They have this identity for that amount of time.
"And then compound that it's so much longer for a football player. It's a little weird. You're just wondering 'Who am I? And luckily for me, I was a member of the (LDS) Church, and that helps give you some base, along with your family. But you look at the statistics — divorce, drugs, alcohol addiction, bankruptcy, all that — it's really pretty crazy.
"And then there's the adrenaline," he said. "I was talking to Merlin (Olsen) about that, and it's not just the adrenaline you miss but the emotion. Life is really, you know, you don't go up and down that much. But when you're playing football, literally you can be high one second and down the next. Just that, I think, that's a little addictive, too — the swing of emotion in your life. Even in the bad times, you're being evaluated every second and the emotion that causes, and you really kinda crave that after awhile.
"Like I say, it's the lows, too — one minute you're a hero, and the next minute you can be the goat. So it's really all of that. And then you get into your (regular) life and you don't have a lot of that stuff. I think that's a little hard for guys, too, and it was hard for me. That's why I didn't really watch football at first. It doesn't bother me now."
Because it was hard to watch football games on TV at first — seeing guys who were still playing that he had faced during his career — he got out of the habit of watching NFL games and doesn't keep close tabs on the league that much anymore, although he did watch the Broncos' disastrous defeat in this year's Super Bowl.
"That was painful," he said. "I try to keep track of the guys. John (Elway, Denver's star quarterback when Jones was playing for the Broncos) is in the front office, but I kinda lost track of a lot of the guys."
Jones is well-aware of all the bad publicity that football and the NFL have received in recent years. Last year, the league agreed to pay untold millions to former players who have suffered the devastating, often tragic effects of concussions.
And more recently, one of Jones' contemporaries, former BYU and Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, was part of another lawsuit alleging the rampant and dangerous use of painkillers by NFL teams in the 1970s and '80s.
"I had a couple of concussions," Jones said. "The receivers and running backs get more of them, but I got a couple good dings in my career. You get upfield too far and you know a trap's coming and you turn and take a guy on head to head.
"I honestly don't know, with all the lawsuits and that, how football can continue, because it is really violent. And you know they're trying to do so many things to make the game safer, but you just can't. I don't see how you can protect yourself, really."
Jones did not jump on the former players' bandwagon regarding the concussion syndrome lawsuit.
"They sent me a lot of the forms on that," he said. "Sure, I had a couple concussions, but I think I'm doing great. I mean, I'm pretty dumb anyway. But I don't have that good of a memory of a lot of stuff like some people do." As to the use of steroids and painkillers, Jones feels like he dodged a bullet in that regard.
"We were in that era," he said. "When we first got into the league, the illegal drugs were very prevalent — steroids and painkillers. And I remember it was probably about 1983 or '84 they started drug testing. And that's when, I think it was probably two years later, they said, 'Now we know everybody that's on steroids.' When I first went there (to the NFL), I mean, teams were giving out steroids.
"But we were lucky in Denver. We had a guy named Stan Jones who was our weight coach, and he was one of the pioneers of weightlifting. He was an offensive and defensive lineman back in the day, but he'd been around steroids and he really didn't believe in 'em. And then with my church background and all that, I didn't really get involved in it. But it seemed like all those guys — I had roommates that were shooting a lot of steroids, huge guys — who were into it."
In fact, the defensive lineman who Jones replaced in Denver, Lyle Alzado, later blamed the use of steroids on what became a brain tumor that ended his life.
A DIFFERENCE MAKER
Jones started his NFL career strongly, enjoying a great rookie season and a solid second season as well. But in his third year in Denver, he sustained a knee injury that brought him to a career crossroads. And that's when Coach Marinelli stepped in to offer vital encouragement again.
"I had a really good first season, a good second year, and I made alternate All-Pro my second year and everybody said this guy, he's got to be All-Pro," Jones recalled. "But then I blew my knee out against the Raiders and it was my posterior cruciate, and they don't repair those. It was all about sacks, all about numbers, and I was saying that third year, 'Hey, this is my year.' And I started out really good and had four or five sacks the first few games, so after the injury, it was all about getting back and playing again.
"They put me on I.R. (injured reserve) for four weeks and I came back and had a brace on it, and I came back too soon. There's no way I should've been playing; I got my butt kicked all year that year.
"The next season ... I just wasn't having a good year, and there was a lot of emotional stuff going on," Jones said. "You've got to believe, 'Hey, I am the best guy out there and I'll beat anybody.' That's the frame of mind you've got to be in, and I was losing that. And there was an article in The Denver Post. I can't remember what it said, but basically I was saying, 'I don't know if my knee's good, I don't know this and that,' and I just questioned myself. And somebody must've sent it to Rod Marinelli.
"And he sent it back to me and he had crossed through stuff and crossed out one of my quotes and said 'B.S., you know you're better than that!' And it really helped me; it turned me around. I didn't make All-Pro that year but the next year, I think I made the Pro Bowl. So he was very instrumental in my life, not only when I was playing for him but afterwards, too. He's one of the best, hardest-working guys you'll ever meet."
Along with Marinelli, who has been an NFL head coach and is now the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, Jones credits his high school basketball coach, the late Dick Conolly, for making a huge difference during his formative years.
"The two guys that really got me where I was were Dick Conolly and Rod Marinelli," Jones said. "Dick Conolly was awesome; he was perfect for me. He was too tough on a lot of guys, but that's what I needed. Dick was like Marinelli; he kinda took me under his wing for whatever reason, I don't know, but him and Marinelli were huge in my life."
And it was his high school football coach, the late Jerry Coggins, who convinced Jones he should play college football at Utah State — even though Coggins himself had played at the University of Utah.
It was instrumental people like that who helped put Jones on the path toward a football career filled with plenty of awards and honors.
In 1993, Jones was named to Utah State's all-century team — one of only 24 former Aggie players selected, joining the likes of Beehive State sports legends Olsen and LaVell Edwards, along with fellow longtime NFL players such as Len Rohde, Eric Hipple, Lionel Aldridge, Greg Kragen, Phil Olsen, Jim Hough, Hal Garner, Al Smith, Patrick Allen and Louie Giammona.
In 1994, Jones was elected to the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2007, he was inducted into Utah State University's Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame.
BACK AT THE RANCH
Since retiring from football more than 25 years ago, Jones hasn't paid too much attention to the game that made him famous.
Sure, he keeps some of his favorite football memorabilia from his glory days on hand in his office at home, but football season happens to coincide with what has long since become his busiest (and favorite) time of the year — hunting season.
And what with a large hunting ranch in Utah that he purchased during his NFL playing days, another one in Idaho that he purchased nine years ago, and a 90,000-acre hunting ranch in Mexico he bought last year, he's more than got his hands full.
Several years ago, he got involved in a well-publicized dispute with property owners and hunters who filed a lawsuit claiming that Weber County Commissioners had given Jones far too sweet of a deal on the land where his Utah ranch is located. He's also run into hassles from other land owners who charged him with poaching animals off their property.
But none of that has deterred him from his preferred lifestyle as an avid hunter who loves the great outdoors.
At his ranch in Idaho, hunters can go after deer, elk, moose, buffalo and bear, and there are several options to choose from. They can stay in the hunting lodge located up in the pines overlooking the Tetons, or they can "rough it" a little bit by staying at the spike camp. They can hunt using the weapon of their choice — rifle, bow and arrow, or muzzleloader — and they have the choice of traveling by foot, horseback or ATV. They can hunt in the 5,000-acre high-fence area or hunt on the 5,000-acre free range. For a base fee of $5,900, they'll get a guided five-day hunt in which results of getting an elk are guaranteed. After all, he estimates there are around 1,000 head of elk on the Idaho spread.
And at the ranch in Mexico, hunters have an opportunity to bag a desert bighorn sheep, mule and whitetail deer, or exotic animals.
Among his more famous clients is none other than Utah's favorite Mailman, former Utah Jazz superstar Karl Malone.
"Karl's been up here and hunted with me quite a bit," Jones said. "Karl's a good friend, and his wife is from Idaho.
"He shot a moose while hunting with me, and we sent his brother-in-law down to go get some guys to help us get this moose out. We had about a mile to get him out, and by the time those guys got back in an hour, we had it packed out on our backs.
"That guy's an animal," he said of Malone. "He's heavy enough that you'd put a 200-pound quarter on him and it didn't bother him. That's one thing he really enjoyed when he was playing was to come up (to Jones' ranch in Liberty) and get his workout in on the mountain."
KIDS, GRANDKIDS AND COACHING
In addition to Parker, Rulon and Kathy have raised four other sons — Garet, Dalton, Chase and Hayden — who all played football at Rulon's alma mater, Weber High, but none of them inherited the great size, strength and ability that their dad possessed. Their only daughter, Lauren, was also an athlete and played basketball at the College of Eastern Utah.
"They were all good athletes, and all the boys were about 6 foot 2," Jones said of his sons. "But Lauren's 5-11 and she was probably my best athlete."
In all, Rulon and Kathy have 13 grandchildren.
He's been pleased to see Utah State's program enjoy a resurgence over the last few years, but he admits "I haven't been as true of an Aggie as I probably should be."
As far as possibly having a future in football someday, Jones isn't the least bit interested.
"People have asked me about coaching, and I say 'No, no, no,'" he said. "There's no way."
After all, he's mighty content just living the good life on his ranch in Idaho — about as far away from football as a guy could get.
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