Don Jackson wore the stigma of being a tough guy from the tough streets of south Sacramento like a badge of honor.
He craved the idea of living in a neighborhood where gang violence, crime and drugs were the norm. While police and concerned neighbors looked for solutions, Jackson looked to be part of the problem.
Dressed in a suit and tie last spring during a pre-graduation ceremony, Jackson told this story to University of Nevada regents and a large crowd on the Reno campus. He held nothing back. He was moved by the standing ovation.
The troubled boy who was going nowhere in south Sac signed last week with the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free-agent running back out of Nevada.
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“It was never easy,” Jackson said recently.
Jackson’s path was filled with detours and pitfalls. As a teenager, he was headed nowhere fast, like a tailback bottled up with nowhere to go but down.
Eventually, spooked by the specter of epic failure, Jackson turned the corner.
He righted himself, found football and then himself. He found that he could be a good student, that running between tackles was a better course than unleashing frustration than running from cops.
Jackson’s idol growing up was an older brother, who was incarcerated for vehicular manslaughter. Jackson’s mother sent him to a scared-straight program at the Sacramento County Jail when he was 11.
But Jackson wasn’t scared straight. He was stimulated. He got a charge out of the visit, the atmosphere, especially when an inmate recognized him as his jailed brother’s kid sibling.
So Jackson embraced the tough-guy role. He brawled regularly on campus, on the streets. He would attend parties, knowing guns would be part of the package, and went anyway “because I loved the thrill of it.”
Jackson attended four high schools and was booted out of two. He was ineligible for sports as an underclassman. Finally, Jackson wound up at Laguna Creek High School, where he met Mark Nill, an English teacher and the Cardinals’ head football coach, who would change his life.
Nill saw potential, well beyond a strong frame and ability to break tackles. Nill challenged Jackson to be a student to match his intelligence. Apply yourself, Nill dared him, and ditch the tough-guy act.
The message sunk. Jackson became eligible. As a senior in 2010, he led the region with 2,305 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in 10 games. Jackson scrambled to graduate on time, taking extra courses at a continuation school.
He attended Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a million miles from the place he calls “South Sac Iraq.” He earned his AA in three semesters. Then, on scholarship, Jackson rushed for 2,371 yards and 19 touchdowns at Nevada, where he earned a degree in communications and is now working on his master’s degree.
How big of an accomplishment is this for Jackson? He is the only one of his four siblings to graduate from high school. His mother earned her high school degree – at age 40 from a continuation school.
“I’m so proud of him,” Nill said Friday. “Don had his ups and downs, but he stayed the course, kept grinding. He climbed that hill, fell down, got back up, pushed through. We’re all excited about him earning his degree and working on his master’s. He became a leader on the Nevada team.”
Jackson has made regular visits to Laguna Creek, where he speaks to the football teams, warning the players about the allure of danger. No matter how he fares in Green Bay, Jackson has won. He overcame and achieved.
Nill said Jackson was worth fighting for, and he remains worth rooting for.
“He always had a great smile when we had him, and he wanted to be happy,” Nill recalled. “He grew, matured. It took a lot of teachers here, not just me, to get him on track, to see how he was doing, to encourage him. He wasn’t a kid you looked at here and rolled your eyes. We knew he could do well.”
Jackson said he is indebted to Nill and the coach’s son, Ryan, for their support. Ryan Nill was an assistant coach at Laguna Creek when Jackson played there.
Jackson had one pre-draft NFL visit, to Green Bay. He said he will compete for a job “with a chip on my shoulder.” The chip has always been there. Now it casts a positive vibe.
“When we talked the other day, the most exciting thing is knowing that one journey ends and another journey begins,” Nill said. “Don knows he’s set himself up for a good future. He’s excited that one dream has come true, and there’s more to come.”