Eight days before the start of the NFL season, Julio Jones was lounging outside the Georgia Dome. The Falcons’ third year wide receiver, enjoying a plate of hot wings prepared by “Pitmaster” Chris Lilly, singing along to Florida/Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and periodically checking his blackface Rolex watch, seemed anything but worried about the season-opening matchup against the New Orleans Saints that was on the horizon. He knows what he has to do.

“It’s like, first of all, last year is last year. We gotta go out there, as far as the Atlanta Falcons, and forge our own identity for 2013,” he says. “We just gotta keep working, man, which we’ve been doing throughout practice and everything, preparing ourselves, making sure everybody stays healthy.”

The NFL is all about staying healthy, he says. That’s why the Falcons 0-4 preseason, including losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, don’t weigh on him. Neither does the Falcons performance in their third preseason game, the so-called dress rehearsal for the regular season in which the starters, including QB Matt Ryan and Hall-of-Fame TE Tony Gonzalez (but without Roddy White), began with three straight impressive drives that all stalled in the red zone and saw Ryan sacked five times as he played into the third quarter.

“The NFL’s all about staying healthy,” he says. “You’ve only got a 53-man roster, so it’s not like college where you got 105 guys [on a team], and you can just put somebody in there. Like I said, just staying healthy and keeping that work ethic.”

Off the field, Jones doesn’t look like the beast who strikes fear into the hearts of defenses around the league. With no entourage and void of any eye-catching jewelry, save for the aforementioned watch, he somehow almost looks pedestrian, even at 6’3 and 220 pounds. Having cut his once-signature dreds, one could even say he blends in with the crowd.

But as we talk, it becomes hard to hear over the clamor and shouting going on outside of the tent. Crimson Tide fans have gathered, in full regalia, to stop and take pictures of Jones and yell various positive interjections at him as they meander into the Georgia Dome to see their team battle the Virginia Tech Hokies. Some want pictures, some want autographs, some just want to touch him. It’s a scene.

“Ah man, [I] love ‘em,” Jones says of Tide fans. “The culture that they have, man, and where they go…people say live and breathe football, but at Alabama they really do.”

Jones is used to being yelled at by a rowdy bunch, whether there are 75,000 of them in a stadium or a group of a few dozen separated from him by just a slight blue rope and a bit of canvass that runs along the side of the makeshift tents in “Tailgate Town” on the field turf island in front of the Georgia Dome.

He still hears ‘Roll Tide’ regularly in the Georgia Dome. And just about everywhere else he goes.

“When we played in Baltimore, [I heard] ‘Roll Tide.’ When we played in Tennessee in the preseason, I heard Roll Tide,” he says.

That loyalty and devotion is why Jones says he loved playing at Alabama. “It’s like you’re at home all year. All your games feel like home,” he says. But that’s something he says he doesn’t see as much of in the NFL.

I feel like NFL is like fabricated. That’s how fans look at it,” says Jones. “I think the difference between college and NFL is just how people look at the game. Being in college, [players are not] getting paid, so they’re playing their hearts out every play, trying to make it to the next level. Fans support that so much and then guys get to the NFL and there’s some guys that don’t play. They get paid and they don’t perform. So I think that’s the difference between how college fans are really in tune and then it’s a bigger culture, as far as being a part of something than the NFL.”

Jones admits that difference has affected his play and the way he approaches the game as a professional.

“Being a [professional] football player, we’re entertainers,” he says. “We’ve got to go out there and put on a show, and that’s how you get your fan base. So when I go out there, how I take the field, I just want to go out there and put on a show for my fans.”

The show is scheduled to start Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz SuperDome in New Orleans.

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