Pro Bowl snub? Browns' Jackson just happy to be playing at all

WESTLAKE, Ohio -- The Blackberry on his coffee table buzzed with one new message after another Wednesday evening, while the large Panasonic television on his wall, displaying the NFL Network's Pro Bowl announcement show, was informing him why.

For the moment, though, Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was ignoring both, instead focusing his attention on his second phone, an iPhone, which he was using to craft a text from the suede couch inside his modest condo.

"Hey man, I just found out I'm the first Pro Bowl alternate behind you and (Kansas City Chiefs linebacker) Derrick Johnson," Jackson typed. "Congrats, bud!"

The message was directed at Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who'd just been named to the 13th Pro Bowl of a Hall of Fame career. Jackson considers Lewis a mentor, hanging on every bit of advice he is willing to offer.

To be even mentioned in the same breath as Lewis with regard to Pro Bowl voting -- after this long road back from two consecutive seasons ended by torn pectoral muscles -- made this a very special night. But it was also a motivating one.

"I'm not going to lie, I definitely want to get into the Pro Bowl now," Jackson laughed, a sentence that slipped out after 10 minutes of persistently talking up his teammates.

On a day when Pro Bowl snubs are often as hotly debated as the starters, Jackson is among those who fit into the discussion, along with the likes of Lions quarterback Matt Stafford (NFC) and Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (NFC). The Browns linebacker, though, wants nothing to do with such talk.

"Listen, I'm not even in the conversation with Ray Lewis," said Jackson, who actually has more tackles (145) and sacks (3.5) than both Lewis and Johnson this season. "This is year six for me. He's been doing it nine more years. That's Ray Lewis. He deserves the right to be there, no matter what."

Should Lewis, for any number of understandable reasons, decide to back out, Jackson will be the first to replace him in Hawaii. That, Jackson said, would be enough of an honor -- a message that seemed to resonate every time he spoke to coaches and friends on his phone Wednesday. The routine went something like this:

"Hello? ... Thank you … No, it's cool … Hey, after the road I've taken to this point, I'm more than thankful … No, really, it's cool."

And that might be the bigger point, deserving of more attention than anything else. Jackson realizes he knocked on the door of the Pro Bowl this year. But the award that might fit him even better? The NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.

Far from a household name, Jackson has overcome overwhelming odds in the past two years, garnering him national respect (Sports Illustrated's Peter King, in two tweets here and here, recently publicly endorsed Jackson as his anticipated selection for the award). His production this year is likely to solidify a spot for him squarely on the radar of many observers.

Attention, though, isn't what Jackson seeks.

"I just want to maximize my potential in this league," Jackson said. "I want to find out what I can accomplish."

In 2008, when he finished as the NFL's leading tackler with 154 tackles, Jackson was well on his way. A former second-round pick out of Maryland, he was on the cusp of landing a lucrative long-term deal when a torn pectoral ended his 2009 season with 10 games left.

Fully recovered, Jackson returned to training camp -- only to face a stunning nightmare. One week into practice, his other pectoral muscle popped. Another year done. And possibly even his career.

"I was shocked, more than anything," Jackson said. "I just sat there thinking, 'This just didn't happen.'"

In retrospect, Jackson has taken a seemingly strange view of his fate. Maybe it's because he has no other choice. He swears, though, he means this: The injuries changed him as a person for the better. They gave him a perspective on life that has altered his approach to the game.

"Things are not going to go as you planned -- things change," Jackson said. "That's how I matured as a man, as a football player. I realized this is the real deal. These things happen. To this day, I'll tell you: Me getting injured was the best thing that ever could have happened.

"I really mean it."

Jackson is now meticulous about caring for his body. Nearly every night, he sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber upstairs in his condo. He also has a massage table a few feet from his couch downstairs. He gets deep-tissue massages three times per week, and he gets his body stretched by a professional two to three times per week as well.

It's all designed with two goals in mind: Reaching his potential without being curbed by injuries, and helping to change the culture in Cleveland, where the Browns have been perennial losers.

Jackson is scheduled to become a free agent this spring after his best season as a pro. It remains a strong possibility the Browns will give him the franchise tag -- an acceptable scenario for Jackson -- although there's also still a chance for a long-term deal. Whatever the case, Jackson is clear: He wants to flourish in Cleveland.

"Why not Cleveland?" Jackson said. "It's the best place to change a culture. Every year, our stadium is packed. It's not like Jacksonville or these other places. We have a solid, strong fan base here, and this would be the perfect town to change (things)."

In any bigger market, Jackson would be on the cusp of NFL stardom. And although the challenge of overcoming his general league-wide anonymity might be more difficult with the Browns, that's never been the type of task he has shied away from. Instead, it's one he embraces.

So while Jackson didn't get a Pro Bowl nod this year, he still has Lewis' declaration from their most recent conversation.

"You're having a Pro Bowl year," Lewis told him.

In Jackson's eyes, that might just be the only vote that matters.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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