The rookie cannot stop to talk on the practice field. Too loud.
“Lamar! Lamar! Sign this, Lamar! Please!”
This is the soundtrack of his nascent NFL existence, sung by a chorus of children who see in him their own wildest fantasies of athletic improvisation.
And Lamar Jackson loves it. Seems that if he had the time, he’d stand out here all day in the August heat, signing autographs for the young Ravens fans who just watched him grind through a two-hour practice. To them, it doesn’t matter that his passes sometimes flutter or that skeptics wonder whether he’ll ever refine himself into a worthy NFL starter.
He remembers feeling the same way when he watched Reggie Bush or Michael Vick bewitch defenders with their space-age moves.
More than most NFL players, even rookies, the 21-year-old Jackson seems in touch with the wonder he felt when he first picked up a football as a grade schooler in Florida. You can hear it in his answer when he’s asked why he invariably fights for an extra yard rather than protect his lithe frame from the violence of pro defenders.
“I’m going to take the ball and we’re going to gain yards,” he said. “It’s better than just sitting back there. Might as well get positive yards. At least that’s how I look at it.”
It’s the outlook of a guy who ruled every schoolyard, from recreation league to high school to the University of Louisville, where he burst from relative obscurity to win the 2016 Heisman Trophy and earn comparisons to Vick, the greatest running quarterback of all time.
Here’s the thing you must understand about Jackson’s fierce optimism — it’s all wrapped up in being the man with the ball in his hand. Ask him to describe his essence, and before he says son or teammate or football player, he says quarterback.
“It wasn’t even my first year playing,” he said, describing the kindling of his love affair with the position. “It was just throwing the ball in the street. I was always the youngest out of the group, and I just felt like, ‘I can do this.’ It’s having that responsibility in your hands to lead the team down the field. Or if it’s a bad play, you’re going to put it on yourself and take that shade or whatever people throw at you.”
It’s an identity he has fought hard to protect, against coaches who saw his long, lean build and magic feet and naturally thought, “Receiver!” or “Kick returner!” Though he won the Heisman as a quarterback and was drafted in the first round as quarterback, you still hear analysts speculate about his value at other positions.
During his first training camp with the Ravens, critics have persistently noted his erratic accuracy, the wobble on his throws and his tendency to take off running when other quarterbacks might hang in the pocket or toss the ball out of bounds.
“Just wait,” said former NFL wide receiver Lamar Thomas, who recruited Jackson to Louisville. “Just wait and see, because all that stuff is fuel to burn his fire.”
Jackson has long had a chief ally in protecting his quarterback dream — his mother, Felicia Jones.
Rick Swain learned this when he coached Jackson at Boynton Beach (Fla.) High School. The veteran coach stood in awe of the young quarterback’s talent, the way he could always shift his body at the last moment to avoid taking a direct hit.
Swain called him “my own personal video game” because Jackson defied human limits.
But at one point, he floated the idea of using his star as a defensive back on clear passing downs.
“His mom corrected me real quick,” he recalled. “She came up to me after the game and said, ‘He doesn’t play defense.’ ”
Swain came to respect her toughness in standing up for Jackson’s vision of himself and in keeping him on a dedicated path. If Jackson cried after taking a hit in a backyard game, she’d tell him to hush and play on.
“She has been his go-person for his whole life,” Swain said. “That’s been a big part of his success and focus. I’ve got to give her a ton of credit. If more parents were like her, a heck of a lot less kids would be out there having problems. She didn’t give him time to have problems.”
Jackson tends to be upbeat during interviews. Questions about his mother are the only ones that seem to make him uncomfortable. He doesn’t appreciate the way some writers have portrayed her as pulling the strings of his career.
There’s the story about how, when Louisville coaches asked Jackson to try returning a punt as a freshman, Jones quickly called coach Bobby Petrino to remind him of his promise to play her son at quarterback.
Other reports said Jackson was difficult to reach for interviews during the pre-draft process as he worked without a traditional agent.
When Thomas first recruited a teenage Jackson, he would stop by the family home and find the player and his mother both sweating from a recent workout.
“They said, ‘We were working out,’ ” he recalled. “Not I, always we. They’re a little circle. That’s the way she likes it, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Jackson feels his mother’s role has been misunderstood.
“She always let me have my own space,” he said. “The media has portrayed her as, ‘Oh, she’s my agent.’ But she’s not. She’s my manager. When I talk to her outside of football, it’s family. When it’s inside football, it’s business.”
The Ravens made perhaps the biggest splash of this year’s NFL draft when they traded back into the first round to pick Jackson. Not only was he the most spectacular offensive prospect they had drafted in many years, his arrival seemed to put a countdown clock on the remainder of Joe Flacco’s tenure as the starter in Baltimore.
In reality, the Ravens drafted Jackson as a developmental prospect with the idea he would be Flacco’s apprentice this year and perhaps next.
Coaches say he’s on track, showing exceptional poise and willingness to learn but still working to master basic mechanical aspects of the position.
“He’s a more accurate thrower than a lot of people thought. He’s diligent. And he’s every bit the playmaker everyone thought,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s a great guy to be around, but like any rookie, he’s developing. He’s got a lot to learn, and we knew that was going to be the case.”
Jackson will leave two defenders standing still with a juke on one possession, then flutter a 15-yard pass into no man’s land on the next.
He’s the first to criticize himself for these inconsistencies. By his own reckoning, he’s yet to deliver a stellar performance in a Ravens uniform.
“I need to keep a wider base,” he acknowledged in critiquing his throwing motion. “Open up my hips. The pocket closes and I might just get a little narrow up on my toes. Then I’m on and off, not consistent.”
Given the remarkable attention Jackson commands, it would be unsurprising if teammates subtly resented him. Instead, he seems to win their affection with his relentless good cheer, lack of ego and sly humor. He’s a homebody who’d rather take a nap or watch film than hit the town.
When he was a freshman at Louisville, Thomas would check with teammates to see how he was progressing. “He’s cool, man, but different,” they’d say. “He’s one of us, but he works.”
Louisville teammate Jaire Alexander was picked ahead of him in this year’s draft and happened to be giving an interview on television at the moment the Ravens selected Jackson. Alexander paused so he could turn around and perform a celebratory dance for his buddy.
In Baltimore, quarterback Robert Griffin III calls him a little brother. Fellow first-round pick Hayden Hurst has already become a good friend. They room together on the road and pump Hurst’s favorite rapper, Lil Uzi Vert, as the tight end shows off his “shoulder dance.”
As Jackson answers questions in the hall outside the Ravens locker room, passing teammates keep stopping to offer mock-critical looks, cracking him up each time.
When general manager Ozzie Newsome walks by with an amused grin, Jackson refers to him as “Mr. Ozzie.”
Asked whether there’s anything about him that might surprise his fans, Jackson pauses for a moment.
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“I really don’t know,” he concluded. “I’m a pretty boring person.”