The excitement began last month when Roxann Block and her three children were among three families randomly chosen by UpSpring, a greater Cincinnati organization that supports homeless families, to participate in a weekend of fun hosted by Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III.
“Me and my kids are kind of down-and-out, suffering through some homelessness and some issues in our personal lives,” said Block, 37, of Newport, Kentucky, just over the bridge from Ohio. “And it was extra-depressing around Christmas, so that opportunity brightened us up. It was something to look forward to.”
Bates, who took part through his JB3 Single Mother’s Initiative, and his two siblings lived through similar challenges as children of a single mother.
“This is something I’m very passionate about because I was raised by a single mother and I know how hard she worked,” said Bates, whose Bengals play the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. “She was a great example to us, so doing this initiative with my mom is pretty cool.”
Bates, his older sister and younger brother were raised by their mother, Theresa Trotter, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Trotter, who often worked two jobs, said Bates’ father was not involved much in their lives.
“I always remember my mom dropping us off at grandma’s house because she had to go to work superearly in the morning,” Bates said. “You’re always taught the man is the head of the household, but my mom was always that person. She was the provider. She was the one going to work, grinding and paying all the bills.”
Despite long work hours and limited personal time with her children, Trotter took on the responsibility to get Bates to his practices and games, from Pop Warner football to little league baseball and basketball.
“I’m getting picked up by my mom at school, she’s taking me to practice and finding time to cook dinner,” Bates said. “She’d have a full day, but I’m thankful she found the time and got me involved in so many things.”
Trotter’s dual role also meant she took him to his first NFL game when he was in the fifth grade. It was a preview of his future.
“It’s crazy how things have come full circle with me being drafted by the Bengals,” said Bates, whose first game as a fan was between the Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. “I was a Ray Lewis fan, and my mom knows football, so she knew what game to go to. Having a connection with my mom makes our relationship really special.”
The bond between mother and son was evident when Bates’ future Snider High School football coach visited his home before his freshman season. It was routine for coach Kurt Tippmann to make home visits to introduce himself to families whose sons planned to play for the high school.
“That was my first meeting with his mom, and she was probably working two jobs, but she was on top of her son’s academics,” Tippmann said. “And she made it clear that she was going to monitor his academics. Over the years, she was always supportive.”
It didn’t take long for Tippmann to recognize Bates’ early passion to assist others in need.
‘We didn’t teach him to have a caring heart. He had that when he showed up, and that’s all because of his mother’s upbringing.’
At the time, Bates’ high school had a relationship with several organizations that needed volunteers. One group, Erin’s House, readily accepted help once a month from the football team.
Tippmann said Bates participated without being encouraged to do so.
“You can tell the influence parents have on a kid,” said Tippmann. “We didn’t teach him to have a caring heart. He had that when he showed up, and that’s all because of his mother’s upbringing.”
Trotter’s impact remained with Bates on and off the field as he blossomed into one of the top players in the state, and one of the better players in Snider High School’s history. It’s a history that includes NFL Hall of Famer Rod Woodson and former NFL running back Vaughn Dunbar.
“Jessie’s not some freak athlete that’s better than everybody he’s playing against; he had to work his tail off and that comes from his mom,” Tippmann said. “It was her example instilled in him when he was growing up, and that’s been his key to success through his college and NFL years.”
Bates, who turns 25 in February, was a freshman All-America and earned All-ACC honors at Wake Forest. He became a second-round pick by the Bengals in 2018 and has since developed into one of the better safeties in the game. His interception on the opening play of last week’s AFC divisional-round playoff game against the Tennessee Titans set the tone for the Bengals’ eventual victory.
But Bates’ focus remains on those families with struggles similar to what he experienced as a child. According to the results of a Census Bureau population survey released in April 2021, the number of children living with only their mother has more than doubled since 1968, to about 15.3 million in 2020.
“A lot of people may look at being raised by a single parent as an excuse in getting into trouble or hanging with the wrong group just because Pop wasn’t there,” said Bates, who has since developed a stronger relationship with his father, Jessie Bates II. “But my mom did an awesome job by first setting the example. And if she didn’t do it [raise me], who in the hell else was going to?”
Bates developed his initiative with RISE Sports Advisors, a management consulting firm that helped him partner with UpSpring and Bigger Than Sneakers, a mentorship and youth-focused community organization. Bates participated in a shopping spree with homeless children in 2019. Last month, he had three families picked up in a limousine for bowling and pizza.
“We’ve never been in a limousine and my kids were so excited,” Block said. “It was so nice to experience it in all of our pain and suffering and with us all dealing with COVID. To have my kids smile and forget about everything else for that time inspired them, and they now feel some hope.”
The next day after bowling and dinner, Bates hosted the families in his suite at Paul Brown Stadium when the Bengals played the San Francisco 49ers. The day wasn’t perfect — the Bengals lost in overtime — but his visit to the suite after the game changed Bates’ thought process.
“We lost, and I’m walking up to the suite after the game pissed off,” he said. “I walked in and those kids were so excited to be there and that was superhumbling.”
While Bates was on the field, it gave his mother the opportunity to listen to the different mothers about their challenges. It also gave her a chance to share her experiences.
“I’m there to listen and to encourage,” Trotter said of her role in her son’s initiative. “I’m there to answer any questions about my life and be there for anyone who wants to share their story.”
Bates presented the families with Christmas gifts, but he wants his program to grow far beyond a gift-giving entity. Bates and his mom have ideas for the initiative to provide financial literacy for single mothers and possibly sponsor athletic endeavors for children.
“Hopefully, when I get the bag [a bigger contract], it will help boost things,” said Bates, who’s in the last year of his rookie contract. “So that could be funding a scholarship, helping mothers finish school or helping their kids go to school. There’s a lot of things I want to accomplish with this initiative.”
Until then, and at least for now, Bates’ devotion to single mothers has left an indelible impression.
“This experience was the best set of memories my children and I have had over the last two years,” said Block. “When we watch the Bengals games, we’re constantly looking for No. 30. His kindness touched me and my family. He’s our superstar.”