Green Bay Packers' James Jones Recalls His Homeless Journey – and How He's Helping Underprivileged Kids Today: 'It Was a Rough Childhood'

"A homeless shelter gives you a place to sleep for 90 days, but it is not a place where dreams come true. This is where a kid's dreams die," James Jones tells PEOPLE

Photo: Greg Trott/AP

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Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones will never forget one of his biggest scores – and it didn’t even occur on the football field.

When he was an overwhelmed homeless kid living on the streets of San Jose, California, he cried and begged for food at a pizza place. Touched by his desperation, they responded by giving the elementary school boy two large pizzas. It marked a rare time when he and his family went to bed with full stomachs.

“I went right out of the hospital being born to being homeless on the street for 15 years,” Jones, now 31, tells PEOPLE. “I remember being 5 years old, sitting on a park bench and telling my mom, I’m going to buy you a house someday. She always encouraged me, always made me believe that one day that would happen.”

While he found success and wealth on the gridiron through his sheer determination, Jones says the real worth of being an NFL player comes from being able to give back to homeless kids.

“When most people think about the homeless, they think about bums in shelters or out on the streets,” Jones says. “But there are millions of homeless families. The kids have no control over their situations and it’s important to realize they are the ones who need help the most.”

In 2008, the year after he turned pro, he and his wife Tamika, whom he met while they were students at San Jose State, started the Love Jones 4 Kids foundation helping underprivileged kids with football camps, food and inspiration.

“When I first started my foundation, I told my wife I wanted to raise awareness about how many families and kids are out on the streets,” Jones says. “You’ve got moms working two or three jobs trying to provide for their kids. They try to find a motel for the night, or a room with six people sleeping on the floor. A homeless shelter gives you a place to sleep for 90 days, but it is not a place where dreams come true. This is where a kid’s dreams die.”

While in Green Bay, Jones works with Freedom House and in his hometown, he returns to Family Supportive Housing in San Jose, where he had a revolving door existence with mom Janet and older sister Desiree before mandatory ejection onto the streets.

“James is the most humble man you’ll ever meet. He doesn’t do this because he’s contractually obligated as an NFL player to do it,” says Beth Leary, executive director of Family Supportive Housing. “He tells the residents, God gives you the ability to open your eyes every morning. You need to get up and keep trying. You can get out of this situation. Everyone is brought to their knees at some point in their lives, and the message he sends is that there will be someone there to help you stand up.”

Judy Vargas has been a staffer at the San Jose shelter for 18 years and remembers Jones when he was just a boy chasing balls around the corridors of the shelter.

“He’s so inspiring, especially to the children. He always was a family person who always helped his mother,” Vargas says. “When he came back, he didn’t just buy the dinner. He served the dinner and told everyone to come back and get more because he remembered what it was like to be hungry. James shows respect for the residents, because he knows how much that means to them. ”

Jones credits at least two non-relatives who made a difference in his life. The first was Marion Larrea, a single father of three who saw the talent in the fourth grader playing basketball with his boys and asked Jones to join his Pop Warner team.

“I loved football with all my heart, but I told him my mother doesn’t have the money for it and I wouldn’t ask her to spend $250 to play football,” Jones says. “And he told me ‘Don’t worry about that.’ He paid for all five years that I was in Pop Warner. I slept at his house and stayed as much as I could. Marion became a father figure to me and really helped me chase my dream of becoming a pro football player.”

Jones says he always knew there were more talented athletes competing for the same spot on every team he’s ever played.

“They may have been more talented than me, but almost no one wanted it more than I did, or was willing to sacrifice as much as I did to play football,” Jones says. “I wasn’t a perfect kid, but I didn’t drink or do drugs or took the easy money. I stayed strong for my mom and for what I wanted to accomplish in my life.”

When the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, Jones surprised Larrea by giving him his game jersey.

“He was a happy kid. You’d think he’d be bitter, but he wasn’t,” Larrea, 60, says. “I thought something was wrong with him at first because he’d have dinner with us and a half hour later, he was in the fridge. He was skinny as a rail. I had no idea at first that he was homeless.”

Jones says watching Larrea come home from work dead tired, yet still up to play with his boys, gave him a model for the kind of father he wanted to be for his own children. Now with two sons, James, 4 and Jordan, 2, he makes family top priority.

“My sons are the joy of my life and Tamika and I love each other dearly,” Jones says. “I’m a big family guy. I know I’m not perfect, but I’m the best dad I can be and we live the good life now.”

But the road was a hard one. At 15, Jones moved in with his grandmother Bernice, who was also housing numerous other relatives, so he could have a stable base in high school.

“My mother and father were heavy drug users. Actually, a lot of my family members were heavy drug users,” Jones says. “It was a rough childhood. Nobody knew how hard my situation was but me.”

Jones always admired his mom for trying to do her best for him. When he played in high school, his mom attended all his games and eventually achieved her sobriety about 15 years ago. He became a star and was accepted to San Jose State University, where he learned his work ethic from his coach Keith Williams. Jones admits that he got a little lax about going to class, but Williams spun him right around.

“He said, ‘Would you go to class for a million dollars?’ And I said, ‘Of course,’ and he told me that I was throwing away millions playing in the NFL by not keeping up with my grades,” Jones says. “My two mantras are Never Think About Failure and Would You Do It for a Million Dollars?’ ”

Williams, 44, laughs about his pep talk after Jones’ professors “questioned his dedication to their classes.” He says Jones always rises above.

“He is the total package. He’s a good man, a good father and a good husband and I’m so proud of him as a man, even more than what he has accomplished in the NFL, which is considerable,” Williams told PEOPLE. “I’ve trained a lot of players and circumstances can change the way you treat people. But James has never let the good or the bad change who he is and I admire that.”

And as for that house, he bought it for his mom after his rookie year when he landed his first big contract.

“When I gave her the keys to her house, it was the most unbelievable feeling in the world,” Jones says.

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