Bill Jackson, Chip Kelley, DeSean Jackson, DeSean Jackson Foundation, Jason Avant, NFL, NFL Hall of Fame, Pancreatic Cancer, Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Team Jackson, Washington Redskins
By Zack Rosenblatt | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Updated Aug 7, 2019; Posted Aug 7, 2019
Repost by: Joie Adams, DeSean Jackson Foundation, Aug 17, 2019
Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson is back in Philadelphia and out to prove that he’s a different person than the one who was released by Chip Kelly in 2014.
It’s 6 a.m. The phone rings. It rings again. It’s DeSean Jackson.
Finally, half-asleep after a night out, Travis Clark rolls over and picks up the phone.
“It’s time to go,” the 15-year-old Jackson says. “Let’s go!”
DeSean Jackson repeats this early-morning wake-up call four more times. He rousts his brother, Byron Jackson, Darrick Davis, Irving Booker and Gary Cablayan, too. In less than an hour, DeSean and Bill Jackson, his father, are in a beat-up Mazda 300Z, driving to USC, UCLA, Venice High School or a park in Culver City, wherever they could find an open field.
This is the posse hand-picked by Bill, the people he believes will keep Jackson on the straight and narrow, get him to the NFL and, eventually, the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When his son was 8 years old, Bill Jackson told his son he’d be a Hall-of-Famer, and he meant it. Fast-forward 17 years to a recent midsummer day, and the five of them are meeting for lunch in Los Angeles to discus the person they affectionately consider a little brother.
Team Jackson: Gary Cabalyan, Byron Jackson, Darrick Davis, Travis Clark, Irving Booker. Courtesy of the DeSean Jackson Foundation
“When we set out on this journey we didn’t brand ourselves,” Darrick Davis said. “We were just five guys pulling together to make this dude: a) get to the NFL, b) be a Pro Bowler; and, now c) get him to the NFL Hall of Fame. That was just our mission.”
Oh, they got him to the NFL, all right. He’s made three Pro Bowls, earned $75 million and has his sights set on the Hall of Fame and a Super Bowl ring. The ride here, however, hasn’t always been smooth.
Today, he’s back with the Philadelphia Eagles, determined to prove he’s not the same person he was five years ago when he was kicked to the curb amid rumblings that he had a bad attitude, an inconsistent work ethic, was late for meetings and butted heads with coaches.
Jackson, his family and “Team Jackson” insist that was a long time ago, that he was misunderstood then, and that he’s changed now.
In rare interviews, his inner circle spoke to NJ Advance Media about the impact of his father’s death in 2009, about Jackson becoming a father himself, and the impact the Eagles’ tough (but eventually forgiving) love had on their most explosive player. Also: why they think this time around will be different.
“They’ve [Team Jackson] been, my whole life, helping me every step of the way,” Jackson told NJ Advance Media. “Obviously, my dad created a team that was like a backbone. They train me, advance me with the game and how life is gonna be. It’s a brotherhood.”
Here’s the story of those five men.
‘Mad Scientist Work’
Irving Booker still watches Jackson’s famous “Miracle at the Meadowlands” punt-return touchdown from 2010 on YouTube from time to time. Everything that happened on that punt return, Booker said, encompasses what Team Jackson taught Jackson from a young age — from his fumble at the beginning of the return, the cutback, juking past a defender, bursting through a sea of Giants and outrunning all of them to the end zone in the epic play.
“That encompasses all of us,” Irving Booker said.
Byron Jackson (51 years old): The older brother emphasized finishing plays in practice. He helped with route-running, taking everything he learned at San Jose State while catching passes from Jeff Garcia, and from two seasons on the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad, learning from legendary receivers coach Al Saunders.
Darrick Davis (51): A former defensive back who had a cup of coffee with the Atlanta Falcons, he connected with the Jackson family when he played with Byron at Santa Monica College — along with Booker — before he left for Long Beach State and Byron for San Jose. He was the mastermind behind many key decisions in Jackson’s football career, including sending Jackson to Long Beach Poly High and California-Berkeley.
Irving Booker (51): Booker brought cones to every training session to help Jackson with cutting, functional movement and injury prevention. He has a unique background too: “I used to break dance,” Booker said. “A lot of the moves in my mind’s eye when I was coming up with things (for DeSean) came from break dancing.”
Gary Cablayan (49): Cablayan and his father, Jerry, have trained Olympic sprinters. Jackson, as a child, challenged a Puerto Rican sprinter coached by the Cablayan to a 10-yard sprint. Jackson won. Gary has been training Jackson since. If he actually still runs a 4.3 second 40-yard dash like Booker claims, it’s because of Gary.
Travis Clark (50): A former defensive back in the NFL, he focused on the mental aspect of the game, keeping Jackson focused and fortifying his football IQ. He also could throw the ball 70 yards, and practiced deep balls with Jackson at every session.
“It’s us five who have done mad scientist work. Each one, in my eyes, is a genius,” Booker said. “One hundred percent. You can’t tell me anything different.”
Said DeSean: “It is a special bond. I appreciate them every step of the way, what they did. … They’re always calling, checking on me, still motivating me in knowing that, ‘Yeah, you’re a professional, but I’m still your big brother.’ That’s the relationship.”
DeSean’s mother, Gayle Jackson, and sister, A’Dreea Jackson-Clay, have played vital roles in DeSean’s maturation. It all stated with Bill, though.
“He was a genius,” Clark said. “We thought he was crazy. We thought he was off his rocker, but when you look back, you go, ‘Oh this man had a plan and his plan worked.’”
Along the way, the inner circle frustrated its share of coaches — Cal coach Jeff Tedford was especially outspoken, and then-Eagles coach Andy Reid warned DeSean Jackson on draft day about letting his family get involved with team affairs. But ultimately the plan worked.
Bill Jackson just didn’t live long enough to see it through.
Life After Bill Jackson
When DeSean Jackson moved to Philadelphia, his father was with him. For most of DeSean’s life, his father was by his side.
“They were inseparable,” Cablayan said.
His father was his best friend who pushed him to be great. He was there when his son debuted in the NFL, starting against the St. Louis Rams to open the 2009 season.
His first play was an incompletion. The second: A 48-yard catch from Donovan McNabb. Jackson finished with 106 yards, the Eagles won 38-3 and Jackson’s career took off. He had another 100-yard game in Week 2, making him the first receiver to open his career with two straight 100-yard games.
He helped the Eagles reach the postseason, and they beat the Minnesota Vikings in the first round. During the following week, as the Eagles prepared for the Giants, Bill Jackson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was bedridden when the Eagles met the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game, watching on a small hospital TV in California, surrounded by his family and Team Jackson.
Bill cheered as his son score on a 62-yard touchdown pass from McNabb in the fourth quarter of a loss. Father and son spoke on the phone afterward. His father told DeSean that he played a great game, and that he was proud of him.
By April, Jackson had moved his dad to a hospital in Philadelphia, where he died in May.
“It was tough on all of us,” Davis said, “but DeSean, there were periods where every single day DeSean was with Bill. Every single day. … There wasn’t a moment where DeSean said: ‘I haven’t seen my dad in weeks.’ No, it’s, ‘I haven’t seen my dad in 15 minutes.’
“So once he got to the league, Bill was there dealing with what he had to deal with. It was pretty traumatic. It’s hard to put into words because I know he dealt with a lot of …” He stopped for a moment. “I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about it,” he said.
That off season, DeSean started the DeSean Jackson Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer to honor his father, and it was at their first charity event where they all agreed on the Team Jackson name. (Jackson Five was thrown around, too.)
When their father died, Byron took a leave from work and lived in Jackson’s basement during that 2009 season. His death provided extra motivation for Byron to start work on a documentary — “The Making of a First Rounder: The DeSean Jackson Story” — in which Bill was an important character. That process was therapeutic, he said, watching film of his dad — the good, the bad, the ugly — over the course of DeSean’s life.
Some nights DeSean would hear Bill’s voice in his sleep, pumping through his air vents. When he’d wake up, he would realize it was Byron, logging footage for the documentary on his computer.
“Our dad had a strong, aggressive voice,” Byron said. “He was a loud talker and he was very authoritative, he screamed and yelled a lot. I would watch footage and DeSean would wake up up in the middle of the night like, ‘Man, I can hear it.’”
“Just replaying all the tape, then talking before the games it was like: Dad is with you.”
Byron thinks it’s no coincidence that Jackson, at least in his eyes, had the best year of his career that season.
“I was there when his dad passed and … it was a real emotional year,” said Jason Avant, a former Eagles receiver and DeSean’s teammate for all six years he was in Philadelphia. “His dad was everything to him. His dad was the catalyst for the player that he is.”
Jackson had five 100-yard games, scored 11 touchdowns — two on punt returns — and completed his first 1,000-yard season.
On Dec. 29, Jackson received a call to tell him he had been selected to the Pro Bowl as a wide receiver and punt returner, the first player in NFL history to make it at two positions. He dropped the phone, ran to his brother and jumped into his arms. Then, he turned to a camera, filming for Byron’s documentary, and said: “Pops, man, I love you. You knew.”
The Pro Bowl that year was on Jan. 31 — Bill’s birthday. He would’ve been 65.
“The night before the game, there was this halo around the moon,” Byron said. “It feels like to me when he’s on that football field, our dad had so much involvement in DeSean’s life, it’s almost like with football, DeSean is at one with Dad.
“Just seeing DeSean’s success, it kept our Dad’s spirit alive.”
‘He Left With Vengeance On His Mind’
It’s the middle of June, and Jackson is Face Timing with his two kids and their mom, Kayla. He misses them. Jackson is back in Philadelphia, working with his new teammates for mini-camp, but his family is in Florida, where he spent the last few years playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
He wishes he could be there with his boys, DeSean Jr. 4, and Jace, 1. Putting them to bed. Carrying them. Taking day trips to the beach. Laying on the floor, laughing and watching “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” on PBS, or maybe reading them a book. Jackson is 32 and, a father of two now, and he’s more of a homebody.
No, really, he is.
“DeSean off the field is very low key, very quiet,” Davis said. “You wouldn’t believe it. He’s very low key and he’s not confrontational. Him being a dad … he relishes that role.”
This isn’t the same 27-year-old who was cut by ex-Eagles coach Chip Kelly after, statistically, the best season of Jackson’s career in 2013. Jackson had a reputation for partying, tardiness and general immaturity to go along with the off-field concerns. The release was a wake-up call, the moment when Jackson went from being a football player to a professional football player, his team says.
“I think it became a job after he got let go,” Cablayan said.
When Bill passed away, Team Jackson gave him space to let him grow on his own.
“You have five guys who pretty much raised you your whole life, and now you’re a man,” Byron said. “We gotta sometimes take a step back and let him be who we trust he’s going to ultimately become. It’s been a balancing act. We haven’t always done or said things you would script. You still wanna be there for them, but when they come around and are ready to make the right decisions, you’re always going to support them.”
Jackson admits now that he was immature the first time around.
“When I was younger, I had the world at my hands,” DeSean said at his introductory press conference in March. “Coming into the NFL as a rookie and having all that success early in my career, it was kind of hard to get a hold of that at a young age, you know? But you have to go through things in life in order to mature.”
Ultimately, though, the release became a turning point in Jackson’s maturity. Washington D.C., is where DeSean Jr. was born. Jace was born in Tampa Bay.
“He had started to mature, but it’s hard when you’re that age and your friends are around you (and they are) younger and want to do things that young people do,” Darrick Davis said. “Now, with his time away (from the Eagles), having kids, all those little things make you see life differently.
“The whole Eagles thing, getting turned away from them was a harsh reality. He left with vengeance on his mind.”
I’m Going To Tell You Guys … Just Be Careful
It was Week 2 in Tampa Bay last season and the Eagles were in town. DeSean Jackson always had a little extra for his former team, and few players have killed the Philadelphia Eagles over the last five years as Jackson did with the Redskins and Buccaneers.
On the first play of the game, Jackson beat cornerback Jalen Mills, caught a quick pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick, slanted across the field with Mills tailing him, then juked back the other way for an easy path to the end zone and a 75-yard touchdown.
Jackson pointed to Eagles coach Doug Pederson. He said, “You never should have let me go,” Pederson recalled.
“I was like ‘I wasn’t even there! I wasn’t even there!’” Pederson said, laughing. Pederson, an assistant on Reid’s staff from 2009-12, wasn’t around when Jackson was cut.
They reconnected after the game, too, and it was here that the seed was planted in Jackson’s mind — he wanted to return to Philadelphia. One reason: He really wanted to play with Carson Wentz.
Jackson led the league in yards per catch (18.9) for the fourth time, but the Buccaneers went 5-11, missed the playoffs, fired their coach and Jackson was ready for a change. He hadn’t played in a playoff game since 2015 with Washington. He pushed to be traded in the off season. He hoped it would be to the Eagles.
Ask Pederson, general manager Howie Roseman or even owner Jeffrey Lurie, and they’ll tell you there wasn’t much internal debate about that idea when he became available — it was a no-brainer, Pederson said.
“You’ve gotta have guys like (Jackson) on your team,” Pederson said. “You gotta have guys with a little edge and guys that get a little pissed off from time to time. That’s a healthy thing, too. And guys with fire, guys that want to win – and that’s obviously what he wants – that’s what we all want.”
They wanted him back. All it took was a sixth-round pick and a new three-year contract.
So far, it seems to be going well. Teammates and coaches alike have raved about his work ethic, his leadership. He’s been on time for meetings. He’s spent extra time with Wentz on the field and in the film room. He participated in OTAs in May, even though they were voluntary. In between, he’s even found time to host two free youth football camps — one in Philadelphia, one in Long Beach — while also delivering food to the Philly homeless community, and visiting local schools to talk about his journey.
In May, after the death of rapper (and friend) Nipsey Hussle — fatally shot in Los Angeles — he spoke at Latin Charter School in West Philly, and talked about gun violence, growing up in tough neighborhoods, and living in the Crenshaw district “where all people know is Crips and Bloods,” he said, via ESPN, adding that he had a decision to make as he ascended to the NFL: “hang out with my homeboys that’s just killing, that’s robbing, that’s selling drugs” or try to make an impact on the community using his platform as a football player.
“You get to a certain point where you feel comfortable,” Jackson told the students, via ESPN. “You’ve got everybody praising you for what you do and where you come from, sometimes you let down your guard. I’m going to tell you guys here today: just be careful.”
Sunday, Jackson returned to Lincoln Financial Field for the first time since he was cut. In front of a crowd of 40,000 Eagles fans, he received the team’s largest ovation. It might be even louder in his pre-season debut on Thursday night against the Tennessee Titans.
This is the final stage of Jackson’s career. Since he was drafted in 2008, only five receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Brown, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall) have more than Jackson’s 10,261 receiving yards. He’s outlasted all six of the receivers drafted ahead of him. He’s one of the best deep threats in NFL history.
And now he has his sights set on the Hall of Fame, the last leg of his father’s plan.
Now it’s up to DeSean Jackson to see it through.
“He’s all in,” Byron said. “People don’t know, but it was hard for him to watch the Super Bowl and not be with the team. It was hard for him the way he left Philadelphia. He’s an emotional player. Coming back to Philly, it’s going to be an emotional year … the fact that (the Eagles) were the team that our father got to see him on, and now he’s back … he has some unfinished business in Philadelphia.”
Zack Rosenblatt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ZackBlatt. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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