INDIANAPOLIS – Football is a way of life for Zay Jones' family, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I used to think other kids' dads played in the NFL, too. I'd ask, 'Who does your dad play for?' " Jones said. "We eat, drink and sleep football."
The East Carolina wide receiver's father, Robert, excelled at linebacker for three Super Bowl teams in Dallas in the 1990s, and his uncle, Jeff Blake, was a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Bengals in 1995. Now at the NFL Combine, Jones finds himself surrounded by the stars of tomorrow.
"It's phenomenal to be around all these record-breaking guys," Jones said. "I'm not just a player; I'm a fan of football as well."
Jones has plenty of fans himself – among them a legion of Panthers fans. And he certainly qualifies as a record-setter in his own right.
With 399 career catches, Jones stands as the all-time Division I leader in receptions. That includes a remarkable 158 catches as a senior – also a Division I record.
But Jones isn't getting caught up in the numbing numbers because he understands NFL teams won't.
"It meant a whole lot, but it doesn't mean a whole lot right now," he said. "I'm starting over. I have to prove myself again. My goal is to just keep progressing and be the best player I can."
More and more, he's looking like a player who will be selected on one of the first two days – in the first three rounds – of the 2017 NFL Draft.
"My dad holds the bragging rights right now, because he went in the first round," Jones said. "We'll see if I can make that push to beat him."
With his father and uncle standing as East Carolina legends, common sense would suggest that's how Jones ended up there. In reality, he went to ECU not because he wanted to extend a family tradition but simply because the Pirates wanted him.
"I had one Division One offer," Jones said. "I didn't go to East Carolina just because my dad went there. I went because it was the best fit for me at the time. I wasn't highly recruited at all. (Then ECU head coach) Ruffin McNeill took a chance on me, gave me that opportunity, and I just caught it and literally ran with it."
Jones showed right away he was worthy of more attention from colleges with 604 receiving yards as a true freshman. He continued to become a bigger factor as a slot receiver as a sophomore and then as a junior, topping 800 yards in 2014 and cracking the 1,000-yard mark in 2015.
Prior to the 2016 season, the Pirates hired Scottie Montgomery – a former NFL receiver who started with the Panthers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2000 – as their head football coach. Montgomery brought in Phil McGeoghan, who was the Miami Dolphins' wide receiver coach the previous year, to do the same for ECU.
"Coach Phil came to me and said, 'Hey, if you're going to play in the National Football League, you've got to play outside some. With your frame and your skill set and your ability, we've got to get you outside and get you some more pro-style routes,'" Jones said. "I did make that transition, and I had my best year."
Jones admits that dealing with "combat situations" against defensive backs remains a work in progress, but no one is going to work any harder than him because he loves his job.
"It's fun to be out here and compete with those guys and picks their brains," he said. "I'm always competitive. That's what I love about the game of football. Being here with the nation's best, you get to see where you match up and try to match your skill sets to theirs.
"It's such a blessing to be here. I cherish it. I don't take it for granted."