COLLEGE PARK — What began as a way to relax before his first youth league game as a fourth-grader in Ann Arbor, Michigan, years ago has become a ritual for new Maryland quarterback Josh Jackson.
Before every season opener Jackson has played since — including his team’s 79-0 win over Howard last week in which he threw four touchdown passes in the first half — he has watched “The Lion King.”
It all started with a suggestion from his mother, Teresa.
“My first game, I was really nervous, and my favorite movie is ‘[The] Lion King,’ so my mom told me to go watch ‘Lion King’ to calm me down and not focus on the game,” Jackson recalled Tuesday. “From then, I’ve done it ever since.”
When Jackson was younger, it was a family activity, too. Unlike some older brothers, Jeremy Jackson didn’t tease him about it. In fact, he joined Josh, six years younger.
“Honestly, I liked watching it and he enjoyed it, I didn’t care what he watched,” said Jeremy Jackson, who was in high school when the tradition began, before going on to play football at Michigan.
While many of his Maryland teammates and first-year head coach Mike Locksley tried to tune out the world and its distractions last Friday night by putting in their earbuds and listening to music, Jackson downloaded his favorite movie.
“I finally bought it on my phone. I just got a new phone and I have space now,” Jackson said.
Jackson estimates he has watched the Disney classic that was released in 1994 “close to a hundred times.” Though he knows every line and every song, he has stopped talking and singing along with the characters.
“I’m not into it that much, not anymore at least,” Jackson said with a laugh. “Maybe when I was younger I was. I just like watching it. A little tradition and a little superstition I guess.”
Jackson saw the Broadway version of the show a couple of years ago. He gave this summer’s film remake high grades, though he’s still loyal to the original that came out before he was born.
“I liked it. I thought the critics were a little too harsh,” he said. “I don’t know how you expected it to be as good as the original. A couple of scenes they left out, but I thought it was good.”
The obsession has filtered into other parts of Jackson’s life.
His first tattoo when he was 18 was of the film’s signature phrase — Hakuna Matata ― that is tucked neatly on the inside of his left bicep.
Those words are hashtagged on @JoshieJack17’s Twitter page, with a backdrop of the movie’s main characters walking triumphantly in an iconic scene.
Jackson also named his dog, a mutt he rescued from a local SPCA a couple of years ago who now weighs close to 40 pounds, Simba.
The graduate transfer’s laid-back personality and calm demeanor amid chaos on the field seems to fit.
“You’ve got to be relaxed, and have no worries I guess,” Jackson said, chuckling. “It’s just kind of me.”
Jeremy Jackson said that’s the way their father, Fred Jackson, acts, too.
“My dad’s a pretty relaxed guy,” Jeremy Jackson said. “I’ve never seen any tape of my dad when he played quarterback in college, so I don’t know how he was versus Josh.”
The elder Jackson played quarterback at Jackson State before a long college coaching career that included one season at Navy (1987) and featured nearly a quarter-century as an assistant at Michigan (1992 to 2014) under four coaches.
Josh Jackson also adopted an acronym his father took from one of Jackson State’s coaches when he was a senior, earning All-Southwestern Athletic Conference honors on a team that featured a future legend named Walter Payton.
It’s CUP ― Cool Under Pressure.
“I think his quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator before a big drive at the end of a game would tell him that,” said Josh Jackson, who has worn his father’s old number — 17 — since high school. “He brought that down to me. It’s very important for a quarterback and that’s something my dad taught me, I guess.”
When he was “in middle school or high school” he scribbled it on a piece of paper and taped it to the wall of his bedroom.
“He lives by that,” Jeremy Jackson said. “He tries to reflect that in his game."
Josh Jackson’s love affair with “The Lion King” became public as he was battling for the starting job at Virginia Tech as a redshirt freshman two years ago. Jackson won the job, then went on to lead Power 5 freshmen in passing yards (2,991) and completions (236) while throwing 20 touchdown passes with nine interceptions.
A local newspaper went as far as to show an old picture of Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente holding a trophy, except that Jackson’s picture replaced the trophy and was superimposed as if he was Simba being held up by Rafiki. Jackson helped the Hokies to a 9-4 record before breaking his leg in the third game a year ago.
While Jackson, who transferred to Maryland after graduating in May, has never tried to enlist his former teammates or his current Maryland teammates to watch it with him, some have heard about Jackson’s connection to “The Lion King.”
“I only heard him talk about that once,” said senior receiver and punt returner DJ Turner, who hosted Jackson on his official visit last winter. “That’s cool. Everybody’s got their pregame or preseason ritual. If ‘Lion King’ helps him play good and he wants to do that, that’s fine with me.”
Most have not.
Senior offensive guard Terrance Davis laughed when told about it after practice Tuesday.
“I had no idea, that’s crazy,” he said, still laughing.
As for Locksley, who said last week that he likes to listen to Citizen Cope as he relaxes in his hotel room the night before games, he didn’t know that Jackson, a quarterback who often exudes a calm demeanor in the pocket — “a little too cool for school,” Locksley said after the season opener — relates to the characters in “The Lion King.”
“I didn’t get that deep into his personal life,” Locksley joked after practice Wednesday. “He likes ‘The Lion King,’ huh?”
Not that Locksley is surprised.
“Hakuna Matata for Josh Jackson, that makes sense,” Locksley said. “I need Josh to be a little faster, a little quicker [with getting rid of the ball]. A little more sense of urgency when he’s back there. I can see a little Hakuna Matata in his approach.”
Locksley might get his quarterback to start watching another movie before games.
“Now I need to get a little ‘Fast and Furious’ 1 through 6,” Locksley said.
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