TAMPA — It starts below the sparkling diamond piercing his left ear: 1 of 1, Fear NONE!
There might not be a better description of DeSean Jackson than the one tattooed on DeSean Jackson.
At 5 feet 10 and 175 pounds, Jackson is pound for pound maybe the toughest player in the NFL.
Now 30, he somehow has maintained his electrifying speed and was clocked as the second-fastest man in the league last season.
His story is the kind they make movies about. In fact, they made a documentary of it. DeSean Jackson: The Making of a Father’s Dream.
Jackson’s father, Bill, was a bus driver who moved his family from New Jersey to the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. He drove his sons, Byron and DeSean, hard enough to become NFL players. Byron played receiver for two years on the Chiefs practice squad and is now a filmmaker.
Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during DeSean’s rookie season as a second-round pick of the Eagles, which included a run to the NFC Championship Game. He died in 2009.
Seven receivers were taken ahead of Jackson out of Cal, and only he and the Packers’ Jordy Nelson remain in the NFL. But Jackson was an instant star with the Eagles as a receiver and kick returner.
He earned a reputation for preening and adding much flash to go with his dash. Twice he dropped the ball at the 1-yard line in a premature touchdown but there’s no denying his greatness. Jackson’s career average is 17.7 yards per reception. He’s two catches shy of 500 and has 8,819 receiving yards and 46 touchdowns.
But his six seasons with the Eagles came to an abrupt end when the team released Jackson, reportedly for his work ethic and attitude but also for his alleged ties to Los Angeles street gang members.
Jackson rebuilt his career in three seasons with Washington before signing a three-year, $33.5 million contract with the Bucs with $20 million guaranteed.
Jackson is an engaging entrepreneur off the field, who owns a record company, a marketing company and was the co-producer of All Eyez on Me, a biopic on rapper Tupac Shakur.
He’s father to his nearly 2-year-old son, DeSean Jr. He’s bright, driven, fast, rich, likeable, little and afraid of nothing.
We caught up with DeSean at his new 5,000-square-foot home in North Tampa for a reflective interview with the Bucs’ new star.
What’s fatherhood like?
It’s great, man. It’s taught me a lot more patience to be mellow, and really it’s just all about teaching. Being in the mode of wanting him to do all the right things and grow up and be raised the right way. You take a step back, because you know, just kind of think how I want him to do things.
So much of your story is about A Father’s Dream. Do you have a father’s dream for your son?
The only thing different would be I don’t want him to play football. I want him to play like baseball or basketball probably, where they’re getting all that crazy guaranteed money. I mean if he comes to me saying he wants to do it, obviously, I’m going to let him do it. But I think my dreams would be a little different.
Everything my dad taught me growing up, the characteristics, the hard work, being able to get up and go get it, I still have the same mentality with my son that my dad had for me.
Did you imagine you would be entering your 10th year in the NFL?
Honestly, it’s a blessing. You get all the young guys coming in, the freak of natures, big guys, little fast guys, and it continues year in and year out. So to be going into my 10th year and be playing in Tampa Bay — I couldn’t have predicted that. Like I say, it’s a blessing. I count my blessings and continue to work hard.
It’s a new year, so I’m excited about it. I don’t know if I could’ve predicted that story way back then when I was younger. I don’t know. But I’m definitely happy still to be able to play in the NFL at a high level.
This is a new start, your third team, what about being in Tampa Bay excites you?
I think even before I started, going back to last season with the Redskins, we were trying to make a push into the playoffs last year. Us and Tampa were going back and forth. We would play a game, just finish a game, and we’d be looking over seeing what they were doing on SportsCenter. They had an intriguing team. I think last year they started some great things here with the way their defense played. They had a physical defense, with the linebackers they’ve got and the D-line.
There’s a lot of upside to this team, so I was able to keep my eye on them last year going into free agency and the offseason.
Once I knew they were going to be really interested in me, it just kind of lit a spark in me thinking, “They’ve got Jameis (Winston), they’ve got Mike (Evans). They’ve got a good defense.” I was like, “Man, it’d be cool to play with them.” So once it got time for free agency to see they wanted me, I was like, “Yeah, I think that might be the play right there.” Just looking at them last year, I thought this would be a good fit.”
Did you have any interaction with Winston before signing with the Bucs?
Not really. It was kind of phone calls when he reached out. We just had a good relationship. He showed me early on respect by telling me, “Man, I’d love to have a fast receiver like you. I’ve never played with a guy like that.” So just to have that relationship, being friends and competitors in the NFL, respecting each other, it was one of those “I would love to play with you.” There were never any in-depth conversations, just “Man, if we played together, it would be scary.” And look how it plays out.
How are you going to like living here?
I’m a California guy, so this is close to it. It’s just a little different because of the humidity, the gators and all that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of water. I like fishing and playing with the boys in the pool. I just enjoy the sunlight.
My time in Philly and my time in Washington, when winter comes it’s snowing and it’s raining. You can’t do nothing. So now we don’t have to worry about the snow. Now we’ve got an extra five or six months being out in the sun and staying hot. I’ll take advantage of it when I can.
You’ve become a real entrepreneur off the field with several businesses. You were the co-producer of All EyeZ on Me. What was that like?
The success of the movie has been great. This is my first official big movie. I’m the co-producer, invested in the movie, so the movie did great, and I was very happy about that, especially with my first movie.
I don’t know, just being so far along in my career, you never know when ball is going to blow up and you’re sitting back and doing some other things. I felt like I didn’t wait too long to figure out what I was going to do as far as interaction with kids, movies. I have a marketing company, a record company. I’m doing music. I just really want to help these young kids, just give them a life and give back.
You know, I have much information, so much stuff I’ve been through. I mean, I would be stingy and greedy to keep it all to myself.
Are you doing this with help from your friends?
Yeah, pretty much. I say it’s worldwide because I don’t want to be stuck in one area. But definitely back in California. We’re doing some things in Atlanta. I want to do everything I can while I’m done here in Tampa, so I’ve met Derrick Brooks and Gary Sheffield, guys like that. Just trying to stay influenced the best that I can and work hard.
For a guy like me going into the offseason, this is my 10th year, so it’s not so hard as it was when I first came into the league and thought I had to grind, grind, grind. I still work hard, don’t get me wrong, but at this point, I know what to do. I know what I have to do to get my body ready. It gives me a lot more time outside of football.
Is that something you had to learn to manage, off-the-field interests and training?
I’m training like I’m getting ready for the 100 (meter) race in the Olympics. But I mean, that’s what I love to do.
One thing about track, people need to realize track workouts are very hard. There’s nothing compared to it. You have to run like 300s, 350s, 150s. In football, you’re just sprinting up and down the field. It’s nothing like that. I think this gets my endurance going so I’m able to play throughout the whole season.
You got back to more track workouts, didn’t you?
Yeah, I actually got back with Coach (Gary) Cablayan. I got to the point where I was feeling myself. My physical conditioning was good, but I stopped training with him, so this year I got back to the roots, back to the basics. I’m in the best shape ever right now. Obviously, there’s the heat and the humidity, but I feel good.
They clocked you as the second-fastest player in the NFL last season. To accomplish that at this point in your career, does it go back to all your training with your father?
It’s a testament to just the mentality and the hard work that was instilled at a young age. The people that have been with me, staying on me, staying in my ear. It was always motivating. And not only just motivating, I wanted to get the most out of it. A lot of people nowadays have success and they kind of forget where they came from or forget the steps it took them to get where they’re at.
You got to take a step back and say, “I don’t just want to be here, I want to be great.’ You got to go put some extra work in and get out of your comfort zone and put yourself in more uncomfortable situations to get more out of it.
What do you remember about your time in Philly and how do you feel about the way it ended?
I think about an awesome team. I think about awesome players that if we had stuck together, the sky was the limit. There’s no telling what would’ve happened. (Donovan) McNabb, Brian Dawkins, Mike Vick, LeSean McCoy, Asante Samuel, Jeremy Maclin, me — I can go on and on about the players and talent we had there. When I think about those days, I think about the camaraderie we built, the kind of savviness we had playing together. The Philadelphia Eagles were known as a winning team back then. It was unfortunate it had to get broken up the way it did. But that kind of set the bar early in my career to know what it takes to consistently win, the mentality, the swagger, the demeanor, just the nastiness. You’ve got to have it all to play in this game and play at a high level.
Throughout the way, that showed me I always had to keep my level of play at a high level. You can never slack off, not one player or two players on the team, because football is a team sport. If you have that tight bond and refuse to go down, it was just something I learned.
When I went to Washington, they weren’t really known as a powerhouse or a winning team. They were rebuilding. I mean, they won Super Bowls in the past, but it wasn’t like that. I had to go in there with the mentality and the swagger that when I was in Philly, we were winning: “You guys had some bad years, but we’ve got to change the culture here.”
To come in and do that, I think we did a good job when Jay Gruden was in there (as coach). In the NFL, what you want is camaraderie and everybody being able to feed off the energy.
That’s what it takes to go far.
You look at the New England Patriots. You look at the Denver Broncos. Teams that have won Super Bowls. All those teams have a niche. They have one or two players that set the tone out there, the Richard Shermans or the Von Millers. If you don’t have that savviness, you’re not going to have a winning team.
Sometimes you need guys that have some controversy. You need guys to go out and do the ordinary stuff. It’s something I’ve been able to learn and being 30 now, hopefully, I will be able to bring some savviness this year to Tampa.
Did it hurt you that after you left there were accusations that you had gang affiliations?
Honestly, I think it just kind of humbled me. I was at the point where I was just kind of young. I don’t want to say I didn’t know right from wrong, but in the business world, and being a young guy and being handed a lot, sometimes you don’t understand how to do it the right way. Being young and being rewarded a lot of money at an age that sometimes guys like that wouldn’t know what to do with it. I just had to sit back and like say, “All right, let’s see if maybe I’m putting out too much information or too much on social media.”
Because everybody doesn’t know how to take it. Everybody wasn’t raised the way I was raised or had to go through what I had to go through. I just took a step back. I was frustrated about it, but I’m never ashamed to represent or show where I came from. There’s a lot of people that don’t make it out to see it, so I try to shed a light on it and bring the people I grew up with me. Not only that, go back to the area and hang with them and try to show I’m not too big to keep enlightening them and know it’s possible to make a life. “If I came from the same area and I made it, it’s possible you guys could. Maybe not in football, maybe in something else. But it’s possible to make it.” That was my whole journey. When I did become a professional athlete, and what I was doing in the offseason, hanging out in areas I grew up in. I didn’t feel that was wrong to go hang out with people and do things you did growing up.
I not once was a felon, not once was in jail. They just made this perception out to be that I was some crazy guy.
But did you learn that perception can hurt your brand?
Yes, it can. But you live and learn and you try to do things the right way. Once I went to Washington, they kind of gave me a fresh slate, like “Prove to us you’re totally different from what they put out on you.” Once I went there, I was able to show them I was a team guy and everything was good. I look back at it and say, “It just goes to show, whoever made the decision was wrong and I was right.”
It’s a violent game and you’re not the biggest guy, but you run all the routes. What’s your mentality on Sundays?
I think it goes back to how I was raised and having that no-fear mentality. Seeing the things I saw on a daily basis and never being content. Knowing that if I had an opportunity to make it, I was going to make the most of it once I got there. I wasn’t going to be satisfied just because I made it. I felt if I get there and I make it, after all the doubt and all the hate, then that gives you another fire. After being projected to be a first-rounder and slipping into the second round, there’s just all types of stuff that builds up.
So now I’m on the field playing against all the teams that passed on me, all the critics and naysayers that said I couldn’t do it. I bottle all that up into, I don’t know whether you want to say fire or energy, whatever you can use it for, you use it. It’s just proving people wrong. You’re proving you can go against all the naysayers. You’re proving you can do it under 6 feet. You’re proving you can play like a Randy Moss or you can play like a Chad Johnson.
I just go out and try to do me. I don’t mimic or mock anyone else. Go out and be DeSean Jackson day in and day out and come to work with the same attitude and don’t accept no for an answer. They said you couldn’t do this. Prove to them you can do it. That’s the mentality I have every time I have an opportunity to go out on the field and beat a defender or score a touchdown and beat the odds, that’s what I’m doing, going out there to beat the odds.
They say even a player like Tom Brady still taps into the fact he was a sixth-round pick for motivation. Do you draw from your background to play this game?
I think it’s the common denominator. I knew how good I was. My family knew how good I was. My dad knew how good I was. It just was on me to go out there and prove it. It was on me to show the world what DeSean Jackson could do. I’d say year in and year out, day in and day out, it’s a task. It’s a job. It’s something I’m dedicated to.
Are you going to be dedicated to being great? Are you dedicated to being good? Are you dedicated to just being average? That’s what so funny about it, this world will give you as much as you’re willing to take. When I say take, I mean put in the hard work to do it. You’re not going to get there, you’re not going to do it sitting on this couch and eating popcorn.
You’re going to have to get in that gym. You’re going to have to be uncomfortable. You’re going to have to do things your body doesn’t want to have to do. But you got to go do it. That’s the edge you have to keep.
Being 30, there are guys coming into the league that are 21, 22. I mean, c’mon, they’re freaks of nature. I have to prove I still am the guy. When my time is up, it’s knowing it’s up. It’s not being naive and saying, “I can still do it.” If you can’t do the job, let the next man up.
I’m a firm believer that I still have like five years left.
There’s a lot of expectations for the Bucs this year. What do you expect?
I’m just having fun with it, man. Hopefully we can put together a special year. I think this year will be definitely special. There’s a lot of attention. A lot of expectations. And you know, I remember being in Philly, we had the dream team. That year, I think (backup quarterback) Vince Young put something out there about, “Yeah, we got the dream team.” It was kind of funny because that year, we didn’t do as good. Sometimes you put too much attention on yourself, and it’s good to have attention, but sometimes you want to be under the radar a little bit.
It’s good because you can have attention and still be mellow. We’re not the favorites. But sometimes people can make more out of the attention. sp_I think Dirk (Koetter) has done a good job of letting people know we haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t won any games yet.
How much is playing in the Super Bowl a driving force for you?
For sure, it’s always been the goal since day one. Obviously, everybody plays for personal goals and stats, but the ultimate goal is the win the Super Bowl. Year in and year out, every team I’ve been on, that’s been the goal. Get through the season with a good enough record to get into the tournament and once you get there, everyone is 0-0. It’s man against man. Four games to get there.
I can remember my first year (in the NFL) like it was yesterday. We were one game from the Super Bowl. It’s crazy because I scored the last touchdown that I thought was going to be the touchdown to put us in the Super Bowl and then Larry Fitzgerald comes down and scores a touchdown and we lose. That was like one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of.