BEFORE HE LED the NFL in rushing touchdowns, before he finished one TD shy of the single-season Packers franchise record (20) and before the other Aaron in Green Bay's offense suggested Jones should be in the conversation for league MVP, Aaron Jones was a meme.
During the 25-year-old running back's first two NFL seasons, "Free Aaron Jones" was an internet rallying cry, mostly among fantasy football owners. Blame ESPN's Matthew Berry for popularizing the campaign. "We saw that explosiveness early on," Berry says. "In his rookie year, he had 138 yards and two touchdowns on 20 touches against the Saints on Oct. 22, and the next two weeks got a total of 11 touches combined, and you're like, 'What is going on? Free Aaron Jones!'"
Once Berry weighed in, the slogan became a hashtag, a Reddit thread, a headline on Packers blogs -- you know how these things go. Soon Jones' face was being transposed onto #FreeBritney (Spears) posters. Cheeseheads brought signs to Lambeau Field, begging then-coach Mike McCarthy to give Jones some of Jamaal Williams' touches. A #FreeAaronJones sign popped up at College GameDay for a Pac-12 game in ... Pullman, Washington.
"Of course I saw all of that," says Alvin Jones, Aaron's twin brother. "There were always a bunch of people on Twitter saying they need to get him the ball more. He was averaging 5, 6, 7 yards a carry but was only getting like six, seven, eight touches a game." (Sure enough: From 2017 to '18, Jones led the NFL with 5.5 yards per carry, yet he averaged fewer than nine attempts per game.)
So the 2017 fifth-round pick made the most of his limited touches. Per Elias Sports Bureau data, the only Super Bowl-era players to average at least 5.4 yards per rush (minimum 200 attempts) with 10 rushing touchdowns in their first two NFL seasons? Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, Clinton Portis and ... Aaron Jones.
"I'm not going to sit up here and cry about not getting the ball or wanting the ball," Aaron says now. "I'm going to go out there in practice and show you that I want it. If you don't give it to me, it's fine, no hard feelings, nothing. I'm just going to go back and work harder and work harder until I get my opportunity. And then when I get that opportunity, I'm gonna run with it."
When coach Matt LaFleur took over in Green Bay this season, he brought an offense that incorporated Jones more in the passing game, split him out in empty formations and let him run receiver routes -- and yes, asked him more often to run free to the end zone. No surprise, Jones has career highs in virtually every counting stat: 1,084 rushing yards and 16 rushing TDs; 49 receptions for 474 yards and three scores.
With Jones on the field, Green Bay generated an added .15 expected points per play -- third in the NFL, behind only the Ravens and the Chiefs. (Without Jones, they rank 29th.) The Packers' offense, pass-happy for most of Aaron Rodgers' tenure, finally had a dynamic rushing weapon.
"You see the stuff Aaron is doing out there," defensive end Montravius Adams says, "and it's like, 'We should have been doing that a while ago. He's been here all along.'"
Having gone from meme to star, the military kid who followed his parents from Germany to Virginia to the border of Mexico, learning about sacrifice and how to build off energy from those closest to him, finally got his opportunity this year. Now he's running with it.
EVEN WHEN THE entire world was clamoring for Jones to make more of an impact, Jones himself never complained. In fact, ask Packers players and they'll agree: He's probably the most polite player on the team.
"He doesn't say much, he's always in a good mood, and he just works," offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga says. "He's a big 'yes sir' guy, too. I think he even says it to Aaron [Rodgers]." ("I do," Jones confirms. "And Aaron's response is always, 'OK, kid,' which puts a smile on my face.")
Adds the 40-year-old LaFleur: "I feel like I'm too young for him to be calling me sir. I'm always telling him, 'You can call me Coach if you want, but don't call me sir.' But that's the way he was raised."
Aaron's father, Alvin, grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and was quite the running back himself -- at least, that's what his high school buddies tell Aaron. "They're always saying, 'If you're half as good as your dad was, you'll be OK,'" Aaron says.
But Alvin Jones' football career ended before it could take off. He quit high school football to help provide for his family, double-shifting jobs at Chuck E. Cheese and the naval base. At 19, he enlisted in the Army. "I wanted to see something out in the world other than what I was seeing," Alvin says.
While stationed in South Korea, Alvin met Vurgess, who was in human resources at Camp Page. They got married when they returned to the U.S. They had a son, Xavier, and a daughter, Chelsirae. Then in 1994, Vurgess gave birth to twins: Aaron and Alvin Jr.
When the twins were 2, Vurgess and Alvin Sr. were stationed in Heidelberg, Germany. The boys were enrolled in a German day care and became fluent in the language, often accompanying their mother to the grocery store to help translate.
After three years overseas, the family moved to Fort Camp, Kentucky, then to Tennessee. For a few years, the boys used German like their own secret language, one only they could understand. (Eventually, they lost it -- Vurgess looked, but there weren't any German tutors nearby.)
"We might as well have been conjoined twins," Aaron says. "We did everything together."
And, as with many young brothers, everything was a competition, especially for Aaron: who could get to the car first, who could finish his homework faster. If the boys ever fought, Vurgess forced them to hold hands in public. She called it "love therapy." No surprise, that competition followed to their pee wee football league, which they started in Tennessee at age 5. On the first day of practice, the players lined up: Whoever was fastest would be the team's running back.
IN 2003, VURGESS and Aaron Sr. both deployed to Iraq, and the kids moved in with relatives in Norfolk. "It sucked; it was awful," Alvin Jr. says. "I don't think we understood it as much; we just wanted to be with our family."
Alvin Sr., as first sergeant of his unit, had access to the internet and long-distance phone lines. To communicate with Vurgess, the kids had to write.
In every letter, Aaron would tell his mom he loved her and missed her. In every letter back, Vurgess reminded Aaron that he was her sunshine. Every night, Aaron and Alvin Jr. would get together in their bedroom and pray for their parents to come home.
Things also weren't easy for Alvin Sr., who was having conversations that would echo the ones he had with his son years later. "I was leading 200-plus soldiers that I had to worry about every day," he says. "I worried about my wife, who was on the other side of the country, and my kids, who were back home. I would spend hours and hours at night staring at the stars, talking with a soldier, reassuring them everything was going to be all right. We train for this, so we're ready."
After a year in Iraq, the family reunited when Alvin Sr. and Vurgess were stationed near Virginia Beach. For Aaron, in elementary school, this was football heaven, with exposure to top-end talent. Michael Vick (then with the Falcons) would often visit his hometown -- and since one of the mothers on the boys' rec team braided Vick's hair, he once stopped by their practice to throw balls. On Friday nights, Alvin Sr. would take the boys to see Tyrod Taylor's high school games in Hampton. Percy Harvin was playing, too, right in Virginia Beach.
This was Aaron's first exposure to recruiting. He saw programs such as USC, Michigan and Florida try to woo Harvin; it was a huge deal when Taylor signed with nearby Virginia Tech. Aaron wanted that too. "Those two are athletes I looked up to; they were playmakers," Aaron says. "Anytime they got the ball, it felt like they had a chance to take it to the house. I was like, 'I want to be like them.'"
But when the boys turned 12, their dad took them to see "Glory Road." "This is El Paso," he said. "And that's where we're moving."
Aaron knew it was Texas, and Texas had to have good football. "But then I looked at a map, and I was like, 'This is Mexico,'" he says. The boys switched out of band and into Spanish class, and three months later, the family packed up the van and drove 30 hours to its new home.
The football hoopla paled next to that in Virginia Beach. "In El Paso, at the time, there were athletes, but they just weren't getting recruited," Aaron says. "Ten hours away in Dallas, 12 hours away in Houston or East Texas, you could see hundreds of athletes, instead of going to El Paso and seeing maybe four or five kids. The recruiters never really came out here."
Alvin Jones Sr., then running a battalion of 800 to 1,000 soldiers, missed games and recruiting visits. He was at 29 years of service, and at that point, most try to make it to 30. But Alvin Sr. decided to retire before the twins' senior year. "All of their lives, we asked them to sacrifice," he says. "This was the time to be about them."
"My dad never met his dad," Aaron says now. "So he doesn't even know what a father is supposed to look like. But you would never know that because of the things he's done with me and my brother. He's shown me how to be a man and eventually how to be a father."
From the day he retired, Alvin Sr. would never miss one of his sons' games. He started a marketing company to help his boys get recruited. Though neither was highly rated, Aaron was starting to get some looks -- it helped when he rushed for 335 yards in a Texas regional playoff game against Wichita Falls Rider High School (led by future Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett). By senior year, Aaron had three offers: UTEP, New Mexico State and UTSA. After near-constant relocation for his entire life, there was an appeal to UTEP, where he could live 12 minutes from his parents. The final incentive for him to sign came when the Miners finally offered his brother, a linebacker, a spot.
At UTEP, Aaron ran for more than 4,000 yards, ranking fourth in the FBS in 2016 with 1,773 yards (ahead of Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley and Kareem Hunt). He displayed the same traits the Packers are finally exploiting: He was a reliable receiver out of the backfield and showed off his explosiveness, with eight runs of more than 40 yards in his final season. Jones declared after his junior year, with the promise to Vurgess that he would complete his college degree as soon as he could.
Going into the 2017 NFL draft, the Joneses knew the 49ers, Ravens and Packers were most interested. San Francisco traded up for Joe Williams in the fourth round, and the Packers selected Jamaal Williams with their fourth-round pick. And then one round later, Aaron got a call. "Hello, this is Ted Thompson. How would you like to be a Green Bay Packer?" In all, 18 running backs were selected ahead of Jones.
"I felt like there wasn't 18 running backs better than me," Jones says. "But I knew I just needed a chance and I'd be OK. I worked so hard for this -- my family worked so hard for this."
SINCE JONES AND Williams were drafted one round apart and compete for reps, it's easy to assume a natural rivalry. But the two are the best of friends. They moved into houses across the street from each other in Green Bay. After games, Williams drives right to Jones' house -- where Vurgess, who comes to town for every game, has cooked up a postgame spread of gumbo and crab legs. "Everything she cooks is amazing; I love it," Williams says, literally licking his lips.
The only time Jones gets jealous of Williams is when it comes to video games. "He's so used to me beating him," Williams says. "When he beats me, he gets real excited like he just won the Super Bowl. He'll call his girlfriend like, 'Hey, I just beat Jamaal!'"
When Williams suffered a concussion in a game against the Eagles earlier this season, he had to spend the night in the hospital. Right after the game, Jones went to the Packers' family waiting area. "Jamaal's daughter was just hanging all over Aaron; he was carrying her around like she was his kid," Green Bay fullback Danny Vitale says. "I mean, that girl gives me the stank face every time I see her, but she was so comfortable around Aaron. She wouldn't let anybody else touch her."
Jones then went to the hospital to visit Williams. And it was Alvin Sr. and Vurgess who watched Williams' daughter overnight.
Earlier this season, Jones told Williams how he felt. "I've never been on my own," he says. "Even when my parents were away, I always had my brother there. You give me somebody; you're my brother for life." (Williams, known around the team as a goofball, replied: "Bro, good choice. I have the capacity of three people!")
And when it comes to reps, there's never any animosity. "They're each other's biggest cheerleaders," Bulaga says. When Jones discusses what he likes about LaFleur's offense, the first thing he points to? "It's so cool because me and Jamaal have been on the field at the same time celebrating touchdowns," he says. "It doesn't get any better than that."
"I can't tell you how refreshing that is as a coach," LaFleur says, "to see two guys who ultimately are competing for time with one another and cheering for one another."
When Jones talks about what he likes about LaFleur's offense, he gets giddy. He literally can't stop smiling when he discusses how much fun he is having this season.
In the spring, when the coach gave Jones a call to introduce himself, he talked a little about the offense he wanted to install. "He told me about how he likes to use his backs in the passing game as well," Jones recalls.
Jones was thrilled. That very day, he was working on route running as part of his training. "I feel like that's one of the strengths of my game -- versatility," he says. "Coach LaFleur came in and he stuck true to everything he said. I love being matched up on linebackers, sometimes bigger linebackers that don't move as well.
"I love when [opponents] don't know if you're running outside zone, you fake outside zone and you leak in the flat and you're wide open. They see everyone going deep and you're sitting over there in the flat, it's like -- let's go."
ALL OF LAFLEUR'S plans have played out this year, to the delight of fantasy owners everywhere. ("I mean, he leads the NFL in touchdowns, so I'd say he's pretty free," wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling says.) But Jones still hasn't been totally unleashed.
Even this season, there have been games when it feels as if the Packers are slow to call on Jones. "I mean, he's such a dynamic player, you'd like to get him the ball on every play," LaFleur says. "But I don't want to take for granted how physical a position he plays. And when I look at just how long the season is, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. You're always trying to find the right balance -- are we getting him the ball enough and not really wearing him out."
But starting this week, LaFleur says, he might be ready to fully free Jones. "You gotta do whatever you gotta do when it gets to [the playoffs]. And that means calling on your playmakers."
To the surprise of no one who knows him, Jones has remained humble through his assurgency this season. He fulfilled his promise to his mother and graduated from UTEP in May 2018, one year after he was drafted. Onstage, he ripped his gown open to reveal a Packers jersey underneath. Though a local dealership lends him a car for the season, Jones often still drives the same 2003 Ford Explorer he and his brother shared in high school. (Alvin Sr. does maintenance on it and has added a new sound system and rims.) He strives to get better every year. His goal entering 2019 was to trim body fat, so he eliminated candy from his diet. He maintained his weight of 205 but slashed his body fat percentage from 11% to 5.3%.
And no matter where his career takes him, Jones falls back on his parents. "Growing up in a military family, I learned a junkyard mentality," he says. "You protect what's yours, you stand for what you believe in, and you always have faith. You have to have faith when your family is over there. And in life, you have to have faith in the plan -- no matter how long it takes."