GREEN BAY – In what easily has been the most difficult year of Aaron Jones' life, the Packers' Pro Bowl running back went home Tuesday with a trophy commemorating his nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
Waiting for Jones was his mother, Vurgess, who herself has been through a great deal in 2021 after losing her husband of 23 years, Alvin, in April due to complications resulting from COVID-19.
Alvin's passing hit Aaron and the rest of his family hard. What should have been the happiest professional moment of Aaron's life, signing a long-term contract with the Packers, turned into a time of mourning when Alvin died at 57 less than a month later.
The Jones family pulled together through the sorrow. Aaron dedicated the remainder of his NFL career to his father's memory and had a locket made to carry some of Alvin's ashes.
Even more than on-field achievement, Alvin and Vurgess took greater pride in what Aaron and his twin brother Alvin Jr. did to give back away from the football field, whether it be charity or good deeds.
Aaron's selection as the Packers' nominee for NFL Man of the Year is the culmination of all that. After being presented with the trophy on Tuesday, Vurgess cleared a place on her son's mantle and set it beside the ashes of Alvin Sr.
"He's always been there," said Aaron after practice on Wednesday. "(He) and my mom have helped turn me into the man I am today, along with a lot of other people, a lot of people in this facility. It's just a blessing. I think that's one of the highest honors you can get, Man of the Year."
Alvin Sr. and Vurgess combined to serve in the United States Army for 56 years, with multiple overseas deployments separating them from their children for months at a time. However, distance brought the family closer.
The couple was completely invested into their children's athletics. Alvin Sr. paid out of his pocket to send Aaron and Alvin Jr. to the first football camp they ever participated in, a catalyst for the twins later creating their own free football camp for children in their hometown of El Paso, Texas.
Alvin and Vurgess eventually retired in time to follow their sons' careers at UTEP and later traveled to every game Aaron played during his first three seasons with the Packers.
While Aaron's on-field profile rose, the couple helped Aaron and Alvin Jr. lay the groundwork for their A&A All The Way Foundation, which strives to make an impact in the lives of underprivileged children and military families.
The Packers have had several worthy nominees for NFL Man of the Year, including 2014 finalist Aaron Rodgers. Given Jones' selfless and caring personality, All-Pro receiver Davante Adams can think of no one more deserving this particular year.
"This award was truly made for a guy like him," Adams said. "I think there's nobody in the league more deserving than him for this, especially with everything he's gone through with his family over this offseason. You might as well etch his name in it for me. I don't know how it'll play out but he wins the award for me, for sure."
Jones and his father began talking about Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year after attending the NFL Honors ceremony, when Calais Campbell was presented with the 2019 award.
For Jones, it wasn't so much about winning it but just understanding the responsibilities that come with being one of the league's top young running backs.
Jones already had been active in both the Green Bay and El Paso communities, visiting schools and raising money for charities, but listening to Campbell's speech motivated Jones and his parents to establish their own foundation.
Head Coach Matt LaFleur has seen Jones' off-the-field impact with his own eyes. One of his sons is on a youth football team with Jones' training-camp bike kid. On a few occasions, the Pro Bowl running back has stopped to cheer him on.
"This guy is as selfless as I've been around, just everything he does for everybody else," said LaFleur of Jones, who is also the team's nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. "As talented as a player as we all know he is, I think it's pretty obvious he's an even better person. Just everything that he does and the support that he shows, not only for the local community but everything he does outside of here."
Professionally, the 2021 season has brought its own series of challenges on the field for Jones, who was among the multitude of Packers players hampered by injury this year.
Prior to the team's Week 13 bye, a knee injury sidelined Jones during Green Bay's 34-31 loss to Minnesota in Week 12. He returned the following week against the Los Angeles Rams but was limited to just 10 touches.
In addition to the Packers' 36-28 win to improve to 9-3 on the season, Jones came out of the game no worse for wear and did not appear on the injury report Wednesday.
"I felt good enough to play," said Jones of his return against the Rams before the bye. "I love going out there and competing. I love being out there with my brothers. It was a good Rams team and I felt like we needed that win. I felt healthy enough to play, which I was, and made it out of the game healthy."
As the Packers continue to battle for the top seed in the NFC playoffs, Jones hopes to mount a serious bid for the Man of the Year honors – not only to honor his parents but also knowing how far a $250,000 donation could go for his charitable causes.
After placing Aaron's trophy on the mantle, Vurgess was taken aback when she heard her son say a simple and courteous, "Thank you," for everything she and her late husband did for Aaron and his siblings.
"She's like, 'What are you thanking me for? I didn't do anything,'" Aaron recalled. "I looked at her and am like, 'Are you serious? You didn't do anything? I think you had a huge part in raising me into the man I've become today and the things that we're doing. So, I just want to tell you thank you.' She's like, 'Well, when you look at it like that, you're welcome.'
"I love my mom. She's my everything. I thank her for continuing to push through."