Eddie Jackson came shockingly close to never playing major college football. Heck, he almost never played high school football either.
The University of Alabama’s star senior safety wasn’t eligible to play his first three seasons of high school because of grade issues. While his best friends made Parade All-American lists and took part in the Under Armour All-American game, Jackson stewed in the background, under the radar to all except those in the know.
Today, he’s on the precipice of becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree, he’s the returning conference leader in interceptions and he’s a team leader.
No example is greater to show how far Jackson has traveled than in last Saturday night’s blowout win over Southern Cal, when Jackson got caught up in the maelstrom on the sideline when sophomore safety Ronnie Harrison lost his cool, letting his emotions get the best of him. When Jackson told his safety running mate to calm down, Harrison screamed at Jackson through and around players. It was chaotic.
Perhaps Nick Saban said it best when describing what happened when he said: “I think the lesson to be learned is that when you have a teammate who is caring about you and trying to help you, the response should be ‘Thank you,’ not ‘Screw you.’”
There was a time in his life, not too terribly long ago, when Jackson might have been on the other end of that exchange. That time has passed, though. He’s now the guy counseling younger players on the virtues of overcoming adversity rather than drowning in it.
Overcoming adversity isn’t new to Jackson. It’s precisely how he’s come so far.
His freshman season he lined up incorrectly and stretched with the offensive lineman, earning the ridicule of Saban on national television during a CBS “60 Minutes” broadcast. Then there was his sophomore year in the Iron Bowl when he was repeatedly torched by Auburn for big play after big play.
Jackson didn’t flinch. He only grew.
Moving to safety in 2015, a move the coaching staff implemented to get faster and more versatile on defense, paid off like a winning slot machine. Jackson tied for the league lead in interceptions with six.
“How did I get here? It’s really just fighting and pushing through things,” Jackson said. “It gets hard here, it’s tough. Some guys, they don’t have the mental intensity for things, so they give up or they quit or stop. You just have to overcome everything.
“There were times when I thought I didn’t know it was going to be this hard. You just have to keep fighting. I tell the young guys all the time, Coach Saban yells at you because he sees something in you. Just take the coaching, take all of it, and don’t feel bad and don’t take it personally, he’s just doing it to help you.”
That inner-drive comes from his family – Angela Jackson, his mother, and Eddie Jackson II, his father. They never let their son believe he wasn’t capable of achieving his dreams.
There’s a tattoo on his forearm that reads, “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”
“It’s something I live by. Depending on how tough you are, you can overcome anything.”
In high school he had a grade-point average that fluctuated from 1.2 to 1.5, and Jackson was headed down a path of wasted potential. It was something he was familiar with, watching his older brother go through the same exact thing.
Demar Dorsey was a star high school football player in South Florida, rated the No. 1 safety in the country in the recruiting class of 2010. Dorsey verbally committed to Michigan, but his plans were derailed when he didn’t academically qualify.
“I think he learned a lot from watching what his brother went through,” Jackson II said. “Things to do and what not to do.”
Yet Jackson was traveling the same road. He watched his good friend and teammate at Northeast High School, Stacy Coley (now a senior standout wide receiver at Miami) get the recognition Jackson felt he also deserved. Only he wasn’t eligible to play.
Then he transferred to Boyd Anderson High School, met Coach Wayne Blair and slowly began to make progress in the classroom, helping pave the way for him to get on the field.
“His older brother, that was the turning point,” Blair said. “He got to see it at home. I always used to ask him, ‘Do you want that same situation for yourself?’ Between me and his father, I know that we utilized the same things. I piggybacked off of Eddie Sr.”
Once he was on the field, his talent was obvious.
In his first action, a jamboree game, he intercepted nationally-ranked Tampa-Plant twice.
He earned the nicknames Action Jackson and Super Eddie for the way he could summon his ability when it mattered most.
Still, there were moments when the coaching staff played mind games with Jackson to help him reach his full potential.
“Me and his position coach, Dwight McKenzie, we always used to have to put a carrot in his face in the sense that getting him ready for game time and making him feel like situations were worse than they were in order to get the best possible performance out of him,” Blair said.
“One time we sat him for two quarters of a game just so we could get Super Eddie to show up. And sure enough Super Eddie did show up. Those were the little head games that me and Coach McKenzie had to play with young Mr. Jackson at the time.”
So what did Super Eddie look like?
During the playoffs his senior season, Jackson’s grandmother passed. The team excused him and didn’t expect him to play. Hours after the wake, Jackson showed up just prior to kickoff.
“He put in over 180-something yards receiving, he had one interception and also a punt return for a touchdown,” Blair said. “So Super Eddie.”
Alabama began recruiting Jackson at the end of his final prep regular season, two games before the playoffs. His talents were so immense that even though he was late on the recruiting scene all the big schools came calling, including UA, Florida State and LSU.
Alabama won out, ultimately because Angela Jackson adored Saban.
“My mom, she loved Coach Saban,” Jackson said. “She’s a big Saban fan.
“Probably because when he came in he wasn’t talking about football. He was talking about school things. He wants you to be a better person on and off the field. Getting your degree and things like that.”
On that front, Jackson has held up his end of the bargain. Contemplating entering the NFL Draft after his standout junior season, he listened to his parents and Saban and realized he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to be the first in his family to graduate from college. Now he’s nearing completion of an undergraduate degree in criminal justice.
His mother still texts him Bible verses on almost daily basis. His favorite scripture is fitting; 2 Corinthians 5:7 reads “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
He’s also a leader on the Crimson Tide’s defense. He’s got a core group of friends and mentors at Alabama that will last a lifetime. He’s particularly close with outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, Harrison and his position coach, Derrick Ansley.
“Man, DA is cool,” Jackson said. “I can talk to him about anything. There’s so much more than football.”
Jackson II and Blair went so far as to say that the Jackson of five years ago wouldn’t recognize the man he is today.
“It’s absolutely gratifying,” Blair said. “Coming from the demographic that he comes from and the neighborhood that he comes from, a lot of guys ain’t coming out from there. He’s an absolute success story.
“It’s gratifying for me to see the four-and-a-half-year development of the guy I once knew. He’s not the same kid that he once was on signing day. That dude is a whole other man. He’s got perspective. He understands where he wants to be in the next three to four years, and we’re talking about somebody who didn’t even have a goal for what was going to happen next month.”
All in all, the struggles are what make the successes all the more sweeter, Jackson said. Without them, he wouldn’t fully appreciate how good life is right now.
“It got a little frustrating, but I always kept faith in God and my family,” Jackson said. “They stayed on top of me and kept pushing me and had faith in me. It was valuable to me to be the underdog, and now I’m making noise.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.