In spirit, father of Eagles WR DeSean Jackson continues to inspire
- Published: June 20, 2009 at 01:29 p.m.
- Updated: June 20, 2009 at 02:39 p.m.
“This whole season, the rest of my career, I’m dedicating to my dad,” the 22-year-old wide receiver says.
If there’s one person responsible for Jackson’s success, it’s the man who pushed and led his son to where he stands today — coming off a franchise record-breaking rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In the week leading up to Father’s Day, Jackson’s family gathered together at a friend’s home situated high in the Baldwin Hills overlooking Los Angeles. It’s the same house where the Jacksons waited out the long hours of Draft Day 2008, when the Eagles selected Cal wideout with the 18th pick in the second round. With the loss of his dad heavy on his heart, the comforts of family are most welcome now.
Jackson grew up just east of here in Central L.A., with a dream to play in the NFL beginning when he was only 5 years old. Sundays were spent kicking back on the couch with dad watching football on TV. It was about the only time young DeSean stayed still. By Sunday evenings, his dad would have him out in the park, running patterns, catching quick and difficult passes.
Always the fastest kid in the park, Jackson runs 40 yards in 4.3 seconds today. He inherited his speed from his dad, a track star who used to clock 10.4 in the 100 meters in high school. Back then, Bill had his sights on playing in the pros somewhere, somehow, someday. But his family believed the pursuit of an athlete’s life was just a dreamer’s dream.
“My dad grew up poor in Pittsburgh,” DeSean’s older brother, Byron, explains. “He didn’t have the support he would have needed to play sports beyond high school.”
After high school, Bill went to work in the steel mills, and later on he drove a streetcar for a living. When his own father passed away, Bill and his wife, Gayle, moved to Los Angeles to make a new start. Here, Bill poured his passion for sports into his five sons, especially Byron and DeSean.
“I remember Bill saying all the time, ‘I wish my dad would’ve pushed me,’ Gayle says now. Gayle and Bill divorced when DeSean was 6, but both parents remained devoted to keeping the family united. Bill raised his sons with the hope that each might someday play in the NFL.
To Byron, who would eventually make the Kansas City Chiefs‘ practice squad, Bill would often say, “Think NFL.” To DeSean, who would eventually become a Heisman candidate at Cal, he would say, “Think Heisman.”
Overly involved parents can be found at Pop Warner fields across the California Southland. But DeSean knew that having a father there at all was the greatest blessing.
“A lot of my friends didn’t really have two parents,” he says. “A lot of them only had mothers. To have that father relationship, there’s nothing like it . . . That’s your buddy. You’re doing everything together.”
DeSean and his dad were inseparable, driving around L.A. in a faded red Datsun 260Z from practices to scrimmages to games. At kickoff, there was no parent more boisterous than Bill Jackson.
“I had the craziest Pops,” says DeSean.
“Loud,” says Byron.
“Totally out of control,” adds Gayle. “Everyone in the stands, if you didn’t know who Bill Jackson was, by the end of the game you knew who he was. He would say, ‘I’m DeSean Jackson‘s father, and that’s my boy!’ ”
During games, he was clearly DeSean’s No. 1 fan. During home-cooked training sessions, he was the No. 1 coach.
“He pushed me like no other,” DeSean recalls. “There were times when I felt pushed past 100. It was nonstop.”
“Oh, he pushed them,” Gayle says of Bill’s disciplined drills. “I think he pushed them very hard. To the point sometime where they even questioned themselves. ‘What if I really didn’t want to do this?’ ”
But DeSean never questioned his dad’s motives. “I respected him,” he explains. “I trusted him.” And Bill never questioned whether his son had the drive to go all the way to the pros. He wasn’t big, only 5-foot-10, 175 pounds. “I may be small,” DeSean often chanted, “but I have heart.”
That heart carried him into end zones for the Inglewood Jets and the Long Beach Poly Jackrabbits and the Cal Berkeley Bears and finally now with the Eagles — where he was a key contributor last season on a team that fell one game short of reaching the Super Bowl.
It was only days before last year’s playoff run that Bill Jackson learned he had pancreatic cancer. By the NFC Championship Game against Arizona, he was lying in a hospital bed. The prognosis was grim, but still found the strength to call his son after the Eagles‘ 32-25 loss.
“You played a great game,” he told his son, who had caught a 62-yard touchdown pass that day. “You made me proud.”
Three months later, in April, DeSean moved his dad from a Los Angeles hospital to a hospital near his home in Philadelphia.
In one of their last visits together, his dad seemed to be envisioning his son’s future success.
“He may have been dreaming, like he was at a football game, and he was telling me the score, and I could just remember him telling me he was at an Eagles game,” DeSean says, and then drifts off into the memory.
Earlier on this day, DeSean spent some time on the Marina boardwalk where he and his dad used to stroll together. It was a clear day and he stopped awhile to look out across the ocean where his dad’s ashes were scattered.
“I honestly still don’t feel he’s gone,” DeSean says. “It feels like he’s still here.”
And in many ways, the spirit of Bill Jackson will live on, into the season, through his son.