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From Homeless to NFL Star – Green Bay Packers' James Jones Offers Hope to Kids in Shelters: 'Don't Use Your Situation as a Crutch'

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For more about James Jones’ inspiring journey,, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

NFL wide receiver James Jones knows a lot about rocky starts. He began this season getting cut by the Oakland Raiders, then the New York Giants, only to land back on the Green Bay Packers – the team that gave him a Super Bowl ring in 2011.

But he takes it all in stride. Once homeless, Jones, 31, knows just how rough life can be when no one expects you to succeed – even though you have the drive to become more.

For Jones, all it took was one man to see his potential as a young boy.

As the single dad of three young boys, Marion Larrea came home from work and spotted smiling 9-year-old Jones playing basketball with his sons.

James Jones and Marion Larra
47 Photography by Kym
“I asked him if he wanted to play football, but he said he didn’t have money for cleats, so I told him I would buy them for him and sign him up for my Pop Warner team,” Larrea, 60, says. “I did that until he went into high school, where it was free for him to play.”

James Jones at 11 years old at a Pop Warner football game in Monterey, Calif., in 1995.
Courtesy Jones Family
It was a turning point for Jones, who had been homeless since birth with the exception of the few times he would sleep at his paternal grandmother Bernice Calhoun’s crowded home. He remembers telling his mom Janet as they sat on a park bench – with no place to go – that one day he would buy her a home.

James Jones at 8 years old with his cousin Nicholas Borelis at his grandmother Bernice’s home in San Jose, Calif. in 1992.
Courtesy Jones Family
Now, Jones gives back to his community through his foundation Love Jones 4 Kids, which offers free football camps and other programs to positively affect the lives of disadvantaged and at-risk youth. Jones also works with homeless children at Freedom House in Green Bay and The Family Supportive Housing’s San Jose Family Shelter, where Jones spent time as a child.

James Jones at The Family Supportive Housing’s San Jose Family Shelter on July 27, 2015.
Courtesy Jones Family
“I keep the focus on homeless kids, to let them know that just because you are in a situation – much like the situation I was in with my mom – you can have a dream and a vision,” Jones says, noting that homeless shelters can often be the place where dreams die. “Don’t use your situation as a crutch. You are still a normal person, you can do the same things as kids who live in a home.

James Jones holds his youngest son, Jordan, over his shoulder alongside his wife, Tamika, and thier oldest son, Lil James at home in San Ramon, Calif. July 17, 2015.
47 Photography by Kym
As for that promise to mom, he fulfilled that when he handed her the keys to her own San Francisco Bay Area home.

Nothing, he says, will ever beat the feeling he got when he was able to score that goal.