GREEN BAY, Wis. -- James Jones’ phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook -- or whatever today’s cell phone equivalent is -- as NFL free agency began on Monday.
“Oh, it opened up today?” the Green Bay Packers’ veteran wide receiver said with a laugh Monday night from his home in San Ramon, California. “I didn't even know.”
Despite setting a career high in receiving yards (890) with the Packers last season and a career best in receptions (73) with the Oakland Raiders the year before, the 31-year-old Jones isn't expecting a lot of calls early in the open market. He has a more pressing challenge: Finding suitable “burn some energy” post-preschool activities for sons James (4) and Jordan (2) on a rainy afternoon.
“It's the same old soup for me -- three years straight of sitting and waiting,” said Jones, who left the Packers for the Raiders as a free agent in March 2014, then was cut after one season by the Raiders last May and returned to the Packers last season (after a brief training-camp stopover with the New York Giants). “It's crazy, I've been playing good football all three years. I felt I had good seasons. But it’s fine. It’s fine."
If Jones doesn’t seem overly concerned about the uncertainty of where he’ll play next season, that’s partly because he spent much of his childhood unsure of where he’d sleep each night, homeless on the streets of San Jose.
“Ever since I was little -- going from motel to motel, sleeping on park benches -- God has always worked it out for me. Always put me in the right situation. Always,” Jones said. “Going through all this free-agency stuff, I really don't worry about it.”
Although Jones has been telling his life story since the Packers took him in the third round of the 2007 NFL draft, he insists he doesn’t tire of sharing it because he has seen the impact it has.
“He's had kids tell him how his story helped them. He’s had people who went through similar situations tell him how they couldn't open up and share that until they heard him,” Jones’ wife, Tamika, said. “Sometimes he feels like it’s overdone. ‘I feel like I keep talking about it. I don't want to overdo it, I don't want people to think that's the only part of me.’ But every time he shares it, we get emails and phone calls at the [Love Jones 4 Kids] foundation from people that it impacts.”
Jones’ parents divorced when he was 18 months old, and both battled addiction, with his mother, Janet, losing her decade-long job at Hewlett Packard as a result. Eventually, Janet, along with James, his older sister Desiree, and Janet's sister's daughter, Alexis, wound up on the street. James was 8 years old.
"I felt bad. But I didn't have anywhere else to go," Janet said in an interview shortly after Jones entered the NFL. "In the beginning, it was drugs. Then I lost my job. Nobody wanted to help us, so that's how we had to live. I thank God for shelters because they're really something that a person who don't have nowhere to go, they can call home. But it's not a place I wanted to be."
Jones finally found stability just before entering high school, after Janet remarried and his stepfather took a job in Sacramento. Rather than moving with them, Jones stayed in his native San Jose and went to live with his paternal grandmother, Bernice Calhoun, and he remained with her even after Janet and her husband returned during James’ junior year at Gunderson High School. Despite being recruited by most of the football powerhouses on the West Coast, Jones picked San Jose State so he could stay close to home when Janet began having health issues. He met Tamika during their freshman year, and they began dating two years later.
But he didn’t tell Tamika much about his childhood until after they’d been together for more than a year.
“I didn't know much. I knew he had a rough upbringing, but I didn't know in depth about everything. Even now, I learn more,” Tamika said. “The way I grew up, I couldn’t identify. I couldn't imagine. My parents are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year; two totally different backgrounds. But I always tell people, I'm supposed to be with James. I profess to be a strong person, but … wow. There's so much stuff his family has taught me.”
Nowadays, both Janet (“She’s all about her grandbabies”) and Bernice (“She's alive and kicking and dancing and partying”) are doing well. In fact, Jones’ biggest concern is trying not to spoil young James and Jordan by giving them everything he didn’t have when he was their age. When their parents have volunteered at homeless shelters in Green Bay, Milwaukee, and San Jose over the years -- or delivered sandwiches to people sleeping on the same benches at San Jose’s St. James Park as Jones did as a kid -- the boys have come along.
Upon his return to the Packers last season, Jones reconnected with Freedom House, a Green Bay shelter that focuses on helping families with children, coordinating and financing a Christmas dinner for families there. If he re-signs with the Packers, he plans on holding another dinner next Christmas.
As for football, Jones believes his contributions (50 receptions for 890 yards and eight touchdowns) after rejoining the Packers following Jordy Nelson’s season-ending knee injury merit a return engagement -- even with a host of young players at the position and Nelson’s recovery ahead of schedule. After the team’s season-ending playoff loss to Arizona, Jones had a lengthy conversation with coach Mike McCarthy during what was supposed to be a short exit interview.
“I told him I wanted to come back, and it definitely seemed like the feeling was mutual,” Jones said. “He was the one who brought it up. ‘We definitely would love to have you back.’
“I love it there. I wouldn’t say it would be disappointing -- I don't know if it's the right word -- but I'd probably be a little hurt, especially with how well I played. I understand the business. You can't take anything to heart. Those guys drafted me and gave me the opportunity to play football. But I would be a little hurt. I'm not going to lie. I'd be a little hurt if they don't try to get me back.”