DeSEAN JACKSON HAS an interesting linguistic tic that surfaces whenever he talks about things of the "illegal" or "unsavory" or "criminal" variety. After parking his lengthy two-tone Rolls-Royce outside an East Hollywood café one day in late May, Jackson ambles in and begins speaking about his relationships with "certain people" who do "certain things." People presumably involved in potentially illegal or dangerous activity are "certain people." Things that may be done outside the parameters of the law are "certain things." Combined with his habit of speaking softly, as if to avoid the prying of eavesdroppers, this intentionally vague use of "certain" makes clear that Jackson, 27, is a man working hard to avoid giving ammunition to those who would seek to destroy him with his own words.
Sitting down next to me, wearing a cotton T-shirt, sweatpants and a flat-brim, he crosses his arms, which boast a considerable assortment of black-ink tattoos. Most of the images and words are difficult to make out, but two things are clear: First, running almost the entirety of Jackson's right forearm is the Hollywood sign, an immediate reminder that, despite his many football-related travels, Los Angeles will always be Jackson's home. Second, across the backs of both hands, in delicate and loopy cursive, is a two-part mantra you can read when Jackson brings his fists together at the knuckles: "No Struggle, No Progress."
It's maybe not the most unique sentiment for someone in high-level sports, in which sweat and hustle through hardship are professional obligations. But Jackson is more familiar with struggle than most. Earlier this year, after coming off the most successful season of his professional career, with 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns, Jackson was cut from the Eagles, his first and only NFL team since joining the league in 2008. Though he signed a $24 million deal with Washington just six days later, the shock waves from his release lingered, exacerbated by the maelstrom of confusing and contrasting rumors that Jackson was cut because he had gang ties.
Attempting to find the true story behind the speculation reveals the primary tension at the heart of the turmoil, a tension that has implications for how the league will do business in the coming years: Jackson likes to believe his life began the day he was born, while some people would rather he pretend it began the day he joined the NFL.
IF YOU TALK to those in DeSean's inner circle, backroom rumors of gang connections plagued Jackson even before he joined the Eagles. His mother, Gayle, says the family has long suspected that anxiety about such gossip -- along with concerns about a "difficult" (read: overbearing) family -- is what caused DeSean to fall to the second round in 2008 after mock drafts had him going in the first. "Definitely," Gayle says, "his associations and affiliations were always a subject of fear."
To understand the origins of those associations, one needs to go back a few decades, to Pittsburgh, where DeSean's father, Bill Jackson, was raised. Growing up, Bill was always desperate to play sports, but he was forbidden by his own dad, who valued labor over athletics. "He was a huge fan of baseball and track and stuff like that," says DeSean, "but he was never able to play, because his dad was making him work at the steel mill."
After Bill's father died in 1979, Bill and Gayle moved to Southern California to start over. When Bill's eldest son, Byron, graduated from high school in 1986, Bill moved him from the Washington, D.C., area, where he'd been living with his mother (Bill's first wife), to LA so he could play football year-round. Byron, who had displayed some athletic talent but was never a star football player, says his dad was "determined" to see him play in the NFL, so much so that Bill used to close his letters to Byron during his high school years with "Think NFL!!!" DeSean was born in December of that year.
With hard work and a lot of pushing from Bill, Byron eventually became a wide receiver at San Jose State. After college, he got picked up for the Chiefs' practice squad, but he washed out after two seasons. He tried his hand at the Canadian Football League and the World League of American Football (NFL Europa), but his heart wasn't in it anymore. "I was more doing it for my dad than anything else," says Byron, now 46 and an editor at Fox Sports.
When Byron finally broke it to his father that he was abandoning his attempts to play professional football in 1994, Bill grew angry and began throwing Byron's clothes onto the street. According to a documentary Byron made about DeSean, the two began to scuffle, and the argument got so out of hand that Bill wound up pointing a handgun in his son's face. Byron left the house, telling Bill he never wanted to see him again.
From then on, Bill began focusing all his efforts on DeSean. Since he was 5 years old, 4-foot-nothing and 40 pounds, DeSean had been a sight to behold: thin enough that it looked like his pads might slip right off but faster than everyone else on the field. When he threw his head back on a run, as if the force of the wind were too much to bear, that's when you knew he was gone.
Even today, you'd be forgiven for not immediately presuming Jackson is a football star. He's all muscle but also lean, at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. At lunch at the East Hollywood café, he only nibbles at his chicken sandwich and potato chips, supplementing them with a few bites of a friend's breakfast burrito. He's quick to tell people size doesn't matter. "I was always the smallest," he says, "but I've always been one of the fastest and the best."
It was DeSean's talent that brought Byron and Bill Jackson back together after two years of not speaking. "I knew he was going to push my little brother the same way he pushed me," says Byron. "DeSean had a passion for football at an early age. I knew I had to come back to help my dad lead DeSean."
When DeSean was 8, Byron tapped a network of friends to comprise DeSean's personal training camp, which they eventually began calling Team Jackson. But even with a team of adults guiding him, the path was tough. Jackson says his parents' jobs -- Bill was a bus driver, Gayle was an assistant at a record label -- "just barely put food on the dinner table." His mom and dad split when he was 7, and his mother relocated to Atlanta. Though DeSean went to live with her briefly during her first year in Georgia, Gayle ultimately agreed to let him move back with his father; she thought it was important for him to have the "male mentorship" Bill and Team Jackson provided.
By then, Bill was living in South Central, a neighborhood that became synonymous with gangs and violence in the 1980s and '90s. DeSean says he was only 12 when he saw another boy get gunned down in a drive-by. Bill decided to enroll his son at Long Beach Polytechnic High, the best football school in Southern California. The commute was an hour each way and involved a walk through various gang territories, a bus ride and then a train ride through rough neighborhoods to downtown Long Beach. "On a daily basis I witnessed a lot of violence, a lot of drug abuse," Jackson says.
To protect his son, Bill would often wait outside the train station for DeSean in the evenings. "His dad was like white on rice with that boy," Gayle says. "Buddy, you had best believe when it was time to get off that train his dad was right there."
It's easy to read about Jackson's upbringing and make assumptions about his involvement in a gang. But according to Jackson and those closest to him, life in the neighborhood was more complex than many care to understand.
"When I was young, I hung out with and knew certain people who were involved in certain things," says Jackson at the lunch table, that tic rising to the surface again. "But at the same time, they knew I played sports, so they supported me in playing sports."
"It's the same story with most kids growing up in the inner city," Byron says. "There's that one kid who's athletic as heck and everybody sees he's destined to be great. So the guys involved in mischievous things want to stay cool with him, but at the same time they don't want to derail him."
In Jackson's interactions with "certain people" who did "certain things" during his childhood, there was an unwritten agreement: DeSean was going places, and so he had their blessing to avoid the paths they'd chosen. In return, he would not look down on them or turn his back on them. In fact, if you ask Gayle Jackson, she'll tell you DeSean's loyalty is one of his most frustrating qualities.
"Those guys gravitated toward him because he had structure in his life," she says. "A lot of time I was trying to chase these cats away. I told him it would catch up with him and that people don't understand, so he should leave those guys alone. He told me, 'Mom, you can't treat people like that.'"
HERE IS WHAT DeSean Jackson will say about the gang rumors: Does he know people in gangs? Yes. Does he associate with "certain people" from time to time? Yes. Is he in a gang himself? No, nor has he ever been. The "troubling associations" described in an NJ.com article on March 28, the day Jackson was released, centered largely on his relationship with Theron Shakir, a rapper signed to Jackson's Jaccpot Records music label. (Jackson raps as a hobby.) In 2010, Shakir and a man named Marques Binns were arrested and charged with a gang-related homicide. Shakir was acquitted of the crime in 2013, and Binns, who was convicted and is now serving 15 years to life, told NJ.com that he does not know DeSean Jackson.
The site also pointed to a 2012 incident in which someone was shot and killed after a party at a South LA building leased by a member of Jackson's family. Jackson was nowhere near the building at the time of the shooting, but a search of the premises turned up some receipts, a gun permit and other documents belonging to him -- hardly incriminating evidence of his involvement. (Eagles coach Chip Kelly told reporters Jackson was cut only for football reasons.)
The other thing that's bound to arise in any discussion of Jackson's background is that he throws up gang signs in pictures on social media, in his rap videos and during games. "Those were neighborhood Crip gang signs," an LA police detective told NJ.com, referencing some hand movements he'd seen Jackson make once in a game against the Redskins. While Jackson won't call them gang signs, he will admit to throwing up "hand gestures" in a display of that stubborn loyalty his mother describes. "If I score a touchdown or make a play and my boys at home can see me throwing up the area we're from, that's me showing them love," he says. "They weren't fortunate enough to make it where I'm at. All my friends wanted to be in the NFL growing up, but they weren't able to do that and I was. That doesn't mean I forgot about them. They're my boys, I grew up with them, and I'm going to give them love."
He's been dogged by other "maturity questions" -- reports of missed meetings, his occasional trolling of LeBron James on social media and a grievance filed by agent Drew Rosenhaus alleging Jackson failed to repay $400,000 in loans. (Jackson alleges the payments were illegal bribes.) But if everyone agrees that he never broke any laws or NFL regulations, then the overriding concern surrounding Jackson boils down to some people's discomfort with his ongoing connections to his roots. Rather than taking Instagram photos with the likes of Theron Shakir, the thinking seems to go, Jackson should be distancing himself from his past, not broadcasting it. Never mind that Shakir was acquitted of any wrongdoing. Never mind that this thinking requires Jackson to behave as if the first 18 years of his life were void of real relationships and authentic experiences. Long-standing connections, normal and healthy for everyone else, are "troubling" when it comes to Jackson.
IT DOESN'T HELP Jackson's case that since June of last year, prosecutors have handed down two separate murder indictments against former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is rumored to be affiliated with the Bloods. But according to Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley who also serves as a consultant for the 49ers, the NFL's gang worries are just beginning.
To explain why, Edwards points to a shift in player demographics -- two-thirds of current NFL players are black, compared with 12 percent in 1959. He thinks that shift is only going to escalate, in part because of the epidemic of brain injuries that already has wealthier white families shuffling their sons away from the sport's risks. An HBO Real Sports/Marist poll from October of last year showed that 66 percent of Americans with a household income of $50,000 or more had heard a great deal or a good amount about football head injuries, compared with just 47 percent earning less. The same poll showed that 20 percent of nonwhites had heard nothing about football-related concussions, compared with 12 percent of whites. "In a decade, the only people who are still playing football will be African-Americans and working-class people," says Edwards.
Edwards predicts that as the talent pool skews even more black and working class, the "baggage" that comes with these players will only become more prevalent. So, he says, the NFL needs to find ways to better understand players' struggles to balance career and background. "What the Eagles were dealing with in terms of trying to come to grips with DeSean is what the whole league should be preparing for," he says. "Because that's who's going to be playing football. To think you're not going to find anybody in football with baggage is preposterous."
Today, Gayle Jackson says that what she finds most hurtful about the rumors hanging over her son is that they insult the memory of Bill Jackson, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. "Now, you're talking about a father who went to his grave making sure he was keeping this kid out of trouble," she says.
At lunch, when Jackson's train of thought brings him back to memories of his dad, he opens up a bit, his voice reflecting an admiration and respect the way a proud soldier's might when talking about his time in the military. He says that after his father died, it was those "certain" people from his childhood who helped him navigate his grief. "As far as having certain people around me," he says, "people who in the middle of that whole time helped me get past that and get to where I'm at. Once I get here, I'm supposed to forget that they helped me?" He shakes his head. "That doesn't make sense. I'm a firm believer that when someone helps you get to where you're at, you show your appreciation."
Jackson says the best lesson he has learned over the past few months is that "your private time is your private time, and you don't always have to show people what you're doing" on Instagram and the like. Otherwise, he's going to stick to the formula that's been working for him for years, ever since Team Jackson came together like Voltron to build him into the man he is today, ever since Bill Jackson looked at a 5-year-old no heavier than a sack of flour and told him he was going to be an NFL star.
When I ask Jackson if he feels pressure to prove himself in Washington this year, a burden to silence his doubters -- from those who say he's too small to those who say he's a diva to those who say he's a gang-affiliated liability -- he smiles. "I don't feel no pressure, man," he says. "I been feeling pressure since I was a little kid, since I was walking down the street in Crenshaw, Calif. The pressure on this side is a little better."
Of that, DeSean Jackson seems quite certain.