CANTON, Ohio — It had been almost eight years.
In that time between the first moment that Dre'Mont Jones stepped on the field next to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a high school student and when he did it again Thursday night, this time as a fledgling NFL player, a lot had changed.
The stadium he first entered was just a shell of what it would become by 2019, after numerous renovations to increase seating and making it more suited to hosting NFL teams like the one he would join.
But back then, that was still far from reality — both for the stadium and for Jones, himself.
On that day, that 14-year-old was getting just his first taste of competitive football as his Saint Ignatius Wildcats took on Canton McKinley in something of a glorified scrimmage.
On Thursday, this 22-year-old returned to the field for his NFL debut in the Broncos' preseason opener against the Falcons, and though there was considerably more fanfare this time around, he was struck by the emotions he felt upon realizing the serendipitous moment.
"It didn't hit me until we pulled up here," Jones said after the game. "I was like, 'Dang, I had my first high school game-type thing here in Canton, Ohio, and I got my first NFL game.' So it was super surreal. It was crazy. I got a little emotional, I'm not going to lie. It was cool to be back here."
Nostalgia washed over him, but more than that, he felt that the connection truly meant something.
"[I had] just some inclination of how everything has come full circle for me," Jones said, "because I started off here and I started off here again as an NFL player. … The excitement, the feeling of getting my [feet] wet in something new, that definitely hit me"
In this homecoming of sorts — Jones is from Cleveland, about an hour away — he showed that the promise he showed back then was the real deal. He was a pervasive presence in the trenches, breaking through for three tackles, including one for a loss, and three quarterback hits. The final of his hits bothered Falcons quarterback Matt Schaub enough to disrupt the throw and allow Trey Johnson to intercept a pass for the Broncos. Head Coach Vic Fangio noted Jones' play unprompted in his postgame press conference.
"I was out there just trying to produce as much as I can," Jones said. "I know it's a deep rotation of D-linemen who are super-talented, but whatever I do out there isn't alone. Because I'm a rookie, I'm the baby out there, so I got older guys like DeShawn [Williams] or [Derek] Wolfe or Adam [Gotsis]; Shelby [Harris] is out there always giving me pointers after every play, after every series. I don't do it by myself."
In the moment, it's easy for Jones to get caught up in it all — returning to a place where his football career took root and then having a strong performance on that same field. It's almost storybook for the start of his first chapter in football to line up with the start of this one.
To his credit, Jones isn't getting caught up in that.
"I can't say that yet, because it's just the first preseason game," he said. "You have to take games day by day. I don't want to get too ahead of myself. I had a good game today, but I could do terrible next week. So I've just got to make sure I'm focused on the things at hand and focus on the now, not how much could happen in the future."