NEW YORK – Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones prepares for training camp by eating bugs, taking kicks to the head and riding elephants.
Jones has expressed his eclectic tastes throughout his NFL career, from owning a company that makes bow ties to helping Al Gore spread his environmental message. His latest venture at least draws on his athletic background, though it takes him far from the world of American football.
The 31-year-old Jones is hosting the Travel Channel show “Dhani Tackles the Globe,” which premieres Monday. He spent the last two offseasons bouncing from country to country to immerse himself in an exotic list of sports.
He learned about rugby in England; the martial art Muay Thai in Thailand; hurling in Ireland; dragon boat racing in Singapore; Schwingen (wrestling) in Switzerland; pelota in Spain; sailing in New Zealand; and surf lifeguard competitions in Australia.
Part reality TV, part travel show, each episode chronicles his weeklong attempt to master a new sport, interspersed with sightseeing trips and forays into the local culture.
“It allows the entree of, ‘I’m an athlete, you’re an athlete, we both compete. Let’s meet each other on those terms,’ ” Jones said in a telephone interview from Ohio.
Jones was an obvious choice as the network pursued a show with a sports theme, said Michael Klein, Travel Channel’s senior vice president of content.
Drafted in the sixth round by the Giants out of Michigan in 2000, Jones played for New York and Philadelphia before joining Cincinnati. He has always been happy to talk about his passion for music, painting, poetry.
“His personality comes through on screen,” Klein said.
In Thailand, Jones had to learn the punches and kicks of Muay Thai quickly enough to take on another fighter at the end of the week. He woke up one morning with his abdominal muscles swollen from his instructor hitting him with pads during training the previous day.
Jones mixed in visits to Buddhist temples and a fortune teller, sampled cooked insects and played soccer with elephants.
“We wanted to make sure the sport was reflective of the culture and vice versa,” Klein said of the choice of locales.
Jones’ father served in the military and passed down a love of travel. In college, Dhani’s idea of a good birthday present was a plane ticket.
He’s proud that as a 6-foot-1, 240-pound African-American professional athlete he doesn’t look like your typical travel show host. He hopes his televised adventures will inspire people who never before considered venturing outside the United States.
“I want everybody to travel,” he said. “To travel and not be afraid.”
He wants to open viewers’ minds to different ways of life. Jones met people who gave him a new perspective on the world – and he believes he gave others new perspectives when they met him.
“When I’m in the Switzerland backcountry and nobody around looks like me, people were like, ‘Can I touch your hair?’ ” he said.
Jones traveled with a personal trainer to keep his football skills sharp in between sessions practicing other sports. He insisted he wasn’t worried about injuring himself and jeopardizing his NFL career.
“Nicks and bruising do happen,” he said. “The only thing I was worried about was getting bit by a shark.”
“Nobody believes me,” he said of swimming in the ocean off Australia, “but I think I saw one.”
Maybe more players will adopt athletic globe-trotting to prepare for the NFL grind, considering Jones went from shooting several episodes before last season to leading the Bengals with 165 tackles.
“Instead of burning myself out, now I’m trying to expand my horizons,” he said.
Still, he conceded that he was looking forward to the break of a bye week in late October – only to see it postponed two weeks, as the game against the Texans was moved because of Hurricane Ike.
“That crushed me,” he said, laughing.
The season ended, and soon he was out shooting more episodes.
Perhaps this show will help lead to a full-time TV gig once he retires. Or maybe, he suggested, he’ll wind up bartending on a random beach.
His trip to New Zealand opened up yet another career possibility, Jones said: “I would love to be a grinder on some race yacht.”