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."