Justin Jones

How Justin Jones draws on tough past to help Chicago-area kids

Jones earned recognition as a nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award

NBC Universal, Inc.

Leadership, what it means to be a man, how to face adversity head-on. These are the things that matter to Bears defensive tackle Justin Jones. These are also the things that Jones wants to impart on kids in the area who don’t have role models to look up to.

Jones is the Bears nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award this year, in large part due to his community outreach. In particular, Jones likes to participate in Youth Guidance’s “Becoming a Man” program, or BAM, where he gets one-on-one time to mentor boys between seven and 12 years old. Per Youth Guidance’s website, the program is designed to help them “learn, internalize and practice social cognitive skills, make responsible decisions for their future and become positive members of their school and community.”

“I love what they provide to the community,” Jones said. “I love what they’re doing. I wish I had that when I was younger.”

The cause is especially important to Jones because he didn’t have a father figure in his life. He was raised by a single mother in Georgia, and he learned a lot about resiliency and providing for family from her. But when it came time to be a father himself, he was scared. Since he didn’t have that father figure, he didn’t know how to act. So when Jones’ wife Kandace gave birth to their daughter Kamiah three years ago, Jones decided to stitch together the aspects he liked best from the role models in his life.

“I’ve built my own little portrait of what it’s supposed to be like.”

The central figure in Jones’ fatherhood canvas is his former strength coach from NC State, Dantonio Burnette, aka Coach Thunder.

“He was a real big family guy and he was one that, at a pivotal time in my life, sat down with me and taught me about these things and showed me the importance of it,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like he was just talking about it, too. He walked it.”

One thing that made an impression upon Jones was when Burnette invited him over for Thanksgiving. Jones saw how Burnette treated his family and how he spoke to his wife. He was taken by Burnette’s nature as a father and filed it away.

“It was a beautiful thing. He taught me in a short period of time what it’s supposed to be like, and I loved it.”

That wasn’t all Jones learned from Burnette. His former coach taught him about bravery and having the courage to face tough situations, even when it’s scary. Burnette taught him how to properly communicate with people and how to properly channel his emotions. Burnette taught him that it’s ok to cry, even though he’s a man.

One of the biggest problems that Jones believes men face today is that they don’t know what to do with their emotions. Call it toxic masculinity. Call it a reluctance to get in touch with oneself. Call it whatever you want. Jones simply believes it’s important for young men to learn how to process their feelings in a healthy way and tries to relay that to his BAM mentees.

Jones also appreciates the opportunity to inspire a young man who might be going through a rough patch and encourage him that things will get better. He draws on his own experience to hopefully help the kids see a bright future even if the present seems bleak.

“We lost our house in 2010, 2008 or something like that. When I was in Georgia it rained for like seven days straight, and our house sat between two rivers. The water overflowed and flooded our house, and the water got to our second floor. We had to swim out of there to get to the front door. Me, my mom, my stepdad and my brother had to swim to get out of our house. My brother had to sit on my stepdad’s back. I remember my momma got sick because she got bit by something in the water.”

Jones and his family had to stay at his aunt’s house for months, and when they returned their house was totaled. His mom didn’t have flood insurance since they didn’t live in a flood zone and their family was already just getting by before the disaster struck.

“She had to build it back from the bottom up, again,” Jones said. “Seeing her go through that tough time with two kids, she’s by herself and she’s the main provider, and having to deal with this– it’s like, man, she did it. She toughed through it. To this day, if things get hard I know there’s a way through.”

It is important for Jones to share these lessons with the kids he mentors in BAM, but now he’s excited to share them with his own son, who is just two days old.

On Monday, Justin and Kandace welcomed their second child into the world, Jru Maurice Jones. Kandace picked the name since Justin picked out Kamiah for their daughter. Maurice is also Justin’s middle name.

“My son sounds like an All-Star. When he was born I was like, ‘Jruuuuu Mauriiiiice Joooooones!’” Jones said in his best PA announcer voice. “They say Maurice Jones-Drew, or Jrue Holiday. No, it’s Jru Jones. Jruuuuuuu Jooooones. I get used to that, man.”

By now, Jones’ nervousness about becoming a dad has given way to excitement. He loves it.

“Honestly, it’s fun,” Jones said. “It has its tough times every now and again, but I feel like when you’ve got a good partner to help you it’s easy. When you’re both on the same page and when you both agree on certain things, and stand on the same morals and stuff like that, it’s good.”

The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner will be announced on Feb. 6.

Click here to follow the Under Center Podcast.

Contact Us