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The South Florida streets nearly swallowed him, but Eddie Jackson emerged stronger than ever, and now he and his Bears teammates find themselves on the verge of even bigger things

By Jim Trotter | Published Aug. 6, 2019

LAUDERDALE LAKES, Fla. -- The streets of this neighborhood are narrow and winding, flanked by palm trees and a kaleidoscope of single-story stucco homes. They are painted in hues of green and gray, beige and coral, many of them with curved driveways and open carports. It is a community of Chevys and Fords, Nissans and Toyotas, which makes it even more noticeable when a $300,000 Rolls-Royce turns the corner and pulls onto a cement driveway.

The car seems out of place, coming with a sticker price that is three times the local median home price, but the person behind the wheel is right where he wants to be. Eddie Jackson III, the Chicago Bears' All-Pro safety, steps out and walks through the front door of his childhood home. It is filled with family, friends and memories.

Seated along one wall is an aunt and her family. His dad is leaning back, arms crossed, on a folding chair behind the large, black leather sofa where a cousin is playing "NBA 2K19." His mom and oldest brother are in the kitchen, overseeing preparations for that day's Independence Day feast, and another brother and his sister are in and out, as are more cousins and friends.

Jackson makes his way around the dim room and gives hugs and handshakes to everyone. After kissing his mom on the cheek, then his dad, he asks for a plate. He has worked up an appetite after a vigorous training session and wants to fight off what feels like a developing cold. Once finished, he excuses himself and settles back into the luxury rental with the black droptop, red leather interior and privacy windows.

"I'm one of those people that I don't really forget where I came from," he says. "That's why I come back, even now. I still chill with my family. People always tell me, 'Man, you need to be careful going back.' I tell them, that's where I'm from. I can't just make it and not go back and be all Hollywood. I'm not that type of person."

He begins steering away from the house, retracing a childhood that ultimately led him to a crossroads. First stop: the recreation center.

"This is where I started playing football," he says.

Second stop: middle school.

"I had people here who told me I should drop out of school."

Third stop: Northeast High School, where he attended ninth and 10th grades.

"I was supposed to come here, to the little preppy school, to get away from the school in my 'hood, where there were riots (fights breaking out among neighborhood kids at school) and the police had to come. This was the good school, but they kicked me out."

Final stop: the crossroads.

"This," he says without emotion or hesitation, pointing out the driver-side window to a busy thoroughfare, "is where I got arrested. Right in the middle of the street."



The locals will tell you the streets of South Florida have a way of grabbing hold of young blacks and pointing them in the wrong direction. They did it to Eddie's father, who lost his way after showing promise as a defensive end and tight end his first two years at Deerfield High, then served four years, 11 months on two counts of robbery. He presents an imposing figure at 6 foot-5 1/2, but he has an easy way about him, speaking in a slow Southern drawl. At times he thinks about what could have been, saying he believes he had the ability to play on Sundays.

"These streets," says Eddie Jackson Jr. (known as Bo Jack by his family and friends), "they get ahold of kids, and they distract them. They influence them."

Demar Dorsey, one of Jackson's older brothers, also fell victim. He was one of the nation's top safeties coming out of high school in Fort Lauderdale, blessed with speed, athleticism and a knack for making big plays. ESPN Recruiting even named him the Big Ten's highest-rated recruit after he committed to Michigan, but the university later denied him admission after controversy arose regarding his being charged with felonies on two different occasions as a juvenile. It didn't matter that one burglary charge was dismissed, and that in 2008, he was acquitted of robbery with a deadly weapon. The damage was such that he never wound up playing major-college football, even though most of the major programs in the country had recruited him.

"He's probably one of the best players to ever come out of here who didn't go all the way," Jackson says. "Deion Sanders wrote a letter to Florida State to bring his jersey out of retirement for my brother to wear."

By the time Jackson was a young teen, the streets had their arms firmly around him. He skipped so many days of school he had to repeat eighth grade, prompting one employee at Lauderdale Lakes Middle School to suggest he quit school. Whether serious or not, the words stuck, and Jackson considered walking away for good. He felt embarrassed being back in middle school and saw opportunities to make quick money by robbing and stealing.

But just when he was about to move on, a lifeline came from NaTasha Barr-Allen, who taught language arts at the middle school. Barr-Allen likens teaching to ministering and views every student as valuable and salvageable. She had met Jackson the previous year, when administrators sometimes sent him to her class after he got into trouble.

"He was considered a problem child, if you will, and they said I was the only one who seemed to know how to deal with him," she recalls. "One thing about me, I will work with a child till the wheels fall off. As long as I see you're trying, I will go to the end of the Earth for you. For him, there was something that just would not let me throw him to the side. I saw hope in him. I saw that because everybody else turned their backs on him, he felt he wasn't worth it anymore. I saw that little glimpse of hope, and that was all I needed. I knew as long as I kept feeding him -- spiritually, emotionally and physically -- as long as I kept nurturing him, that piece of hope meant the sky was the limit."

Barr-Allen requested that Jackson be placed in her class. She also put his desk right next to hers. She told him that if he put forth effort throughout the week, she would treat him to the lunch of his choosing each Friday.

"It got to the point where he started to see that the love I had for him was the same a mother would have for her child," she says. "If the children see that you really care about them, and you're doing it for their best interest, they will give you the world. You give them the standard, and they will meet that standard and exceed it. If you keep giving them that love, and you keep feeding them, they're going to rise above that standard. That's what he did."

With her, perhaps. But away from school, Jackson was still succumbing to the influence of the streets. His parents sought to limit his exposure -- and get him out from under the shadow of Demar at the neighborhood school -- by sending him to a predominantly white high school miles away. But the success he had on the football field as a freshman only worsened the situation.

"People knew me, but they really didn't know my name," Jackson says. "I was always 'Demar's little brother.' So I thought I didn't want to play football anymore, that it wasn't really for me. I was running with the wrong people, doing crazy stuff and wasn't really focused on football -- especially after seeing what happened with my brother and Michigan. I saw everybody change. He went from this guy on a high horse to nobody messing with him, no friends coming around. People from here, everybody don't make it. So I felt like I was wasting my time."

Bo Jack and his wife, Angelia, tried talking to him. His father shared what he had gone through. He reiterated what Demar had gone through. Then, feeling as if he had exhausted all attempts, Bo Jack fell back on what his father had always said to him -- that sometimes, life is the best teacher, and people have to learn in their own time.

"I told him, 'Whenever you feel like you're ready, I'm here for you. But you're going to have to earn it. You're going to have to show me that you're ready,' " he says.



Jackson is back behind the wheel of the Rolls-Royce, creeping down a tight street in a middle-class neighborhood. He is studying the homes on the corner lots, trying to find the right one.

"There, that's it," he says. "Nah, nah. That ain't it."

The car crawls forward again before stopping in the middle of the street.

"That's the one," he says. "That's the house."

There is nothing conspicuous about the home. Small and neat, it is one story, has a pea-green exterior of stucco and cement blocks and is protected from the sun by large trees and plants. Most people would drive by without a second glance, but the home has special meaning to Jackson.

"This is the house we got arrested trying to rob," he says.

He stares at it for a few moments, realizing how different his life could have been because of that one decision. "That's the biggest thing I regret, stealing and doing stuff like that," he says. "I will never do that again. I will never, ever steal from nobody."

Interestingly, it was not the court appearance that scared him straight. It was a phone call from an aunt in Indianapolis who said Eddie's mother was blaming herself for his troubles, which also included an earlier arrest, also for burglary.

"As a parent, sometimes you go back and think coulda, woulda, shoulda," Angelia says today. "His brother already had gone through some stuff, and now he was dealing with the legal system. You don't want to see that for your kids."

The night Eddie's aunt called, the door opened, and Eddie walked in. Angelia had been sitting on her bed crying crying. He wrapped her in a firm hug.

"Mama," he said, "I'm going to change. You ain't failing. It's us."

Then he went to his dad.

"I'm ready," he said.

"He came to me and said, 'Daddy, I want to do this transfer,' " Bo Jack recalls. "I told him, before I do anything, you've got to be for real about what you're going to do."

So, after failing most of his classes his final semester at Northeast High, Jackson enrolled at Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes and set about making things right. He took supplemental online courses throughout his junior year. Then he went out and dominated on the field as a senior.

When it came time to choose a college, he knew only one thing with certainty: He wanted a change of scenery. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, offered it.

"He told me he wanted to get away from home," says Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, whose Crimson Tide tenure overlapped with Jackson's in 2013, and who hosted Jackson on his recruiting trip to Alabama. (Clinton-Dix became Jackson's teammate once again this offseason after signing with the Bears.) "Being that I'm from Florida, too, I told him that this is the best place to be. You're not too far from home, and (coach Nick) Saban is going to put you in the best position to be successful. Eddie was a good kid. We all go through hard times, and we face a lot of adversity."

"It's alright, baby boy," his father said. "You're going to make teams pay."

The words may have felt hollow at the time, but they have proven to be prophetic. After a solid rookie season, Jackson has established himself as one of the league's top defensive playmakers, tying for second last season with seven takeaways and ranking fourth with six interceptions. While his ability to get his hands on the football makes him noteworthy, it's what he does afterward that makes him special.

In fact, no player has been better at transitioning from defense to offense after a turnover than Jackson over the past two seasons. He has five defensive scores -- three on interceptions, two on fumble recoveries -- which is two more than anyone else in that span, and he had another pick-six called back last season against the Arizona Cardinals because of a penalty on a teammate.

"It just goes back to his instincts and God-given ability to run with the football," says new Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio, who was the Bears' defensive coordinator the past four seasons. "He was a part-time punt returner in college, so he has great running skills. When he gets the ball in the open field, there aren't a lot of guys on the offensive side that can tackle him. So, he's a threat to score every time."

His ability to reach the end zone is a carry-over from high school and college, where he scored once out of every three times he intercepted the ball as a defensive back, returning two of his six picks for touchdowns at Boyd Anderson and three of his nine at Alabama. He also set a Crimson Tide record with 303 return yards following interceptions.

Still, he lasted until the 112th pick of the draft. Some teams had concerns about his injuries -- he also tore an ACL during spring practice following his freshman season, though he returned to play that same year -- and others questioned his want-to as a physical tackler. Lance Zierlein, a draft analyst for NFL.com, wrote the following in his scouting report: "Jackson is an average NFL backup with immediate punt return possibilities."

It took only a few practices at training camp for Fangio to realize the Bears had gotten a steal. Jackson was held out of the offseason workouts as a rookie while rehabbing from his broken leg, but he kept attracting the gaze of Fangio once he got on the field.

"It wasn't but two or three days into camp when I said to Ed Donatell, our secondary coach, that this guy is going to be really good," Fangio says. "He asked how I could know that after only two or three days. You could just tell. When you have an instinctive player, a smart player who has a nose for the ball and understands football, you know he's going to be a great player."

The 6-foot, 202-pounder did not disappoint. He started from Week 1 and concluded his rookie season with two picks and three fumble recoveries, making him the first Bears defenders since linebacker Wilber Marshall in 1986 to have at least two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown off both an interception return and fumble return in one season. Amazingly, both scores came in the same game, against Carolina, and made him the first player in NFL history to return both a fumble and an interception for touchdowns of 75 yards or longer in the same game.

He was even better last year, intercepting six passes, recovering one fumble and scoring after three takeaways. He also has displayed steady improvement in pass coverage, surrendering just 24 completions and three touchdowns on 44 targets last season, and his 54.9 opponent passer rating was No. 1 among safeties with at least 25 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. His development has been so impressive that the Bears feel they have their first legitimate playmaking safety since Mike Brown, who last played for the team in 2008.

It wasn't always that way. Young players tend to focus on the immediate, and Jackson was no exception. But his mindset changed last year after a conversation with longtime Bears strength coach Clyde Emrich. Emrich, now retired, is a former Olympic weight-lifter and was one of the league's first strength coaches. He has seen a lot of players come through the organization as well as the league, and after watching Jackson return takeaways for touchdowns in consecutive weeks (though one was called back), he wanted the youngster to understand just how special he could be.

"He rarely speaks to people -- he's old school -- but he told me, 'You need to stop playing the game to play it. You need to start playing it to go to the Hall of Fame, because you're that good. You can be that guy,' " Jackson says. "That's when I really started thinking about it. As players and pros, we really don't sit down and think about things like, I've scored five touchdowns in two years. Other people make it bigger to us than we make it to ourselves. But that's when I really sat down and thought, 'Man, I really do have a chance to go to the Hall of Fame.' That's a long-term goal of mine -- go get that gold jacket."

"He's hungry for it," says his father. "He's doing two-a-day training more than he ever did. He's all in now. It's like he's dedicating himself now to be just that great."

Jackson makes it clear: No matter how high he soars, no matter how far he goes, he will never be far from his roots. He tells his story of triumph to others, because he wants them to understand what is possible.

"It's important to me because I want them to know it's not too late," he says. "A lot of kids go through stuff. At the time, they're hot-headed, they're hard-headed, they ain't doing what they're supposed to be doing, they're getting into trouble. People want to give up on them because they don't see the bigger picture, so they tell them, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' I just try to tell them what I went through and how all things are possible."

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Editors: Andy Fenelon, Tom Blair | Illustration: Chloe Booher
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