By Todd Dybas – The Washington Times – Wednesday, September 3, 2014
DeSean Jackson was born in Hollywood, then made for the NFL by fate, family and friends while growing up in South Central Los Angeles. There are people who are from there and those who most decidedly are not.
Gangs fester where Jackson lived. Tattoos flood his body, including the phrase “Fear none,” which runs vertically on the side of his neck, tucked just behind an ear lobe. He’s often decorated by gold. He eats birthday cakes that are designed to look like a stack of $100 bills.
This persona makes him appear a product of central casting. It also makes the narrative about who he is easy. Perhaps, too much so.
When the Philadelphia Eagles released Jackson in March after the wide receiver’s best season as a professional, the stories — rumors and flat-out lies to some — came. Jackson’s loyalty to his inner-city friends appeared to have finally caught up to him. The Eagles were worried about Jackson’s gang ties, the stories said, and they sent him away.
Here is where Jackson, signed by the Redskins five days later, becomes an unwitting social experiment. Character assumptions are made. Tie-ins are reached for. There is some smoke, but the fire, it won’t take. Yet, the smoke continues to puff. So, he shuts down. He knows this is an avalanche he can’t push back at. Interviews are few. Answers are not forthcoming.
Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) runs past Cleveland Browns strong safety Donte Whitner (31) in the first quarter as the Washington Redskins play the Cleveland Browns in NFL preseason football at FedExField, Landover, Md., Monday, August 18, 2014. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
“Sometimes, things that you go through growing up or witness can have you in a shell and kind of be like distant from a lot of people,” Jackson said. “That’s the biggest thing I can say about coming from the areas we come from. Lot of times it’s hard to trust people. You have to get an understanding for what people’s motives are. It’s just a part of growing and living. A part of life.”
Once the gang stories attributed to anonymous sources died down, others from anonymous players sprang. News stories said Jackson was a bad teammate who did not buy into the specific and somewhat radical ways of new Eagles coach Chip Kelly. It wasn’t the gangs that led to his release, they said. It was his selfishness.
Which leaves Jackson, a three-time Pro-Bowler and one of the fastest receivers in the league, a curiosity. He has a chance to redefine his public persona while with the Redskins. Silence and touchdowns can help get him there. It’s unclear if he cares to.
‘That stuff was totally not true’
“After careful consideration during this offseason, the Philadelphia Eagles have decided to part ways with DeSean Jackson. The team informed him of his release today.”
The statement was simple and fully loaded. For the first time, Jackson was pushed aside by a football team.
The anonymous pounding followed. During that time, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was in Los Angeles for promotional work. Concerned, and interested in recruiting, he went to see Jackson and had dinner at his house.
“He got cut by Philly and they were spreading lies about him,” Griffin said. “We sat there and had dinner and talked about everything. I could see the hurt and everything in his face. DeSean is a guy from L.A., an area with a little bit of edge. I mean it’s basically the ‘hood. People are afraid to say it, but it’s the ‘hood.”
The reports about Jackson would have angered and stunned his father, Bill.
Jackson is the product of his hard-driving father who started pushing him toward athletics when he was scrawny and 5 years old. Bill Jackson pushed his son through high school, when DeSean starred at prep powerhouse Long Beach Polytechnic, then was a thorn in the side of California coach Jeff Tedford when Jackson was in college.
Jackson’s father and inner circle of handlers/trainers were so hands-on — and at times abrasive — that minutes after Jackson was drafted, then-Eagles coach Andy Reid called and informed Jackson he didn’t want any problems from his father or the others.
Bill died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. He at least saw his son achieve what was long his father’s dream.
Jackson’s mother, Gayle, read the stories about her son this spring. They decided little could be done to counter the budding perception. Jackson released a statement at the time saying he was not and never has been a gang member. Otherwise, they chose not to “fight fire with fire.”
“That was pretty shocking,” Gayle said. “That was all the superlatives you could think of. That was a real wake-up call probably is what it was. I try to not let things worry me. That you couldn’t help let worry you because you never want your child or anybody you love portrayed in a bad light. So, when I heard that, those stories and accusations were disturbing.
“I also knew that you can’t please the world. You can’t please everybody and I can’t go explaining to the whole world, my son’s not like that. But what I did kind of settle in on, and find comfort from, was the fact that I know the people who know DeSean know the truth. For all those other people that don’t know the truth, that’s real sad.
“In this case, where they were making up all these allegations that there were gang ties and all that stuff that stuff was totally not true.”
In addition to thrusting DeSean into sports, Bill would embrace other kids in the neighborhood. If they needed a place to stay, they could stay with him. If they needed a ride to Little League because their parents worked late, he would pick them up. The latter was the case for Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.
Sherman grew up in Watts. Bill, often referred to as “Pop,” would give him a ride to Holly Park Little League games where he and DeSean were teammates. The offseason reports of Jackson’s alleged gang ties rankled Sherman.
“I feel like people are going to make the assumptions they are going to make regardless,” Sherman said. “I think there are a number of players in the NFL you could make that case for, myself included.”
At Redskins training camp in Richmond, Jackson was among the players pictured on signage during the walk into the facility. Most were smiling. Jackson’s face is stern, just short of a sneer. The photo is representative of the edge Jackson carries, something Sherman says is crucial to crawling out of the inner-city crab bucket.
“I think that it’s a real cut throat environment that we come from,” Sherman said. “It’s a real dog-eat-dog world. People joke about it and talk about it like they know, but you don’t know unless you’re there. To make it out of there, you have to have a certain mentality. You have to have a certain mindset. You can’t trust a lot of things you hear and a lot of people because a lot of times you’ll be setup for failure.”
Though Jackson is the only player from Los Angeles on the roster, he had one friend already in Washington. Left tackle Trent Williams got to know Jackson at this year’s Pro Bowl. He told Jackson how he would love to play with him. The thought of his speed, his ability to bust a big play in an instant, made Williams giddy.
They exchanged numbers and kept in touch. Not long after, the reports came out.
“I didn’t validate it,” Williams said. “That’s the first time anybody’s heard that and it just so happen to come after he got released for some odd reason. I don’t know. There’s something more to that situation which I don’t really care to speak about.
“I never felt like I needed to have a conversation with him. The media — society in general — they’re always looking for something. Especially when you’re down. They’re going to try to kick you when you’re down.”
‘The kid next door’
There is football and karma — fate, the preordained, however you take it — to be talked about with Jackson joining the Redskins. Gayle and Bill were raised in Pittsburgh. Because of its proximity to Washington, they had family ties in D.C. DeSean Jackson was even dedicated in a D.C. church as a baby.
Asked to describe her son, Gayle is somewhat stumped. Not because she doesn’t know him head to toe, but because her vision of him is not that of others.
“He’s just DeSean,” she says.
Getting to know exactly who that is can be a challenge. Jackson’s whole life was designed around the prospect of athletic success. A speed coach worked on his stride, former NFL players taught him route breaks. In high school, he flew to Kansas City Chiefs training camp in River Falls, Wisconsin, where he caught passes from Dick Vermeil and began to believe he belonged.
He was a two-time All-American at Cal, then sat filled with anguish as the first round of the 2008 NFL draft clicked by without his name called.
After Philadelphia finally picked him 49th overall, his ascension was rapid. In 2009, he became the first player in NFL history to be named a Pro Bowl starter at two positions when he was put on the NFC team as a wide receiver and punt returner. Again last season, he went to the Pro Bowl after 82 catches for 1,332 yards marked career highs.
Aligning him with the last season’s league leader in receptions, Pierre Garcon, gives the Redskins one of the best receiver combinations in the league. Jackson’s speed alone should provide extra operating space for Garcon and others.
That’s where Jackson and his family are hopeful the story arcs now: Back to football. Around to his appearances at the Manassas Boys and Girls Club and his effort to spread an anti-bullying message.
Jackson isn’t doing much talking. At camp in Richmond, he briskly walked off the field while giving reporters few quotes. At times, he looked alone during practice, in the standard pose of a resting football player with one knee on the ground and the opposite hand gripping a facemask to use a helmet as a balance point.
Desperate manicuring of his public persona does not seem a priority. Gayle is in town to help run his foundation and, though DeSean talks about doing community work, the topic is not overwhelming as if they are on an image rehabilitation assignment.
“DeSean is just like the kid next door,” Gayle said. “Your brother, your cousin, your uncle. He’s regular. He’s no different. He just happens to have attained a level and attained a status not a whole lot of people reach. He’s the same person he was before he got the fame. He just happens to have more people paying attention to what he’s doing now.”
Jackson’s contract is slated to keep him in Washington for three seasons. Three years to let his personality out, if he chooses. Three years to make the Pro Bowl and maybe begin to trust more.
For now, Jackson will be guarded.
“It’s hard to take respect from those people that don’t give it,” Jackson said. “If you’re offering that and are willing to give it, I think coming on the other side, maybe we could appreciate that a little more. So we just kind of have to figure out, like I say, how a person is coming off and what their motives are is the biggest thing. Until you kind of figure out that, you kind of got to be distant.”
About the Author
Todd Dybas is a sports writer at the Washington Times. He has covered the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and NCAA Div. I athletics. Dybas is a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. A St. Bonaventure University graduate, he began his career in upstate New York before making stops in Boston and Seattle. He can be reached …