SAN JOSE -- Judy Vargas was among the first defenders to cover James Jones. It did not go well.
The longtime worker at a San Jose homeless shelter used to chase the future NFL receiver around the corridors when play time was over. "That was me," Jones said, "always trying to run the other way when someone said, 'Come here.' She was one of the main people I was running from."
Vargas has it easier these days. Jones is back at the shelter, having made it clear he's never going away.
Jones signed a three-year, $11.3 million contract with the Raiders during the offseason. And though he'd always kept a connection to this shelter and to others who helped him escape the poverty of his youth, he had done so from afar. The former San Jose State star spent the first seven seasons of his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers.
The Raiders, of course, signed him not for his giving but for his receiving. Jones is coming off a career high in receiving yards (817) despite playing through nagging injuries last season. He led the NFL with 14 touchdown catches in 2012.
Jones, 30, has spent training camp in Napa angling for a spot on a depth chart that also includes Rod Streater, Andre Holmes, Greg Little and Denarius Moore.
'I've been in their shoes'
On the night before camp opened, shortly after 5 p.m. on a Tuesday evening in July, the San Jose native went home -- or at least as close as he could get. The San Jose Family Homeless Shelter, where Jones and his mother, Janet, once spent several months, has relocated down the road to here, on North King Road.
In anticipation of Jones' arrival, the cafeteria is speckled with residents wearing Raiders gear. Jones and his family, including his mother, spend the evening dishing out chicken, ribs, baked beans, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, salad and banana pudding catered by Famous Dave's Bar-B-Que. Jones wears plastic gloves and an apron to shield himself from the sauce.
People come back for seconds, which is the highlight of Jones' night. One of the things he remembers most about being homeless is that the food could be lousy.
"I've been in their shoes, where a lot of the meals daily are not that good. A lot of the meals still leave you hungry," he said. "(Tonight) you see the little kids coming back for seconds with a smile on their faces. One kid came up and said, 'This is real cornbread. The cornbread is so good.' That's why we come."
Vargas, in her 19th year on the staff, dines at a corner table. She is asked what it means to have Jones back, this time as an honorary co-worker. "I think he means inspiration," she said. "I think he means success. I think he means that if he can do it, then it's up to them to succeed also."
Vargas' eyes scan the room.
"This can be just a pit stop," she said.
A few weeks earlier, Jones had given the residents food for thought. He gave a talk about his own life story, and how he had changed the plot line. Jones pulled himself up by his bootstraps and eventually strapped on cleats at the Super Bowl.
"He believes in hand up, not a handout," said his wife, Tamika, who met Jones while they were both students at San Jose State. "So anybody who can help them get on their feet, that's what he's interested in. It's not a sad time. It's a joyous time. It's a time to say, 'I know you're here, but this isn't the end.' "
An unstable childhood
Jones lived in and out of shelters from age 8 to 14. His father, also named James, wasn't in the picture at that time. His mother, Janet, took James and his sister, Desiree, to a friend or relative's place on some nights and cheap hotels on others. When there was no money left, they went to homeless shelters like this one.
Jones attended seven elementary schools. Packing never took long. His only prized possessions were a backpack and a basketball.
"The worst part about being homeless is not knowing what your next step is, not knowing where you're going to lay your head next," he said, shortly after serving up the last plate of the night. "You only get a certain amount of time you can stay here. And once those three months are up, that's the scary time. Because now where are you going to go?"
Jones' life stabilized when he reached high school. He was 15 when he decided he could leave his mother's side and went to live with his paternal grandmother, Bernice Calhoun, who ran a strict home. Janet Jones, who had struggled to hold down employment, found a job and an apartment and came to all of James' games.
Jones thrived at Gunderson High, averaging 18.2 points on the basketball court, jumping 6 feet, 8 inches in the high jump during track season and starring as a quarterback, receiver and safety on the football team.
When he got to San Jose State, he and Tamika found each other through mutual friends. But it took many years before his future wife fully understood about his life to that point.
"Believe it or not, no. A lot of his friends from high school, and even in middle school, never knew he was homeless," Tamika said. "If somebody wanted to go to his house to play. He would just say, 'Oh, no. Not today. My mom said I can't have company.' "
Tamika found out many of the gritty details only after the Packers selected Jones in the third round of the 2007 draft. News stories detailed his odyssey of homelessness, and with each one Jones slowly felt more comfortable about opening up.
These days, Jones wants everyone to know his tale, especially those who are in his shoes. He started his own foundation, Love Jones 4 Kids, and became so active in the Green Bay charity scene that "I think the whole community cried when he left," said Mary Deckert, a board member of the Freedom House Family Life Advancement Center in Green Bay.
"Not just because he was a good football player, even if he was that, too, but just because he was a great guy. He was always humbled and never forgot where he came from."
A passion for giving
Deckert recalled how Jones would help with annual community service announcements, pitch in with fundraising and stop by in person. More than once, he made friendships with the residents that continued long after he left.
"For him to come to the shelter and look somebody in the eye, somebody who feels totally worthless because they can't take care of their family, and say, 'You can turn this around' -- that means something to them," Deckert said. "If I say that, they just say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.'
"What he does, it's priceless. You can't quantify the value of that to somebody in need."
Jones said he is continuing his connection to his Green Bay charities, even from his new East Bay address. He doesn't want to leave them in the lurch. But he concedes that it's extra special to be doing his charity work from the Bay Area.
"It's changed because I'm really giving back to my town, to my people," he said.
Desiree Lopez, who fled domestic violence to live in the shelter, was among those enjoying the Jones dinner. Lopez and her 9-month-old son were both wearing Raiders gear. "For someone like that to do something like this is just amazing to me," she said. "You don't see too many famous people coming and giving back."
She said she recently found a permanent home in Nevada and hopes to become a registered nurse.
Jones said that he still gets emotional on nights like this when he reflects on all he's been through. He even remembered the way Judy Vargas used to chase him around and tried to wrap him up, just like NFL defensive backs do these days.
"She wasn't as good as they are now," Jones said, "but she definitely got me ready."
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.
in hand up,
not a handout. So anybody who can help them get on their feet, that's what he's interested in.
It's not a sad time. It's a joyous time. It's a time to say,
'I know you're here, but this
isn't the end.' "
- Tamika Jones,
about her husband,
Allen says Raiders got glimpse of tighter officiating. PAGE 2