PIKEVILLE — Kansas City Chiefs running back Thomas Jones grew up just across the state line in Big Stone Gap, Va., the son of two coal miners, and he remembers the lure of abandoned quarries and mines during his free-roaming summers. He also remembers some near-misses.
His flashlight went out once while he was exploring an underground mine shaft with his brother and friends.
"I was blessed enough to come out alive, but a lot of kids aren't," Jones said Friday in a conference call with reporters as he helped the Mine Safety and Health Administration kick off a summer "Stay Out, Stay Alive" campaign to keep kids away from mines and quarries.
"One of my brother's friends was on an ATV and fell in an abandoned mine shaft, and luckily he survived," but he had to have reconstructive surgery, Jones said.
Several dozen people die while trespassing on mine lands each year, mostly on abandoned or idle land that they might not know is dangerous. Most of the deaths are drownings, such as in quarry ponds or underground pools. Assistant U.S. Labor Secretary Joe Main, MSHA's chief, said nine of 10 fatalities are to males, and most are ages 15 to 25.
In small rural towns, "You have to find your own fun, and to us those were fun things to do. But we didn't realize how dangerous it was," Jones said.
He has recorded public service announcements, and he plans to visit schools to speak to children about safety.
His mother, Betty Jones, worked as an underground coal miner for 19 years starting in 1978, and his father, Thomas A. Jones, worked for a year underground. The couple still live in Big Stone Gap, where they raised seven children.
"It's a great living, hard work. We never wanted our children to go in the coal mines," Betty Jones said Friday.
Thomas Jones said he is proud to help a cause that is close to his heart, even if it's not so glamorous: "I was the only guy on my college football team and my NFL teams that was the son of a coal miner. It's built the character that I have and made me a humble person and a hard worker."
Said his father: "We're just so proud of him."