Rising Up: Atlanta Falcons’ Jonathan Babineaux defends fashion, football and keeping kids in school

written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photography by MJA CREATIVE

Before meeting Jonathan Joel Babineaux, the nine-year-starting defensive tackle and a team captain for the Atlanta Falcons, everyone prepared me for his height, stature and overall size. But as I shook his hand and took in the beaming white smile towering above me, I was trying to get a glimpse not of what was above, but what was on the ground – or should I say, on his feet. A lesser-known fact about this NFC Division Champ is there’s a champion fashion collection hanging in his closet. When not geared in his No. 95 jersey, pads and cleats, Babineaux goes the full 10 yards with glittering watches, custom-tailored suits, brightly patterned socks and his personal favorite, eyecatching shoes.

Look Good, Play Good

Originally from Texas, Babineaux played football at the University of Iowa before he was selected as a second round draft pick (59th overall) by the Atlanta Falcons almost a decade ago.

“I came here in ’05 and I’ve experienced a lot through life, and … going through all those experiences helped me [become] the person I am today.”

No kidding. Here, he has settled into residences on the Northside, married his college sweetheart Blair and created a family with her and their two young children. Here, he has built a career with a single team, rising from a rookie to sink NFL quarterbacks as the “U.S.S. Babineaux.”

He is humble about the latter, admitting he may not be one of the guys that “sells tickets to the games.” However, he wears a confidence in who he is, both as a Falcon and a family man – and while he expresses himself through his wardrobe, that attitude is an accessory money can’t buy.

Although Atlanta is home now, Babineaux’s passion for fashion is not limited to boundaries drawn by I-285 or the state line. Just as he suits up on game days to play in the NFL, his wardrobe is on a national level as well. He has a personal shopper at Louis Vuitton in Lenox Square, sends his suits to a tailor in Los Angeles, finds inspiration in New York and frequents a jeweler in Seattle.

“Even though I’m big and tall, I represent for the big guys when I come out there in my fashion,” he said. One thing’s for sure – he makes a big statement with his clothes.

When athletic apparel is one’s work attire, where does the motivation originate to dress with the best of them, we wondered? Whether he is dressing up in a shimmering black mink coat, keeping it casual in bright red suede sneakers paired with matching cheeky graphic tees or “rocking out” on the golf course, Babineaux said, “If you look good, you play good.”

Family Threads

For Babineaux, it all started in grade school when he and his brother would compete over who could look his best at school. “We had a contest on the first day of school to see who was going to wear the flyest Hawaiian shirt,” he said.

His brother Jordan still laughs at this memory. Now living on the West Coast, Jordan said they have since developed their own personal styles and don’t truly compete anymore.

“His fashion game is above average,” Jordan admitted, as well as hinting at the fact that when they get together, they still might go shopping together. Now, the siblings challenge each other in other ways, such as when Jordan, a former safety for the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans, and Babineaux have faced off in the professional arena. Much like the Hawaiian shirts, this competition was in good fun, although The Falcons came out on top in December of 2007 and 2010.

“It was rewarding to watch him play, and even more rewarding for our mom,” Jordan said of the experience. “To me, it’s the biggest joy.”

Whether in fashion, football or even being a father, the younger brother said he does look up to Babineaux. “More than anything, we compete on a level to make each other better,” he said.

When it comes to personal performance on the field, Babineaux approaches his career goals much in the same style of giving it his all.

“You know I always go into the season and try to do better than I did the year before,” he said.

When a player gives his entire career to the same team and continues to go strong every year, as Babineaux has done, the commitment does not go unnoticed by fans or teammates. He returns this season with a three-year extension on his contract, ranking him as one of the longest tenured players for the Falcons. According to the official Atlanta Falcons Blog (blogs.atlantafalcons.com), if Babineaux plays all 16 games in his next three seasons, he’ll reach 186 games played — good enough to tie with Bob Whitfield and Bobby Butler for fifth most in the team’s history.

“Now [that] he has been there 10 years, he is one of the older guys on the roster,” added Jordan, who is currently working as an analyst with the NFL Network and believes the defensive line sets the tempo for a team. “He is definitely one of the front line soldiers leading the army into battle.”

Following Suit

The Falcons family has looked to this “soldier’s” leadership as a repeated captain, and last year he served as the team’s 2013 United Way representative as well as one of two NFL players selected to travel to London to promote the league’s international series. (The Dirty Birds take flight across the pond to take on the Detroit Lions in Wembley Stadium on Oct. 26.)

Rather than a brother to the other players, Babineaux sees himself in a different role within the Falcons family.

“The head coach is always the dad,” he said with a laugh.

“I feel like I’m the uncle.” He continued to explain that he feels a lot of the younger guys look up to him, follow his lead and are not afraid to talk to him about anything.

“I feel like my leadership can go as far as they want it to, as long as they are following me and doing the necessary things to stay on the team and win ball games,” he said.

During a tough season like last year’s, he offered his “best uncle advice” to motivate teammates.

“You know things [won’t] always go the way we want them to, but we still got to continue to progress and make sure that we’re doing the little things right,” Babineaux said with optimism for the upcoming year.

“I think a lot of young guys took a big step last year as far as the last few games, so hopefully that will roll into this year. That way, they can keep their confidence and continue to maintain and do the necessary things they need to do to make sure they are bettering themselves, because you don’t want [it] to be the same as 2013 – and, of course, you don’t want to remember that year at all – but there were some good things we did. Hopefully in 2014, we can have things showing up consistently and be better than it was [last season].”

Going the Distance

Not only is Babineaux a big guy on the field and in fashion, he’s got a big heart off the field to match. While giving back is a core value within the Falcons franchise, he goes above and beyond. Since September 2008, No. 95 has donated to more than 80 charities, foundations, at-risk schools and non-profit organizations that serve the medically fragile or under-served adults and children of Atlanta as well as his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. His personal volunteer activities were even recognized by the Atlanta City Council with the proclamation of “Jonathan Babineaux Day” on June 20, 2011.

One of these causes close to his heart is keeping kids in school to advance toward a degree. Among all of his accomplishments, Babineaux shared that he is most proud of graduating from college. To students that are on the verge of dropping out, he wants them to know “there are always resources for you to better yourself and help yourself, as far as getting one-on-one help with a teacher or a parent or a mentor that wants to give back” and to consider how these decisions can benefit them.

“Make sure that you succeed because this is the beginning of your life. What you’re setting up right now is pretty much your planning – you’re planting your seed for the future and you definitely want to see that seed grow,” he said. “Everyone has different paths they take in life, but, overall, we hope that more kids take the right path.”

Babineaux believes in this advice, not just for the community but for tackling concerns with his own children as well. He shared that his daughter, who just completed first grade, was scared to return to school because she heard second grade was harder.

“I said, ‘Well, it’s like any other thing that you don’t know. You have to learn at first and then you progress. My advice to her is to continue to excel and try and learn everything you can, from home, at school and from other sources. The more you learn and do things with your school work, the better off you will be.”

Now, that’s a game plan worth defending.