Players that reach the NFL level have crossed a lot of bridges to get there. Bills running back Fred Jackson played Division III ball in college, played in an indoor league and NFL Europe before cracking an NFL roster. George Wilson went undrafted, toiled for two years on practice squads and then switched from receiver to safety to make the 53-man squad. For Bills college free agent Donald Jones, he's just four years removed from crossing the street.
In the fall of 2006 Jones' Lackawanna (PA) junior college team squared off against Erie Community College on a field that stands across the street from One Bills Drive. Though Jones' biggest contribution in that game was a 43-yard kickoff return, he remembered seeing Ralph Wilson Stadium from the sidelines of ECC's field.
"Back then I looked at it," Jones said. "I remember I called my father and I said, 'We're right across the street from the Bills' stadium.' And now I'm here."
Jones is literally steps away from where his college football career was just getting underway. The receiver initially had bigger aspirations than Lackawanna, but being unable to get through the NCAA clearing house Jones had to play at a junior college for two years before big time college football was an option.
In 19 games at Lackawanna, the New Jersey native caught 53 passes for 927 yards (17.5 avg.) and five touchdowns. It was enough to put him on the radar of programs like Syracuse, Temple, Virginia and Ole' Miss.
"I ended up committing to Ole' Miss, but (head) coach (Ed) Orgeron and his staff was fired," said Jones. "It was very late in the process so everybody else had pretty much backed off."
Everyone, that is, except FCS (1-AA) power Youngstown State.
"Youngstown was sitting there and they had a winning tradition," said Jones. "So I decided to go there."
By the sixth game of his first season with the Penguins, Jones was starting at wideout. Though he had just 31 catches in 2008, Jones found the end zone seven times to finish second on the team in scoring.
Come his senior season at Youngstown Jones was voted team captain. It was the first time a receiver was named captain of the Penguins in 17 years.
"We were a young team and they all looked up to me because I always worked hard and wanted to get to the NFL level," Jones said. "So I guess they decided to vote me captain. I've been a captain in high school and in junior college, and then at Youngstown, so it was a great feeling."
He bulked up from 190 pounds to 214 for his senior campaign, which helped him overcome constant double teaming to record 77 receptions for 700 yards and six touchdowns in just 11 games. His 77 catches were a school record.
Jones' play earned him Senior Bowl and NFL combine invites, and he had a private interview with Bills head coach Chan Gailey and receivers coach Stan Hixon in Indianapolis.
"I got a good vibe from Coach Gailey," said Jones. "I got another good vibe down on the field. Coach Hixon was down on the field (during the workout) with us. He was talking me up and making sure I was doing everything right."
The 2010 draft however, came and went without Jones hearing his name called. His phone didn't start ringing until after the draft was over.
"I had a few teams call me," he said. "And most of the teams were pretty set at receiver. I looked at the Bills, and I thought I could come in and make an impression, if not as a receiver then definitely on special teams and make this team."
"He's similar to (fourth-round pick) Marcus Easley," said Bills scout Tom Roth of Jones. "He ran a 4.49 at the combine. He's very strong. He has strong hands, strong blocker. He's tough after the catch. He's not a juke guy, but he's a strong player after the catch when it comes to breaking tackles. He also has that special teams mentality. I couldn't believe he didn't get drafted."
Coming from a spread attack at Youngstown to a pro-style offense under Gailey in Buffalo, Jones is anything but concerned. He's very familiar with the pro set.
"I ran the pro set in high school and at my (junior college)," said Jones. "I'm a physical receiver, so I feel like I can play in any type of offense. I feel like my route running and my physical ability is great for this scheme. I definitely feel that at Lackawanna (college) the pro-style offense really helped me out a lot."
Now all Jones has to do is prove it through the course of OTAs and minicamp as a lead-in to training camp in late July. If he can do that, he might soon be looking back across Abbott Road in Orchard Park as an NFL player.
"If I stick that'll be part of my story," said Jones. "I played right across the street."
NFLDraftScout contributed to this story