You’re heard it before; choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.
Justin Cross is lucky enough to have lived that saying two times over. Though, you might say his first job chose him.
His career began unlike most NFL players, when the former Bills offensive tackle headed to Western State College in Colorado not for football, but for the skiing.
“I was a huge ski fan and still am to this day,” Cross said. “I chose my college totally based on skiing. I ended up growing bigger and stronger and my priorities changed from skiing to football.”
When Cross and the Western State coach realized his potential as a football player, he walked onto the team and would become the first player from the college to play in the NFL. He was taken in the 10th round of the 1981 Draft by the Bills.
A back injury sidelined him in his rookie year, but after a few starts in 1982, he became a regular starter the following season under new coach Kay Stephenson and quarterback Joe Ferguson.
After a five-year career – with highs after realizing a career he never thought he’d have, and lows that tallied up several season-hindering injuries – it was his off the field friendship with Ferguson that sparked an important and life-changing hobby.
It was that hobby that lead to his second improbable but fulfilling career.
Ferguson took Cross and Bills guard and Wall of Famer Jim Ritcher for rides in his private plane during the offseason, and it piqued their interest so much that they decided to learn how to fly on their own.
“That’s how it all started,” said Cross. “Those are the roots of flying and how it combined with football. I never thought of it as something to do after my football career. It was totally just for fun. I guess at that time I wasn’t thinking past football.”
The next stop on his serendipitous journey would be much warmer than the last. He got a job as a commuter pilot based in St. Croix in the Carribbean where he spent a year learning the ropes and, he says, getting hooked on flying in the process.
From there he jumped to Trump Shuttle, then to US Air, then TWA with a few unknowns and turbulence in between, finally landing (all puns intended) at JetBlue in 2003 where he is still a pilot today.
“At the time JetBlue was a sponsor of the Bills, so I told them that since they were the official airline, they’d have to hire me, so they did,” he remembered, laughing.
Based out of Boston near his home with wife Megan and 15-month old daughter Kendall (who he says is already a great flyer), Cross often flies in and out of Buffalo, though few on the plane assuredly know its being piloted by a former Buffalo Bill.
The seven-year captain of an Airbus A320 also finds time between his family and flying to coach football during the fall. He coached at his high school alma mater, and after three years there he's coached the offensive line at Tufts University since 2010.
“I enjoy very much coaching the young men who are there solely because they like to play football,” he said. “
I think I’ll always be a fan of the game. It did an awful lot for me, all of it positive. I won’t say I miss it. I’m just happy to have been a participant in it. It was a huge part of my life and it molded my life."
First as an Buffalo Bills tackle, and in his second career as a pilot, a coach, and a new dad, Cross' contentedness with his journey makes it evident that though he has certainly "worked a day in his life," he is lucky to have found a life's worth of jobs that don't feel like work.
“I guess I can say I’ve never really had a real job because I love football and I love flying," he said. "And now I’m in another uniform, which is great because I don’t have to think about what to wear to work.”