This is a feature in Issue 15 of Sounders Monthly. Copies are available for free at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App.
Eight years after he left the NFL, Walter Jones still spends many a weekend at CenturyLink Field, the very same building where he wrote his legend.
These days, however, Jones isn’t the one making history. He’s documenting it in one of the more unlikely forays into the world of sideline sports photography one is ever likely to see.
In a different era, before he ever picked up a camera, Jones patrolled NFL fields for the Seattle Seahawks for 12 seasons, becoming arguably the most dominant offensive lineman that has ever played professional football.
Anyone who has followed Seattle sports at even a cursory level over the past couple of decades already knows this, of course, but the credentials are worth rehashing: Jones is a nine-time Pro Bowler, four-time First-Team All-Pro and first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. At a towering 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, he’s widely considered the most technically gifted, fundamentally sound offensive lineman to ever put on pads. Former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren once called him the best offensive player he’s ever coached, and the few numbers that can be used to measure the performance of an offensive lineman illustrate that: Over his 180 career games from 1997-2009, Jones allowed just 23 sacks and, perhaps most incredibly, was called for a holding penalty just nine times.
Jones will always be a legend around these parts. It’s why he’s stuck around and still calls Seattle home, even after he retired in 2010 at age 36. The Alabama native and Florida State University product didn’t necessarily have anything tying him down. He isn’t from the area and had enough money to go anywhere he wanted. But, truthfully, Jones can’t picture himself anywhere else.
“I’ve been here for 20 years, man,” Jones said. “I think the cool thing about it is I’ve made friends so this is my home. I’ve got good people around me everywhere. For me to leave here would be crazy.”
Walter Jones shoots at a recent Sounders match at CenturyLink Field | Robert Bunn
It’s a hot Monday morning in July at the Glendale Country Club in Bellevue, where former Seahawks defensive end Jacob Green is hosting his annual charity golf tournament. Green puts it on every year to raise money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and events such as these comprise a good portion of Jones’ schedule. On this day, there’s a lengthy, star-studded cast of characters on hand, including Major League Baseball legend Vida Blue, Seahawks broadcaster Steve Raible and former NFL lineman Sean Locklear, who played alongside Jones on the Seahawks team that made the Super Bowl in 2005.
As Jones walks past the Glendale clubhouse toward the nearby Seahawks-themed bus that’s been renovated into a mobile bar, it’s obvious he still carries a different type of aura, even in retirement. He can’t go 10 feet without someone stopping to say hello.
At one point, current Seahawks offensive lineman Germain Ifedi arrives and immediately makes a point of acknowledging his legendary predecessor. Seahawks training camp is just a couple weeks out, and Ifedi will need to be a major cog in the offensive line Jones once anchored if the team plans on making the playoffs.
“You ready for camp?” Jones asks as they slap hands and embrace.
“Yessir,” Ifedi replies.
The whole scene is an apt of illustration of the niche that Jones has found in retirement. Watching him interact with the crowd at Glendale, it’s not hard to see why this life is decidedly less stressful than one of an NFL player.
“When I stopped playing, I was trying to continue to find my own peace,” he explained. “A lot of people, they say, ‘Oh, that’s all they know is football. That’s what they live on.’ To put that into perspective, I always wanted to go out there and play well, but I also tried to surround myself with people who weren’t all about what I was doing on the field and just wanted to be my friend.
“That transition was pretty easy for me when I decided to retire,” he continued. “The NFL and the Seahawks have definitely blessed me to be in a situation where I didn’t have to go out looking for a job. I tried to be pretty smart with my money.”
One of Walter Jones’ photos from the Sounders’ match against the Portland Timbers on June 30
Still, charity events and public appearances only take up so many hours of the week. For retired athletes who struggle with the loss of the main thing that has offered them structure and a defined purpose since childhood, finding ways to fill that sudden void is critical. As at peace as Jones seems without football, he’s also no different in that respect.
Photography may not have been the most obvious way to go about filling Jones’ time. By his own admission, he had virtually no experience, aside from taking pictures of his kids while they were growing up and on family vacations. But as he drifted further and further away from his playing days and continued to keep tabs on the local sports scene in Seattle, he was struck by an idea.
Around the same time Jones retired from the NFL, the Seattle Sounders burst onto the scene as one of the biggest spectacles in Major League Soccer.
“I think the craziest thing I’ve ever seen is how fast [soccer players] react to offense and defense at the same time.” — Walter Jones
The MLS iteration of the franchise launched in 2009 and turned heads immediately, with sold out crowds and electric atmospheres at their home matches, where they share CenturyLink Field with the Seahawks, that rival those that can be found in any of the top leagues overseas.
The city embraced the team heartily and on-field success followed. The Sounders weren’t just packing the seats, they were winning games while they did it. The support and the culture the organization had managed to establish in such a short time piqued Jones’ interest.
“I think it’s cool because what happened is, once you win, they always say winning solves everything,” he recalled of his impressions of the Sounders’ MLS beginnings. “They already had a great fan base. It’s a matter of just winning. You always have to prove yourself here. If you win, though, they’ve got to come.”
Jones was also intrigued by the sport itself. He recalled the first Sounders practice he attended at Seattle’s training facility at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, the day before they were set to play an MLS match. For football players, the day before games are what Jones calls, ‘a mental day.’ But watching the Sounders practice, he immediately noted the level of intensity, even one day out from a game, as well as a level of athleticism and physicality that he could only truly appreciate once he saw it up close.
Walter Jones shooting on the sidelines | Robert Bunn
“To see them competing at that level the day before a game — I’m talking about very intense,” Jones said. “Everybody’s competing. For me, I think that’s pretty awesome. But I understand because that’s the intensity, the game happens so fast and so rapidly. So, they’ve always got to be ready.
“I learned that’s how soccer is,” he continued. “It’s quick. You’ve got to see things quick. You watch football and if a cornerback gets beat, they say, ‘Oh, you need to have a short memory.’ I think soccer is like that too, you have to have a short memory. I think the craziest thing I’ve ever seen is how fast they react to offense and defense at the same time.”
Jones’ unfamiliarity with the craft of photography was exactly the appeal. It forced him out of his comfort zone and put him in a situation where he had to learn from the ground up. In the Sounders, there was an obvious subject: a team in his own backyard that was selling out the very stadium where he used to play, where his number hangs from the rafters.
“[The Sounders photographers] just want to make sure I’m doing it right and putting a great product out there, just like playing football.” — Walter Jones
When he’s shooting Sounders home games, Jones is impossible to miss, tiny camera in his massive hands, his still-hulking frame dwarfing other photographers in such a pronounced fashion that it creates an undeniably comical visual.
“[Photography] came along at the right time for me,” he said. “I’m like eight years removed from retirement, so I think it was a pretty cool situation to do something where I didn’t have a lot of experience, but you can do it on your own. I think the cool thing about it is when you’re taking pictures, you’re looking at something and you can see the shot before you take that picture.
“I enjoy trying to get that perfect shot and anticipate and see things before they happen. I think photographers do a great job of that.”
Jones the football player was famously detail-oriented, known for his high-intensity training regimens and studious dedication to the nuances of the game, whether it was his impeccable footwork or ability to use his hands to constantly befuddle opposing defensive linemen. Mentally, it’s a similar approach he applies to taking photos, where seemingly minute details can make the difference between capturing an epic moment and missing an opportunity. Ask any of the sideline photographers in the Sounders’ press corps, and they’ll tell you Jones is a colleague like any other, constantly picking their brains and asking for advice on how to hone his craft.
Walter Jones captures the Sounders celebrating Will Bruin’s goal vs. Minnesota United on April 22
“Sometimes you might go into a job and people might be like, ‘Oh, he’s here to take my job.’ But they’ve been nothing but great to me,” Jones said. “They’ve answered all my questions, asked me what camera I’m using. So that makes it fun, they don’t treat me different or put me on some pedestal, they want you to come out here and if it’s what you want to do, you have to show you want to put the work in. If they feel like you’re putting the work in, they’ll give you the knowledge.
“I don’t ever get the feeling they’re threatened by me being there, they just want to make sure I’m doing it right and putting a great product out there, just like playing football.”
The main sentiment Jones expresses when he talks about photography is simple: He’s not messing around. He wants to be good at this, and he wants to earn the respect of his peers, the same way he did during his playing days.
On Sounders matchdays, Walter Jones, Seahawks legend and first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, becomes a member of the media just like everyone else shooting the game from the sideline. And that’s exactly how he likes it.
“Right now, I’m at a point in my life where I’m enjoying my life and everything that’s going on,” he said. “I’m pretty blessed to be able to do what I want to do. I think that’s the No. 1 goal is to be able to do that. It never freaks me out because when I look at that stuff, I think to myself I did it the right way.
“Even though I’m out there taking pictures at a field I played on for 12 years, my name is up there, my number’s up there, I don’t ever go into that situation thinking like that,” he added. “For me, it just makes me very humble because I was blessed to be able play my entire career in Seattle. We’ve got a great fan base and I enjoy the fans, and then to show people, show young people if you put your work in you can get what you want.”