POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA — The legend of Lamar Demeatrice Jackson Jr. took root on a patchy field of grass, lined by palm trees and occasionally favored by a breeze from the Atlantic Ocean, about five miles to the east.
“We met right out there in the middle of the field,” said Van “Peanut” Warren, staring out at McNair Park as he let his mind drift back to 2005, the year he became Jackson’s first quarterback coach. “When you see kids that have that gift, they don’t tend to work on it. … The greatest thing with Lamar was that he continued to work.”
Before Jackson was a Baltimore Raven or a Louisville Cardinal or a Heisman Trophy winner or a potential NFL MVP, he was a Pompano Cowboy.
These days, visitors look to the weathered blue scoreboard at McNair Park and see below it a poster proclaiming: “WELCOME TO THE CITY OF POMPANO BEACH HOME OF THE 2016 HEISMAN TROPHY WINNER.”
But to assume that poster was destiny from the moment an 8-year-old Jackson stepped on this field is to miss the point of his story.
Even then, he had magic feet and oversized hands that could sling a football 20 yards on a line. But there were plenty of gifted kids gliding over the rough ground at McNair Park and similar fields across South Florida.
Jackson needed more.
Enter an iron-willed mother who never allowed him to ease up. It’s impossible to say whether Felicia Jones instilled in her son an obstinate refusal to be held down by the opinions of others or whether she stoked a fire that already burned within him.
What we do know is that on Sunday afternoons from 2 to 6 p.m., Jackson endured every rigor “Coach Peanut” tossed at him. He ran dozens of sprints and darted through complex agility drills before he was even allowed to think about throwing a football.
South Florida was known for producing remarkable football talents but not necessarily quarterbacks. Jackson, however, felt the position was essential to his identity, and Jones had no problem acting as a zealous guard for her son’s vision. If skeptics insisted Jackson was better suited to play wide receiver or defensive back, their doubts became fuel for the family quest.
“She never let him change his position,” Warren said. “The work ethic came from her.”
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In an age of confessional interviews and social media oversharing, the 22-year-old Jackson and his family are attempting something nearly as audacious as his runs on the field. Even as he becomes the most talked-about young talent in the nation’s most popular sport, they’re trying to lead a private existence.
Jones, by all accounts the most important person in her son’s development, does not give interviews. She and Jackson’s three siblings moved with him to a house in Owings Mills, a few miles from the Ravens’ training complex. They’ve kept their circle tight, with Jones serving as Jackson’s business manager and Joshua Harris, whom the family befriended in Pompano Beach, continuing as his personal quarterback coach.
“They are each other’s crutches,” Harris said of Jackson and his immediate family. “I don’t want to say it’s in a negative way, but it’s us against the world. They have realized, ‘Listen, let’s take care of each other and let’s be loyal.’ And they’re cautious about who they let in their circle.”
Family friends see nobility in Jones’ relationship to her son.
“She’s been consistent that she doesn’t want to do interviews, doesn’t want to talk to anybody, because it’s not about her,” said Lyndon Clemons, who was an assistant principal at Boynton Beach Community High, where Jackson transferred in the spring of his sophomore year. “She’s not promoting or asking for anything. All she’s asking is, ‘Give my kid a fair shake.’”
Jackson lost his father to a heart attack and his grandmother within the same 24 hours in 2005. He has said he was a daddy’s boy until he turned 8 but a mama’s boy after his father died. Jones took on roles more traditionally associated with a dad, tackling her boys in the yard and leading them on fitness runs to and from the local Walmart. If Jackson wanted to slough off a workout with Warren, she would not allow it.
Their bond has endured. A few weeks ago, after he unleashed a dazzling spin move on his way to a 47-yard touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson said his mother told him he was “finally playing how I used to play.”
It’s no surprise that Jackson funneled his talent and drive into football, because he grew up in a region that cherishes the sport like few other places in the country.
“In towns like Pompano and Boynton Beach, there isn’t much for young black kids to do,” said Jackson’s high school teammate, Trequan Smith. “As far as football, your parents put you in it to get something out of it — to see can you get a full scholarship, to motivate you and guide you with little small life disciplines that you learn. Football for us is a chance to make it out and support our families.”
Jackson grew up in a squat apartment building about two miles from McNair Park, at the center of an economically distressed section of Pompano Beach, a city of 112,000 just north of Fort Lauderdale.
“It’s not like a place you would go visit,” he said recently.
The striking theme, when you dig into Jackson’s Florida origins, is how little he seems to have changed as an athlete or personality. Friends and mentors who’ve known “L.J.” since his teenage years said there’s little subtext. One after another, they described his “goofy” charm and refusal to ostracize anyone in his sphere, the same traits that have endeared him to Ravens teammates over the past 18 months.
“He wasn’t just like a friend; he was more like a brother,” recalled Chauncey Mason, who played one season with Jackson at Boynton Beach. “He took me in. If you ever got the chance to meet Lamar … he’s just a very loving person.”
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When Jackson was in middle school, his mother moved the family about 30 minutes up I-95 to Palm Beach County. He played sporadically as a freshman at Santaluces High and sat out his sophomore year entirely. But when the string-bean teenager transferred to Boynton Beach in the spring of 2013, he did not need long to make an impression on his new teammates or coach Rick Swain.
“Our first spring practice, he just took off and started shaking people,” Smith said. “I played safety, so it was my job to tackle him, and I just remember he was on me so fast.”
Jackson’s true coming-out party came in a 2013 showdown with Miami Central, ranked No. 3 in the country by USA Today and led by current Minnesota Vikings star Dalvin Cook. Boynton Beach was overmatched, but Jackson would not let his team go down quietly. He threw for 237 yards and ran for 180, including a 72-yard touchdown.
“He was the one who was not intimidated,” Clemons said.
A few months later, Wells Dusenbury was standing in the corner of the end zone, shooting footage of Boynton Beach’s spring scrimmage for ESPN West Palm, when Jackson sprinted toward him. He was stunned when Jackson stopped dead in his tracks, allowed a defender to streak by and then sauntered over the goal line.
“It was just this incredible combination of sheer athleticism but also a lot of swag too,” recalled Dusenbury.
Jackson’s library of highlights grew from there. Maybe you fancied the 60-yard bomb he flicked on the run to set up a game-winning touchdown. Or maybe, like his teammate Mason, you were partial to the run on which he hurdled clear over an opposing defender, drawing a penalty in the process. Those who watched Jackson in his high school years laugh when they see him pull a spectacular move for the Ravens, because chances are, they’ve seen it before.
Though Jackson’s late start suppressed hype around his recruitment, big programs did come calling. Louisville had an advantage because its chief recruiter, Lamar Thomas, had played for Swain. Thomas earned Jones’ trust, promising her son would have a chance to compete for the quarterback job from the day he set foot on campus. That was all the family wanted.
“First time I met her, she gave me the stare of death,” Thomas recalled with a chuckle. “But I talked about greatness, and him and Felicia talked about greatness. So we were on the same page.”
It’s uncanny how the beats of Jackson’s story have repeated at each level of his career. He wanted the same thing in Baltimore that he did at Boynton Beach High, a fair shot to start at quarterback and lead his team. When the Ravens decided to go all in and build their offense around him after last season, they fulfilled the plan Jackson and his mother launched 14 years earlier at McNair Park.
Fittingly, Jackson returned home to prepare.
He was still angry at his performance in the Ravens’ season-ending playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, which invited boos from the home fans and reignited critics who said he could never thrive as a long-term NFL quarterback.
After years of non-stop games, awards ceremonies and offseason drills, he’d taken a month off. But when Jackson stepped on his home field in Pompano Beach in February, Harris saw the familiar determination. The best way to inspire Jackson is to tell him he can’t do something.
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“He does not like to be doubted,” Harris said. “One of my favorite things I’ll say is, ‘Man, you’re trash.’ The very next rep or throw, whatever I ask him to do, will be perfect. And I’ve never seen an athlete that dialed in after he’s gotten negative criticism.”
They worked out four days a week, trying to keep Jackson’s elbow higher in his throwing motion. As Harris sat in the stands watching the payoff — five touchdown passes in the Ravens’ season-opener against the Miami Dolphins — he felt “like a father, seeing the birth of your children.”
Youth football season in Florida ended this month, but on a cool evening last week, neighborhood children turned cartwheels under the stadium lights at McNair Park, which cast a glow on the poster bearing Jackson’s photos. His success has brought new pupils to this place, hungry for the secrets imparted by Warren and Harris.
Harris’ 15-year-old son, Hezekiah, was among the aspiring quarterbacks who ran through drills with Jackson this year. Jackson regularly checks in on his game results.
“I’m proud,” Hezekiah said of Jackson’s success.
One man’s triumphs won’t wipe away the troubles in a place where sad stories outnumber tales of glory. But Jackson’s coaches believe he has created a platform from which they can help ensuing generations.
“Every Sunday, we’re doing what we can to help,” Warren said. “I don’t want to say the next Lamar, because there is never going to be another Lamar. That’s a unique talent all by itself. But the next great, black quarterback, whoever that is … anyone else who’s going to continue to work, that’s what we’re here for.”