The next time you hear a conversation about some 17-year-old football player and whether he deserves three stars or four stars on the recruiting meter, escape as soon as possible and instead consider the story of Widefield High’s Vincent Jackson.
Let’s just say the youthful Vincent was not loaded down by vast expectations. When he finished his Widefield career, nobody was talking about his recruiting stars and no Division I coach wanted him, and this list included CSU’s Sonny Lubick and CU’s Gary Barnett. He was given a bigger academic than athletic scholarship at Division II Northern Colorado, which he chose over Columbia of the Ivy League. He didn’t start at receiver for UNC’s Bears until his junior season.
This same Vincent Jackson caught 540 passes for 9,080 yards and 57 touchdowns for the NFL’s Chargers and Bucs and busted the 1,000-yard barrier six times. He walked the back road to riches, but there’s no doubt he arrived at his destination. He earned more than $60 million in his NFL career, which officially ended last week when he announced his retirement.
“I always believed I could improve,” Jackson once told me. “I wanted to prove that wherever I came from, I could turn myself into an elite player in the league."
Jackson’s football story offers a series of simple yet powerful messages:
Your start is not your destiny. What others, including alleged experts, think of your athletic future doesn’t dictate that future. You, and no one else, control where you arrive.
Jackson’s story is not unique. Only one D-1 school wanted Case Keenum after a glorious high school career in Texas. He was, allegedly, too short and too slight to excel in the college game. Later, no NFL team drafted Keenum after his – here we go again - glorious college career at Houston, where he threw for 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns.
Those skeptics were blind. Keenum will earn $20 million next season to quarterback the Broncos.
In high school, Jackson played football and basketball for the Gladiators and he was a superb student and he labored, just in general, without ceasing.
“Oh, man,” Jackson said. “So many odd jobs.”
He cleaned rooms at the Super 8 just north of Garden of the Gods Road. He worked behind the counter at Domino’s Pizza. He cooked at an airport restaurant. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door.
He didn’t sit around and daydream. He didn’t dedicate dozens of hours a week to video games. Instead, he dived into work.
When Jackson arrived at UNC, football coach Kay Dalton could sense his potential. Jackson was a skinny 6-foot-5 receiver who preferred basketball to football, but Dalton pushed him. Dalton, who had served as an NFL assistant, molded the ever-diligent Jackson into a powerful force in Division II.
On a fall day in 2007, the Chargers arrived at Mile High to play the Broncos and Colorado fans watched the mature and mighty version of Jackson, the receiver who not so long ago had been unwanted. A throng of Jackson supporters traveled from Widefield and sat in Section 541.
In the third quarter, Jackson sizzled Bronco linebacker Ian Gold for a 45-yard catch, the key play on a drive that pushed the Chargers to a 24-point lead and inspired tens of thousands to trudge to the exits.
A few minutes later, Jackson beat Dre Bly on a corner route and caught a touchdown pass from Philip Rivers. Jackson, who always followed his own low-key beat, refused to indulge in a look-at-me end zone dance.
He did point at his celebrating parents and friends in Section 541.
“Sometimes guys have to take the longer way,” Jackson said after the game. “I am just another one of those guys that has taken the longer route.”
The route is over. No doubt, Vincent Jackson ran it well.