CINCINNATI -- For the first time in his playing career, Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon dropped to a knee and said a prayer when he scored a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Of his 19 NFL touchdowns and numerous others in high school and college, this one was his favorite. On Sunday, during the NFL's "My Cleats, My Cause" initiative, he donned pink Nikes in memory of Peyton Jones, the sister of a former teammate who was 17 when she died of cancer earlier this year.
"When I put these cleats on, I'm representing her," Mixon said on Wednesday. "I didn't care about anything else, honestly. I was just like, ‘I gotta put on and ball out for her.'"
Mixon rushed for a career-high 146 yards in Cincinnati's 27-19 loss to the Browns. His previous high was a 129-yard performance last season against Oakland.
During Mixon's basketball days at Oakley's Freedom High School, which is 45 minutes northeast of downtown Oakland, a young girl always wanted a picture with him after games. It was Jones, the younger sister of one of Mixon's teammates, Bailey, who graduated three years after Mixon.
Over the years, she kept taking pictures with Mixon and making posters for him. Mixon said she was always happy, smiling, shy around him but talkative around everyone else. The Jones family showed up to support Mixon during his final football game at Freedom.
"I don't know why she likes you so much," Bailey Jones told Mixon.
The last time he talked to Peyton Jones was during his rookie year with the Bengals in 2017. Around that time, Mixon found out Jones was diagnosed with cancer. Mixon heard the recovery and treatment were going well.
Then this summer, Mixon and a friend were on their way to Los Angeles after a former teammate's wedding when he got the text that said Jones died on July 6.
"Me and my boy, we were driving back damn near in tears," Mixon said.
Mixon went back for the funeral and took one of his jerseys with him. He planned on signing the jersey and giving it to Jones' mother, Erica. As he sat there, he decided he wanted to say something. After some prodding from his own mother, Mixon finally made his way forward to speak. He said he was more nervous in that moment than before any game in his career.
"I don't know how I did it, but I did it," said Mixon, who ended up crying at the end of his speech.
Before the Bengals' game at Cleveland in Week 14, Mixon wanted to honor Jones during the NFL's annual "My Cleats, My Cause" weekend in which players wear cleats for something significant to them. He contacted the shoe guy for Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, had them designed and sent them to Jones' family for approval.
In Cleveland, he tied the hot pink laces and had the best game of his career.
"For us, it's unfortunate that we weren't able to take advantage of the day that he had, but I mean, he played really well," Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said.
Mixon called the Jones family after the game and they were happy with the gesture. Erica Jones couldn't be reached for comment as of Wednesday evening.
Mixon kept the ball he carried into the end zone for a touchdown and plans on signing it and bringing the cleats to give to Jones' family the next time he goes back to Oakland.
"I was definitely blessed enough to be in her life," Mixon said. "She forever is going to be in mine."