For Bears defensive tackle Justin Jones, giving back isn't something he thinks much about, but rather something that's always been within him.
Growing up in a single parent household, Jones remembers always having the urge to help his mother, who "worked hard for us." Ensuring his mother had everything she needed was Jones' number one goal and eventually, helping out his brother, teammates or friends became another priority.
"I've always been the helper," Jones said. "I've always felt really good about just making people feel good, making people happy, seeing smiles. Stuff like that makes me happy. So just being able to help somebody else out, even if it's words of encouragement or making sure you have something for Christmas or making sure you got food for Thanksgiving.
"Little stuff like that puts a smile on my face because I don't want anything for Christmas. I don't want anything for my birthday. I want to make sure everybody else is happy. That's kind of how I am."
Since joining the Bears in March 2022, Jones has taken that selfless mindset and giving spirit and spread them throughout the Chicagoland community in various ways, such as becoming a regular on Tuesday community visits, financially helping a single mother and her family during the holidays and supporting the Bears Care Galas.
Jones' dedication to serving the community and using his platform to spread positivity, along with his veteran leadership in the locker room as a consistent starter on the defensive line, earned him the Bears' nomination for 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award presented by Nationwide.
The NFL's most prestigious honor acknowledges players who excel on the field and demonstrate a passion for creating a lasting positive impact beyond the game in their communities.
"This award probably means more to this club than any other club in the National Football League," Bears general manager Ryan Poles said. "For what Walter Payton stood for as a Chicago Bear, we're looking for guys that have those same characteristics in how they're changing the community, especially here in Chicago.
"Justin Jones is a guy that has been out in the community a lot. From supporting women's flag football to being a mentor to young men in the city of Chicago, he's done a fantastic job of making an impact in this city."
During a team meeting in November, Jones was surprised with the nomination through a video from the Payton family. Jones said he wasn't expecting the nomination but "definitely appreciates" the Bears organization and the Payton family for supporting him. Understanding how important community involvement and character to the Bears, Jones is "in awe" that he will represent the club this year.
While Jones did not expect to receive the nomination, anyone who spends time with the veteran knows he is worthy of it. During the season, Jones is a regular attendee of Youth Guidance's "Becoming A Man" program, a counseling program that guides young men in 7-12th grade to learn, internalize and practice social cognitive skills, make responsible decisions for their future and become positive members of their school and community.
When attending the BAM program, Jones participates in talking circles with the young men as they discuss things like dealing with emotions as well as various life experiences and questions.
"Seeing what BAM is doing with all these kids, it's just unreal," Jones said. "Those group sessions, I feel like even if it's just 50 minutes, are some of the most impactful sessions I've ever been a part of because it's real. They're getting a real side of you, aside from football. They want to know, 'what was it like growing up? What's it like being a dad? What's it like being a husband? What's it like being a son? You grew up just like me, how did you do this?' So I feel like that stuff goes the furthest."
Jones' passion for BAM stems from his personal mental health journey. When he was drafted by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2018, Jones moved to a city he'd never even visited before and was across the country from all his family and friends.
He struggled to stay connected with his people because of the time difference and busy schedule of an NFL player. When his family and friends called him, it was too early for him. When he called his friends and family, it was too late for them.
"I kind of went to a dark place being out there," Jones said. "I didn't really want to hang out with everybody and I didn't want to do a lot of different things, just wanted to be by myself. I felt like that's kind of something that I used to do back at that time. When things felt different to me or when things made me feel uncomfortable, I kind of would evade into myself."
It wasn't until Jones' daughter was born at the end of 2020 that he realized what was happening. Wanting to be better for his family, he looked inward and asked himself 'why am I this way?' and learned how to address the things he discovered.
"Emotional intelligence in general, that's something that we don't really talk about as men," Jones said. "When you're growing up and you're crying, it was kind of like 'Hey, man up. We don't cry.' But it is healthy to cry. It is healthy to be upset. It is healthy to be angry. But it's also healthy to be happy and joyful – they are all healthy emotions. But at a young age, you're not really taught how to process those emotions the way that you need to process them so that you can still maintain healthy relationships."
Coming to Chicago helped Jones distance himself further from that dark place. Between the Bears' outreach and team-bonding activities, he continues to be involved in things that keep him connected to everyone around him.
Throughout the last two years, he's started going to dinner with his teammates or playing video games with them. Those moments have helped Jones rediscover his purpose and led him to becoming a mentor for the BAM students.
"Just being able to tell the kids, 'hey, yeah, we're on this big platform, but we're all human and we all fight some kind of demon at some point and sometimes you need help,'" Jones said. "I feel like that's one of the biggest things that BAM has done for not only myself, but a bunch of kids across the area."
Along with his work at BAM, Jones last winter changed the life of Nicole Mitchell — a deaf single mother of three kids in southwest suburban Cook County. Jones adopted Mitchell and her family for the holiday season, providing them with various gift cards for everyday essentials like groceries, gas and electronics as well Bears gear for her, her son Myles and her daughters Mynayla and Myangela.
"I just know that growing up in a single parent home, you can't give your kids everything," Jones said. "For those who have the money to do what they want with their kids, they probably lack time. And those who have the time, they probably lack the funding. If you're doing it all by yourself, something's missing and your kids really do need it all. They need the good gifts to show appreciation, but they also need the time for you to be there."
After a training camp practice in August, Jones met Mitchell and her family for the first time at the Bears' annual Back to School Fair. Jones remembers seeing Mitchell in tears when they met, adding the moment "warmed my heart just to see all the smiles and them being so grateful."
Jones spent extra time talking about football with Myles, who plays running back for Richards High School. Throughout the fall, Jones has kept tabs on Myles, who he said "had a really, really good season."
While Jones has committed himself to helping change lives throughout Chicagoland, he's remained a consistent part of the Bears defense. Starting in all 29 games he's played since coming to Chicago, Jones has totaled 86 tackles, 19 tackles-for-loss, 19 quarterback hits and 5.0 sacks.
The veteran has also served as a mentor to his young teammates like fellow defensive linemen Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens. Since Jones' arrival in Chicago a year-and-a-half ago, Poles has valued his "outstanding" leadership in the locker room and in the community.
"I think the cool thing in terms of how he's helped be a mentor for other people in the city of Chicago as well as young players on our team, is he's tapping into former experiences that he's gone through," Poles said. "If it's performance anxiety, if it's just coming up as a young football player trying to reach his goals, going through the ups and downs of a career — it's never a linear path.
"So for him to use some of the knowledge he's had from his past and spread that not only to the community, but to his teammates, has really impacted this team and this locker room."
As a nominee, Jones will wear a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year helmet decal starting this Sunday against the Lions and through the remainder of the season.
The 2023 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year winner will be announced during NFL Honors, a primetime awards special to air nationally the Thursday before Super Bowl LVIII on CBS. All 32 nominees will receive up to a $55,000 donation and the winner will receive a $250,000 donation to the charity of his choice.
To vote for Justin Jones, fans can post #WPMOYChallenge on X (formerly Twitter) along with his handle @Twenty7Savage or vote directly at NFL.com/ManOfTheYear. The nominee who receives the most collective hashtag mentions and votes will win an additional $35,000 donation from Nationwide to the charity of their choice, with the runner-up receiving $10,000 and the third-place winner receiving $5,000. Charity Challenge voting takes place from Dec. 5th to Jan. 8th.
For more information on the nominees and the award, please visit NFL.com/ManOfTheYear.