At some point every week, Lamar Jackson strides across the Ravens’ locker room and plops himself beside soft-spoken wide receiver John Brown.
They laugh and share videos on their iPhones — no big deal.
Remember, however, that Brown is a veteran on a one-year contract, trying to produce well enough to secure his financial future. Since Jackson took over as the Ravens’ quarterback in Week 11, he’s caught just eight passes. In the team’s first nine games with Joe Flacco at quarterback, Brown caught 34.
This could be a recipe for tension. Instead, Jackson and Brown pal around. It’s a pattern that has repeated throughout Jackson’s rise from his Florida youth to stardom at Louisville to the current stage he occupies as the rookie starter for an NFL playoff team. His instinct for reaching out to people is as sharp as his instinct for evading tacklers.
“We’re all we got, really,” he said as the Ravens began preparations to host the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. “When people doubted us in the middle of the season, we were all we had. People didn’t have our back, so I’m going to talk to my teammates regardless, whether it’s the kicker, the punter. It can be an equipment guy, and I’m going to talk to him, too, definitely.”
When you watch Jackson, it’s easy to be mesmerized by his video-game cuts or his uncanny tendency to deliver sensational plays immediately after he’s made mistakes. His enthusiasm shines through in so many of his actions on the field.
But what if his secret weapon manifests outside the realm admirers and skeptics observe every week? Maybe it’s just as important that Jackson is a nice person.
Sounds like a silly thing to say about a football player, right? But think about how awkward it could have been for a 21-year-old rookie — one with uneven passing form, no less — to replace the best quarterback in Ravens history in the middle of a pivotal season for the franchise. If veterans perceived Jackson as false or lacking in humility, the situation could have gone off the rails, especially when Flacco was healthy enough to return in Week 15.
Instead, the Ravens kept winning, and the locker room stayed happy.
“Lamar is a special, special person,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Not just a football player, just a human being. He’s very genuine, he’s loyal, he’s humble and he’s passionate. Those are qualities in such a young kid you don’t ever see. He’s all about team. He’s all about getting better and trying to lead us. I tip my hat off to him. I look forward to not just being on the same team as him, but being a fan of him, and supporting him for the rest of his career, because he’s going to do some special things.”
“I just think he’s calm and collected,” said Marshal Yanda, the Ravens’ seven-time Pro Bowl guard. “He doesn’t say much. He’s doing his job — that’s fine. Obviously, the quarterback, on the outside looking in, they say that everyone has to be vocal and you have to do this, you have to do that. Well, when you’re a young quarterback, you don’t want to put too much on his plate. He’s doing his job. He’s staying quiet and confident, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Jackson isn’t new to this dynamic. He was a rail-thin junior when he transferred to Boynton Beach Community High School in Florida. The first day he set foot on campus, classmates took him to the office of football coach Rick Swain. This is your new quarterback, they said.
Swain was skeptical, but in a matter of weeks, he’d redesigned his offense around the new kid. It wasn’t just that Jackson glided past the fastest players and zipped the ball across the field with a flick of his wrist. He had an easy way with people, never putting himself above his less gifted peers.
“He’s one of those guys who never took credit,” Swain said last summer. “You couldn’t dislike the guy, because he was everyone’s friend, everyone’s teammate.”
Same story at Louisville, where Jackson became the greatest football sensation in the history of a school known more for basketball.
If anyone was going to hate him, Reggie Bonnafon was a good candidate. He was a year older than Jackson and played the same position.
Bonnafon recalled an early practice, where he figured he’d show the freshman up by putting extra mustard on a deep out — one of the signature passes looked at by NFL scouts.
“I’m thinking I’m a little stronger … and I threw a good ball out there,” he said with a chuckle. “And Lamar comes up a couple plays later, and his wrist is so different — he throws the ball and it just zips out there without him even really trying.”
The moment could have inspired envy, but Jackson had already won Bonnafon over. Even as an 18-year-old, he was a guy you could confide in.
“That’s like my little brother,” Bonnafon said. “We were friends from the jump. There was never any competition or anything like that. Our foundation as friends was first and foremost.”
They hung out after every practice, and nothing changed when the world awoke to Jackson’s talents, proclaiming him the most exciting college player in the land. He and Bonnafon still talk almost daily, usually not about football.
“He takes it seriously, don’t get me wrong, but he doesn’t take it too seriously,” Bonnafon said. “He knows mistakes are going to happen and people are going to get down on themselves. But he’s optimistic about every situation. I think that’s what makes him such a great player. It was motivating.”
Bonnafon believed that was what scouts and analysts missed as they dissected Jackson’s game leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft.
“I don’t think people, throughout the whole process, took that into account,” Bonnafon said. “His character goes way farther than anything he could do on the field. … You see how genuine his heart is. He’s a loving dude. He’s funny. He’s the whole package. I tell him that all the time, and he tells me back.”
Ravens tight end Mark Andrews had met Jackson briefly when he attended the 2017 Heisman Trophy ceremony that also featured his Oklahoma teammate, Baker Mayfield.
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So when they showed up for offseason workouts in Owings Mills last summer, Andrews already regarded Jackson as “a genuine dude, a guy who, even though he’d won the Heisman, was super humble.”
That feeling deepened as he observed the way Jackson drew people to him. On the field, the quarterback seemed to pulse with joy every time he or one of his teammates made a great play. Off it, he’d sit in a row with his fellow rookies and just laugh and laugh.
“Guys like that make the locker room happier,” Andrews said. “You go through this grind and you need guys to make everything fun.”
Jackson showed deference to Flacco and veteran third-stringer Robert Griffin III, listening more than he talked in meetings with quarterbacks coach James Urban and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. He often said how cool it was to learn from an older player who’d won Super Bowl MVP.
“His whole personality and how he approaches things, I think him stepping in behind one of the all-time-great Ravens in Joe and having it be smooth sailing from there, it’s pretty impressive,” Andrews said.
Jackson doesn’t see his social touch as anything remarkable. But that’s part of the reason it works; he doesn’t come off as calculated.
“That’s what you appreciate about him,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s not trying to be something. He’s not trying to prove to anybody that he’s this or that or the other. … That’s not how he thinks. He’s been raised differently than that. His mom has done a phenomenal job with him. His family has done a great job. I’m sure he was raised in a great way, and he’s very comfortable with who he is. Most people who are like that, you like being around people like that, comfortable in their own skin, and that’s who he is.”