SANTA CLARA -- James Jones was just entering his teen years when he received another harsh reminder about how difficult life can be.
This time, he and his mother were being evicted from their San Jose apartment because his mother couldn't afford the rent.
Jones headed to a homeless shelter, not for the first time, either; bringing with him only a basketball and a backpack. Today, wide receiver Jones is a rising star for the Green Bay Packers and no longer worried about where his next meal is coming from.
"San Jose proud," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Jones, a graduate of Gunderson High School and San Jose State. "James has done a great job. It's just a real credit to him. He has a great work ethic. He has always put in his time and has always been ready for the opportunities. And now he has been given the last year the opportunity and he is taking full advantage of it.
Indeed. Jones caught 64 passes for 784 yards and a league-high 14 touchdowns this season. All three totals represented career-highs.
On Saturday night, Jones returns to the Bay Area as a key member of the Packers' high-octane passing attack for an NFC divisional playoff game against the 49ers at Candlestick Park.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has no shortage of options each time he drops back to pass, be it Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings or Jones, among others.
In fact, Rodgers set an NFL-playoff record
Seven times this season, Jones has caught at least five passes in a game. He played particularly well the latter part of the season.
So, why the breakout season? Rodgers has a theory.
"After he and his wife had their first child, I've just noticed a guy who's been more focused at work and a little more dialed in," Rodgers said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Jones agreed that he is more focused now than earlier in his career, when he gained a reputation for dropping too many catchable passes.
"During the game, I'm out there talking to myself saying things like, 'Stay focused. Stay hungry. The ball's gonna come. Aaron's gonna throw it to the open guy,' " Jones told NFL Network. "A lot of the players think I'm crazy.
"I remember Jabari Greer of the Saints walked by me, and I was talking to myself saying, 'Stay open.' He was like, 'Hey, man, you all right?' I told him, 'Yeah, man, I'm good. Just staying focused.' "
A new workout regimen in California this past offseason that included "some new, crazy stuff," Jones said, also helped him elevate his game.
Fourteen of Jones' 34 touchdowns came this season. His 64 receptions are almost 27 more than what he averaged his first five seasons.
Free safety Dashon Goldson said Wednesday that Jones, 28, is very much on the minds of the 49ers defense.
"He's a weapon for 'em," Goldson said. "He's definitely a deep threat and gets a lot of yards after the catch. He's a playmaker with his feet and uses his speed to get around people."
What separates Jones, Rodgers said, are his ability to make the tough catch and win more than his share of battles on contested passes. Seeing that makes Rodgers more inclined to keep looking Jones' way.
"It gives you a lot of confidence as a quarterback when he's able to make plays like that," Rodgers said. "He's had a great season and should have gotten some Pro Bowl consideration."
Maybe so, but you're not going to hear Jones complain, not after growing up without a father — he first met him when he was 7 — and bouncing in and out of shelters through most of his childhood and formative years.
After all, it's about perspective. Jones once made money for his mother by buying $5 worth of candy, selling it door to door and delivering the $25 profit to his mother.
Money no longer is an issue for Jones. He earned $2.4 million on his rookie contract that expired after the 2010 season. In August of 2011, the Packers re-signed Jones for $9.4 million over three years.
More impressive, Rodgers lobbied that offseason for the Packers to make re-signing Jones their No. 1 priority at a time when it was believed the Packers were prepared to part ways.
"You have to always remember where you came from and remember that money didn't mean much to you that back then," Jones said in 2007, when he signed his first contract. "I can't see money changing me if I had $70 million in my pocket right now. I'm happy with $20 because for years that's all I had, that $20. Now the money is just a blessing; I can do things that I always wanted to do, but couldn't."
He also has a college degree in his possession, making him the first to accomplish that, and a spot on one of only eight teams left in the NFL playoffs.
Those are things that no one can take away from him this time.