Everybody has a story. The story of Green Bay wide receiver James Jones’ early years is hard to wrap your brain around.
Homelessness started from birth and didn’t end permanently until he was 15 years old. The awful state of having no place to call his own was interrupted here and there with help from family, friends and people who would later greatly influence Jones’ life, a life filled with struggle, strides and now, true happiness.
“You never know what’s going to happen. I didn’t know I was going to make it to the NFL. But I just kept on fighting, kept pursing my dream,’’ Jones said.
James and Tamika Jones’ new baby, James Martell Lightning Jones, is eight days old when our FOX crew invades their modest Green Bay home. I have a cold so I keep my distance. I’m unable to take in all of the baby’s features, but I do see little James has a head full of beautiful, black curly hair. After some back and forth in my head I know exactly how to start the interview: fatherhood.
“Just the way I grew up, I was like when I’m a dad, the position I’m in to know this little dude doesn’t have to worry about anything for the rest of his life, it’s truly a blessing.”
Jones speaks a lot about blessings. He knows how fortunate he is to have overcome the heartbreaking childhood he lived. He talks casually, calmly about growing up in homeless shelters which almost always have a three-month-stay rule. I’m stunned to learn, that after 90 days, you have to get out and a young Jones and his mother Janet Jones were asked to leave a lot. She had trouble finding or keeping jobs.
During those times they would scrape together money for cheap hotels around San Jose when shelters weren’t available.
“The hardest times was leaving the shelter and going from hotel to hotel because some nights you’d kind of ride (buses) all night or be up all night,’’ he said.
Jones often joined his mother out on the streets begging for money, sometimes begging for food.
“There was one time we were staying in a hotel and we didn’t have food and there was this pizza spot. I don’t know what got into me. I just went into the pizza spot and just cried and pleaded that we needed some food! And the dude gave me two large pizzas for free.”
At the Homeless Shelter in San Jose for our Thanksgiving Day story, we were shown a sparse, freshly scented room that included bunk beds and a baby crib, which we were told the new occupant moving in the next day would need. Jones stayed at that very same shelter at least three times as he recalled. His old room is now an office.
“He was a runner,” 16-year shelter worker Judy Vargas remembers. She’s short so we have to stand her on a box to fit her in the camera frame with me.
"I was forever running after him, saying ‘James, you need to be by your mother. You’re supposed to be supervised.’ He was always just a little antsy," Vargas said.
Jones never complained about his life openly, but he did wonder about it, he somewhat reluctantly admitted to me.
"There were times when you don’t want to ask why, but you do ask why," Jones said. "You look at yourself like, I’m a good kid. Why does this kid have that? Or why does this have that?"
I ask Jones what’s the one possession he treasured as a little boy, thinking it was a toy, a pair of shoes maybe, an article of clothing. The answer leaves me with a large lump in my throat and I have to look away.
"It had to be my mother,’’ he said. "I had opportunities to stay with my grandma at a young age, go stay with my dad. He was living in Fresno at the time. Whatever mama went through, whatever was gonna happen, I was gonna be with her. No matter where we were, under a bridge or something, I felt I was safe."
Jones found safety in football, too. One day he was playing with some boys. Their dad, Marion Larrea, a Pop Warner coach, saw something special in this strongly built kid. Soon Jones was a part of the family, with Larrea in role of father figure and mentor. Jones was asked along on family vacations and spent weeks at a time at the Larrea home.
“I may have been his angel, but he brought a lot of happiness to my life, too,” said Larrea, who bought Jones his first pair of cleats. “I think of him as a son still to this day. He’s done a lot for me.”
“I was eight years old. He saw me playing, and he was ‘you need to be playing football,’ " said Jones. "I told him that I would love to. But my mother didn’t have the money for me to play football."
Larrea made sure Jones’ fees were paid and a bond was formed that had nothing to do with money. Two decades later Jones would give Larrea the valuable jersey he played in when the Packers won the 2010 Super Bowl.
When Jones and his mother were still dead broke, living nomadic lives, Janet recalls how he sweetly vowed that one day he would make it to the NFL.
“He said it since he was five years old, that he was going to go to the NFL and he did it,” she said.
“He loves his parents. He does not look to them or blame them for anything that happened,’’ his wife Tamika said. "He looks at his journey and everything that happened for a reason."
After a move to Sacramento, a miserable 15-year-old James Jones had been through enough. Craving normalcy, he did something he didn’t think he’d ever do. He left his mother’s side and the transient lifestyle they’d been living for the bulk of his life. After a call to his grandmother Bernice, he was on a bus back to San Jose to live under the rules of her strictly run home.
“I was able to go to the same high school for all four years, be stable over there,’’ Jones said. “I knew that when I left school, I’d be going home. I’d have some food there.”
Janet Jones came back, too. She found a job and got an apartment.
“My mom was at every game — basketball, football game,’’ he said. "It was just good to be stable”
After four years of college football at San Jose State, Jones got a dream-come-true phone call from the Green Bay Packers in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
“Man, that almost brings tears to my eyes just to be able to provide for her, bless her with anything she needs," he said. "She doesn’t have to worry about nothing. She has a roof over her head, she doesn’t have to worry about moving, or to worry about three-month notice. That’s the best feeling in the world.”
Jones and his wife steer us to the Milwaukee Rescue Mission to meet the people who run it and some of the spirited students who attend the school. It’s a place near and dear to them, as the Jones family are frequent visitors and generous to the kids of the facility, a place that relies on fund-raising to keep its doors open and is in constant need of money and various supplies.
We’re introduced to a young girl named Destiny Battle, who was one of the recipients of James and Tamika’s "lovejones4kids" foundation that grants wishes to kids. Ten-year-old Destiny didn’t want anything for herself, but a gift for her disabled mother instead.
“Her birthday passed and she only got four presents and I wanted to get her something,” said the 5th grader. “I wanted to get her a necklace.”
Sometimes we can all take things for granted. Jones is very sensitive sometimes about a perceived lack of gratitude in whatever form it takes.
"You walk into Lambeau Field and you got omelets, you got pancakes, you got all you can eat, everything,’’ Jones said. "And every once in a while you’ll hear somebody say, ‘damn, we got the same stuff every day.’ I just thought back to the kids at the homeless shelter, they wished they could wake up to some pancakes. I truly believe that if I didn’t go through what I went through, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today because it made me a strong person.”
He’s also a kind person. A half-smile doesn’t leave his face, even when he tells the worst of his life story. I ask him why he even wants to dredge this up, relive the worst days of his life or recount days when he watched his mom swallow her pride to ask a stranger for money, or beg an estranged family member to take them in for a week.
What does he want people to know about homelessness, especially where children are concerned?
"When you’re in there you’re lonely," he said. "I just like telling my story because there’s kids in the homeless shelter and it’s going to be hard to make it out, but you can do it. I would fight to get out because of the circumstances I was in. And I knew I got to fight because I want to get my mom out of there."
He’s done that and so much more.
Mainly, James Jones with that story, has opened our eyes to the horrors and joys of life — from having no place to live as a baby to now looking down at his own newborn sleeping peacefully, safe and sound.