KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Not long after the heartbreak set in, Thomas Jones looks angry. Reporters are crowding Jamaal Charles as he is trying to change clothes, and Jones doesn't like it.
He looks in Charles' direction, a few locker stalls to his right, trying to hurry his feet into pants legs in the visitors' locker room at Houston's Reliant Stadium. The Chiefs lost to the Texans, and there's not much more to say than that the Chiefs blew it.
"Come on!" Jones barks at the group circling Charles, and it backs away long enough for Charles to finish dressing, take a breath and head toward a bus. Jones shakes his head. He doesn't mean to come off as brusque, but protecting Charles is part of Jones' job.
"I look at him kind of like my little brother," Jones says during a calmer moment, and he admits that sometimes means showing his teeth.
Charles is a young running back, and because of that, he needs guidance. He needed it his first two seasons, but for the first time, Charles has a mentor who's here in part to look out for him, to teach him, to help him swat away distractions.
Coach Todd Haley says it's a sign that the 53 men who play for the Chiefs are becoming a team. Veterans are willing to show the youngsters the way, and the Chiefs' young players aren't shy about challenging their elders for playing time — and to remind them that this is a game, after all.
Jones says Charles can benefit from a veteran's wisdom, and if he's honest, Jones can benefit from having Charles around, too. Jones is nine years older than Charles; more weathered and intense than the jovial youngster. Jones has been in the NFL for more than a decade, and the league's cutthroat culture can harden a man.
Charles notices Jones' granite expression sometimes, and that it's about the time for a joke or an impression. Sure enough, Jones cracks a smile.
"I have a tendency to be serious. A lot of times, I might have my game face on," Jones says. "You can't be too serious or too aggressive, because then you take the fun out of it."
Jones invites Charles to tag along on trips, teaches him how to spot someone trying to take advantage of him, and gives the shy kid tips on how to get a woman's attention. Charles provides a listening ear and reminds Jones what it was once like — when he was the talented student, a veteran his teacher.
Haley admits that neither player has to indulge the other. Jones could ignore Charles. Charles could resent Jones.
Instead, this is how Jones sees it:
"Seeing a guy like Jamaal," he says, "who has great ability and has potential to be one of the best backs in this league, I feel like it's my obligation to give him whatever information I've got and help him in whatever way I can.
"It's just the right thing to do."
Two years ago, things were different. Charles was a rookie running back, and there was an established veteran whose things hung in the next locker.
Larry Johnson had plenty to teach, but he preferred to keep to himself; to view teammates as co-workers who he'd see for a few hours a day. Nothing more.
"I was just another guy," Charles says now. "Another backup."
The problem was that the running backs weren't the only players who felt stranded. The Chiefs were rebuilding, and coach Herm Edwards vowed to flood his team with youngsters. They would be the core someday, and even if they were learning things the hard way, at least they were learning.
During that season, most veterans focused on personal goals. Rookies foundered without direction; only a handful, such as left tackle Branden Albert, found a willing mentor in a locker room divided by age, failure and growing bitterness.
The Chiefs went 2-14 that season, and they again started over. Edwards was fired, and Haley was brought in. The Chiefs' new direction still centered on young players, but coaches believed that even the most gifted greenhorns needed direction. The Chiefs brought in linebacker Mike Vrabel, then acquired wide receiver Chris Chambers. The team flushed out players who didn't fit its profile; in locker room currency, leadership was worth more than ability.
Haley had been part of teams that turned sour — when players preferred to stay on their own islands instead of being part of a small but important community. It wasn't something that Haley planned to build around.
"You know it's not right," he says. "Anybody that's been part of a team, there's a difference. You feel it. You know it, and you know that it's got to change for you to have a chance to be good at whatever you're doing."
Johnson was one of the last to go. His skills, regardless of how they'd dulled, were difficult to ignore. He was released about a year ago, and Charles became the starter.
Charles' life became more high-profile, his career more interesting. Still, he was undergoing these changes on his own. Until March 9, anyway, when the Chiefs announced they had signed a veteran running back named Thomas Jones.
Seven months later, Charles says things are far different than they were two years ago.
"I needed that," he says.
Jones had an idea. The Chiefs' open date was approaching, and he was planning to visit friends in New York. Stay in Times Square. Maybe go shopping.
He had gotten to know Charles in the months since he'd arrived in Kansas City, and he noticed a talented young rusher and a promising young man who was, until this point, going it alone.
Jones knew the feeling. When he was a rookie with Arizona in 2000, the Cardinals were a mess. Jones had been the No. 7 overall pick, and Michael Pittman had every reason to ignore the first-year rusher who was there to take his job. Instead, Pittman defied the team's direction, finding the rookie one day and promising to teach him a few things about his new life.
"They tried to build it up as a competition. We didn't look at it like that," Jones says. "We looked at it as two guys who were trying to make plays. We ended up having a great relationship, and I ended up gaining a new friend in the process."
A decade later, Jones invited Charles to join him in New York. He'd introduce Charles to some good people that Jones had met when he played for the Jets, and they'd learn about each other. Charles is an eager youngster whose late grandparents helped raise him. Jones is a careful veteran who's the son of two coal miners, and he has spent the past 10 years with five teams, traded twice and released last spring by the Jets.
For one weekend, the Chiefs' running backs ducked into stores that sell jeans and hats, stopping to grab dinner, and realizing that they weren't so different, after all. Charles helped Jones realize that there's plenty to laugh about in the world, and Jones taught Charles a few things, too.
"I never really learned how to talk to a woman but my momma," Charles says with a laugh. "He's been through that.
"He talks with wisdom. This guy knows a lot of stuff."
When they returned, they were re-energized and part of a locker room that is relying more on these kinds of relationships. Haley has said that good teams are filled with veteran players who don't concern themselves with who's trying to take their jobs — as long as the group is improving.
Two years after the Chiefs' locker room was a desolate, lonely place, there are now many examples of brotherhood; of veterans showing the youngsters how things are, and how they should someday be.
Brian Waters has maintained a three-year bond with Albert. Chambers speaks often with Dwayne Bowe. Vrabel rarely lets a practice go by without sharing tips with Andy Studebaker or Tyson Jackson. Jon McGraw has no problem imparting his wisdom with the Chiefs' rookie safeties, Kendrick Lewis and Eric Berry, and they have no problem listening.
"You've got a veteran leader at every position," Lewis says. "Showing us the way, showing us how things go."
On the opposite side of the locker room, Charles sits on a stool in front of his stall. Jones' name comes up, and so does the subject of the running backs' trip to New York. Charles smiles, and then he makes a confession.
"If I didn't have him in my career, I probably wouldn't work as hard," he says. "It's different now. We're trying to win around here now. People who are all-in, that's what we're going for."
Two men, different as they are, sit together in a room near the Chiefs' locker room. Jones sits upright and speaks about how Charles keeps him laughing. To his right, Charles slouches and tries to keep a mostly empty sub sandwich wrapper, a soda bottle, and his cell phone in order on his lap.
"There's more to life than just football," Jones says. "That's one good thing about being on a team: you get to connect with guys in different ways."
Charles admits that he laughs at a lot of things, but one thing that makes him chuckle most often is the notion that he should dislike Jones because Charles isn't the Chiefs' featured running back. Jones has 13 more carries this season and 82 fewer yards, and that bothers some outsiders.
Charles says that those observers simply don't understand: He and Jones a package deal now, and that's a good thing for the Chiefs — especially when they combine to rush for 193 yards as Jones and Charles did last week in Houston. The Chiefs rank first in the NFL in rush offense, averaging 164.6 yards per game.
"You've got two running backs who started last year and ran for a thousand (yards)," he says. "Why can't you do it again? Why can't we be the best backs in the league? Why can't we be the No. 1 team in rushing?
"That's how we look at it."
On this day, there's a meeting upstairs about to start, and Jones is getting antsy. Their conversation finishes, and Jones and Charles stand to leave. Charles gathers his cargo, and the men head together down a hallway. Jones looks serious, his shoulders back, an intense expression on his face. Charles' eyes are pointed toward his phone as he strolls, and, reading something, he issues a high-pitched chuckle that doesn't seem to strike Jones as unusual.
"I learn a lot from him, as well," he says.
Then they turn the corner, out of sight, an unlikely pair walking together, as brothers sometimes do.