Mac Jones came to the East Tuscaloosa Community Soup Bowl because he had to; he stayed because he wanted to.
The University of Alabama’s third-string quarterback from Jacksonville, Florida, who did not play as a freshman in the 2017 season, volunteered to fulfill his community service after he was charged last November with driving under the influence and improper ID for a minor. After failing a field sobriety test, he was arrested at 2:14 a.m. on the Friday before the LSU game, and suspended for that game.
After his 40 hours of community service were up, he kept coming to the soup bowl twice a week.
The soup bowl operates out of a large metal building behind Hargrove Memorial United Methodist Church. It serves hot lunches every Wednesday and Friday, and distributes bagged lunches on Sundays at Alberta Baptist.
When Jones arrived, he met the man who runs the operation: Charlie Simmons, a 58-year-old lay servant who grew up in Brookwood.
“One of the first things I talked about to Mac was I’m not a big football fan,” Simmons said.
Jones answered: “That’s not what I’m here for.”
The young player was looking for more than just a chance to check off some hours to put his legal problems behind him. After the arrest, he apologized to the entire team.
“That wasn’t me,” he told them. “I’m sorry for embarrassing you guys and the program, and I’m going to do whatever I can to prove to you guys what kind of person I am.”
The soup bowl has been his proving ground.
Twice a week, a dozen or so volunteers from any of the 30 to 35 church groups or civic organizations that sponsor the nonprofit Christian program show up to set up 126 chairs around 21 tables — six to a table, with salt and pepper shakers for each table. They cook the food and serve 150 to 170 clients on an average day, more than 200 during the summer months.
It’s free, and anyone is welcome.
“We just serve people and love them,” said Simmons, who sometimes fills in for area pastors when they’re away.
Jones quickly found his place.
“Mac just kind of clicked,” Simmons said. “He’s helped cook. He’s served. He helped put up the Christmas tree. He’ll sweep, mop, whatever.”
He also socializes. Having an Alabama football player who cares is uplifting for many of the clients.
“He’s a big celebrity around here,” Simmons said. “It means a lot to a lot of people.”
Betty Davis, 74, wears an Alabama football shirt every single day. She says she has more than 500 of them. She met Jones at the soup kitchen. One day she asked him to sign her shirt. He obliged.
“He’s the best there is for out here,” Davis said. “He doesn’t have to do it.”
Kathy Lee, 58, volunteers twice a week. If the soup kitchen is open, she’s there. She has watched Jones interact with clients, and watched them light up.
“He would hug people, sit down and listen to their problems,” she said. “He shakes everybody’s hand. Everybody has a story to tell him about a game.”
Lee watched one day as a man engaged Jones for 20 minutes, sharing his favorite Alabama football memory. She thought she might have to pull the young player away, but Jones didn’t want to be rescued.
“He had a smile the whole time,” she said. “His expression never changed.”
Jones says he benefits as much as do the people at the soup bowl.
“It’s definitely something that makes you feel good inside when you’re helping other people and making it not about yourself,” he said. “Going in there and putting a smile on someone’s face or signing a shirt is something that makes you feel good regardless of what’s going on in the world.”
Jones also found a mentor in Simmons, the man he calls Mr. Charlie.
“One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” Jones said. “He means a lot to me and just taking me under his wing both religiously and in general.”
When his mother and sister visited for Thanksgiving, Jones took them to the soup bowl to introduce them to his new friends. As a Christmas present to Simmons, he made a donation to the operation. Simmons got Jones a couple of shirts. They exchanged texts on the holiday.
Jones has taken a break from the soup kitchen since Alabama’s national championship season ended earlier this month. He had to get settled back into school and into his training routine for football, but he’s told Simmons that he will be back. He’s still driven by that mistake that led to him arriving at the soup bowl in the first place, but he’s learned to look at it differently.
“It’s tough because people have that idea about me, about what happened, and I’m really not that type person,” he said. “But anybody can say that. I’m trying to show it.
“Really, I think that was probably one of the best things that’s happened to me. It’s one of those things that happened for me. It didn’t happen to me. You’ve got to look at it like that.”
The clients at the soup bowl look at Jones as their guy on the Alabama team. He hasn’t played a down, but they know who he is.
“We’ve seen him on TV and I said, ‘That’s our No. 10 right there,’ ” Davis said.
In that metal building off Hargrove road in the eastern part of town, Jones has his own team.
“I think it helps people to know that he cares,” said Denise Harris, a 55-year-old client. “He’s a team player. He’s a role model.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.