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Scoring the career of a lifetime, from football to the flight deck

Instead of rushing for touchdowns in the National Football League (NFL) after college, First Officer Markell Jones decided to hang up his cleats to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pilot. As a high school football stand-out and Number 6 in all-time rushing yards in Purdue University’s history, Markell’s football career paved the way to pursue his real passion: becoming a commercial pilot.

As a young boy growing up in Columbus, Indiana, Markell was always fascinated with flying. “My Dad would share stories with us, and I could tell he enjoyed his job,” shares Markell. They attended air shows together which made lasting impressions and Markell jokingly says that the movie Top Gun was also a big motivator. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to become a pilot and my family encouraged me to pursue it.”

In high school, Markell was named Gatorade’s State Player of the Year for Indiana and named Mr. Football as the best player in the state his senior year. He graduated early and earned a full athletic scholarship to play Division I football at Purdue University and pursue his bachelor’s degree in Professional Flight Technology.

While attending college, Markell recalls flying over football practice and after landing, hustling back to join the team’s practice. “My coach emphasized that even though I was a student athlete, being a student always came first,” says Markell. While in school, he obtained his aviation licenses and had the privilege to play in two college bowl games. “Breaking out onto the open field before a game is freeing and gives me the same feeling as flying.”

After graduation, Markell considered his opportunities to play for the NFL but after sustained injuries and years of pushing his body to the limit, he made the decision to hang up his cleats. Now was the right time to continue building flight hours and pursue his dream. He researched Piedmont and said the biggest motivation for him to apply was the quick upgrade to captain, the ability to get a lot of flight time and he only needed one interview at the Cadet level to eventually flow to American Airlines. He joined Piedmont’s Cadet Program in early 2020. As a pilot in Piedmont’s Cadet Program, Markell was able to build his hours how he wanted and where he wanted, plus the program offered the fastest path to American Airlines.

“I love flying for Piedmont,” says Markell. “I enjoy flying the Embraer 145 and working with my colleagues. As a commuter, the new commuter policy as part of the contract extension is welcomed and receiving Captain pay at 750 hours makes me feel like I am getting paid what I’m worth.”

Even though Markell stopped short of being drafted to the big leagues, he has no regrets and sees football as the catalyst that got him where he is today, and he is thankful for it. “I love both aviation and football but saw football as a means to progress further toward my goal. Football allowed me to go to a good school for free and now as a pilot, I have a lot more to achieve.”

Markell is a member and volunteer with the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), works with a pilot mentee and has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

“I’m still in awe that I get to do this job,” says Markell proudly. “As a pilot, there is never a boring day for me. I look forward to upgrading to Captain and flowing to American Airlines.”