Fashionable Philanthropy

U-M alum and former NFL star Dhani Jones knows how to ‘rock a bow tie’

Not just anyone can pull off a bow tie. Orville Redenbacher, Pee-Wee Herman, Robert De Niro as “Leonard” from Awakenings — all these characters have successfully sported the nifty neckwear. But University of Michigan alum and former NFL linebacker Dhani Jones is giving the phrase “rocking a bow tie” new meaning. He’s proving that a simple fashion accessory can affect the lives of people in need.

Jones’ charity, BowTie Cause, partners with organizations such as Stand Up to Cancer, Alzheimer’s Association, Autism Speaks, and others to create unique bow ties that represent the causes they support. For example, a black bow tie with red roses on it represents cystic fibrosis, as many children cannot pronounce their disease properly and instead call it “65 Roses.” There’s also a bow tie with the chemical formula for dopamine on it for Parkinson’s research and treatment.

The idea came to light when Jones’ good friend Kunta Littlejohn was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Burkitt lymphoma.

“Kunta always told me, ‘If you want to be somebody, you’ve got to rock a bow tie,’ ” Jones explains. “And when I found out he had cancer, I immediately went and put one on in support.”

Soon people began to approach Jones and ask him why he was wearing a bow tie. Realizing it was a conversation piece, Jones decided to develop a business around the ties that would help worthy nonprofit causes.

His business plan: design custom bow ties that illustrate a cause, sell each one for $57 (Jones’ jersey number), and split the profits 50-50, with half going to Jones’ BowTie Cause foundation for the education of underprivileged kids and the other half going to the organization the tie represents.

Jones insists that the monetary aspect isn’t the most important part; it’s about the people rocking bow ties — the awareness they raise and the conversations they start. “It’s not about building a business based on dollars and cents,” he says. “It’s about building a business based on passion.”

As the business began to take off, Jones’ creative idea was affirmed at a University of Michigan football game in New Orleans. A boy approached Jones, introduced himself, and began to tell his story. He was battling cancer, but he hadn’t told any of his friends. The youngster explained how BowTie Cause had given him a way to express himself — a voice that he hadn’t thought he had.

“He could talk about it, or not talk about it,” Jones says, “but because he was rocking the bow tie, he became a beacon of support for those who had been through the same experience.”

Other fans of the BowTie Cause are a bit closer to home, including Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and his son Nick. Nick is best known for his appearances at the NBA Lottery representing his father, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s where Jones first spotted Nick sporting a bow tie on national TV.

Nick suffers from neurofibromatosis. The nerve disorder causes benign tumors to grow on and damage nerve tissue. He and his father collaborated with Jones in 2012 to create a special bow tie for the disorder, which is sold on the Cavaliers’ website. Proceeds benefit the Children’s Tumor Foundation as well as the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital for Rehabilitation.

Attentive Tigers fans tuning in to watch starting pitcher Max Scherzer and five other Detroit players participate in the 2013 MLB All-Star Game may have noticed Fox broadcaster Ken Rosenthal sporting a bow tie. That’s because back in 2011, after meeting Jones, Rosenthal got on board with the cause.

“I didn’t want to wear a bow tie because I thought it would distract from my work,” Rosenthal writes for Fox Sports. “Jones’ mission, though, aligns perfectly with how I perceive my job. My goal with every column is to make people think. Jones, through his bow ties, wants to achieve the same thing.”

Many of BowTie Cause’s products — including several worn by Rosenthal — are sold online at or by the organizations they support. You can also find them at select local retailers.

There’s a difference between simply wearing a bow tie and ‘rocking’ one.

Jones wanted to give something back to his alma mater. Underground Printing, an Ann Arbor-based clothing company, sells the bow tie Jones designed for the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. The tie is blue, with yellow yard lines like a football field, and the accompanying slogan reads, “Your support improves children’s health one yard at a time.”

“The bow ties themselves are wildly popular and are a unique way to show your support for U-M,” says Underground Printing owner Ryan Gregg. “Whether a black-tie event or a wedding, lots of people find [Jones’] bow ties a great way to spice up their wardrobe, show their school pride, and support a great cause.”

There’s a difference between simply wearing a bow tie and “rocking” one. “Rocking bow ties is really powerful,” Jones says. “It represents a generation of people who are supporting something bigger than themselves. They’re able to walk with their heads held high, with strength, with purpose.”

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