A field outside a school. The sun is shining on a little boy as he fidgets, unable to stand still. From behind the camera comes the voice of his brother, 18 years older and just a few years removed from running pass routes for the Kansas City Chiefs. "DeSean," the voice says, "when do you think you'll be able to beat me in a race?" It is 1995, and DeSean Jackson, age eight, looks into the camera, serious as a judge. "Tomorrow," he says.
This is an article from the Oct. 8, 2007 issue
THE CONFIDENCE, as with almost every aspect in the life of Cal wide receiver DeSean Jackson, is right there on the videotape. It is that quality, perhaps as much as the speed that makes coaches double-check their stopwatches and the moves that leave would-be tacklers staggering like frat boys at a kegger, that has made Jackson the most dangerous all-around threat in the nation. The football's mode of delivery—by pass, handoff or punt—matters not to Jackson. "Whichever way I get it, I'm expecting to take it to the end zone," he says. "Every time. It's kind of a surprise to me when I don't."
By Jackson's standards he had been suffering a major touchdown drought—two whole games—before last Saturday, when he contributed a pair of scores, as well as 11 catches for 161 yards (both career highs), in the sixth-ranked Golden Bears' 31-24 win over previously unbeaten Oregon. The second TD, which went for 31 yards, was a breathtaking piece of work, in which he slipped past Ducks safety Jairus Byrd, who seemed to have him pinned against the right sideline, and tightroped into the end zone. Cal (5--0) needed every bit of Jackson's heroics, as well as a fumble out of the end zone by Oregon wideout Cameron Colvin on what could have been the game-tying touchdown with 22 seconds left, to avoid becoming yet another Top 10 casualty on a weekend loaded with them (sidebar, page 47).
With 25 touchdowns in his 28-game Cal career, Jackson, a 6-foot, 166-pound junior, makes the Bears six points richer every 7.1 times he touches the ball. Not only do some of his runs seem magical, but he also has the ability to make broadcasters look clairvoyant. When Jackson dropped back to field his first punt during the Bears' opener against Tennessee, ABC's Brent Musberger had barely finished telling viewers about Jackson's proclivity for scoring when he juked his way through the Volunteers for a 77-yard touchdown. Sometimes his 4.29 speed in the 40 makes his dazzling moves unnecessary, as they were the following week when he took a reverse 73 yards untouched against Colorado State. "He's as quick as Reggie [Bush]," says Arizona coach Mike Stoops, referring to the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner from USC. "He has that kind of explosiveness."
He just might also become the first receiver to win the Heisman since Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991. Not surprisingly, Jackson doesn't hesitate to promote his candidacy. "I feel like I should do everything I can to win it," he says. "I'm going to try to create something special every week. I think it's hard for receivers to win it, but I'm going to make people notice what I can do on the field."
Jackson has raised a few eyebrows with that unwavering self-confidence. Though he stops well short of the look-at-me antics of Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson, Jackson will never be accused of false modesty, either about himself—"A lot of people don't realize how good I am," he says. "I am one tough little dude"—or about his team. It's likely that his recent prediction about the Bears' Nov. 10 showdown against No. 2 USC—"We're going to give them a nice, good whuppin'," he told USA Today—will make it to the Trojans' bulletin board.
"Some people might see DeSean as cocky, but he's not," says fellow Cal receiver LaVelle Hawkins. "It's just that if you ask him a question, he's going to give you an honest answer. He might say we're going to whip USC, but if you ask him about any other team on our schedule, he'll say the same thing. It's not about disrespecting anybody else, it's about believing in himself and his teammates."
His combination of talent and candor tends to make Jackson a target of opponents and their fans, although on Saturday the Ducks crowd zeroed in more on Cal coach (and former Oregon offensive coordinator) Jeff Tedford, eager to remind him that his team hadn't won in its last seven trips to Autzen Stadium. WHAT DOES A BEAR DO IN OUR WOODS? read one popular T-shirt. LOSE.
But the Oregon fans had some yapping left for Jackson, who doesn't mind it one bit. He's used to being the center of attention, thanks to the camera that has been a constant in his life for as long as he can remember. It's usually held by Byron, a film editor who has had a lens trained on his brother on and off the field since DeSean was four. Byron filmed DeSean's every movement at Autzen, right up until the moment DeSean boarded the team bus for the trip to the airport. "My career seemed to go by so fast," says Byron, who played at San Jose State and was on the Chiefs' developmental squad in 1992 and '93. "When it was over, I realized I had almost no documented memories of it. I didn't want that to happen to DeSean, so I started getting things down on tape."
Byron estimates that he has 1,000 hours of footage on DeSean, and he's in the process of whittling down the material into a documentary and searching for a distributor. "He's spent a lot of time on me," DeSean says. "I'm not just talking about the camera. It's about a whole lot more than that."
Summertime, the USC practice field. DeSean, a freshman at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High, has sneaked in along with Byron and three friends. DeSean runs a 15-yard crossing pattern, and one of his friends, Travis Clark, throws him a laser of a pass. The ball is a bit behind him, and in half a heartbeat DeSean twists his body, reaches back and plucks the bullet out of the air—with one hand. Everyone stares at DeSean in amazement. He turns to his brother. "Please tell me you got that on tape," he says.
It's there. It's all there. All the hours of training sessions with Byron and the three close friends, Clark, Irving Booker and Derrick Davis, all former college players whom DeSean refers to as his brothers, are there. "They've been working me out ever since I was little," Jackson says. "Sunday mornings in high school, while other kids were sleeping late after being out on Saturday night, I'd be out on the field with those guys, doing cone drills, sprints, agility stuff, practicing routes. I was learning things from those guys that most kids wouldn't learn until college or even the pros."
Byron had played under Terry Shea, a Bill Walsh disciple, at San Jose State, and had worked with former NFL cornerback Herman Edwards, a Kansas City assistant during his stint with the Chiefs. Davis had been a cornerback at Long Beach State and Idaho, Clark a safety at Utah State and Booker a wide receiver at Long Beach State. Together they poured all their knowledge into DeSean, teaching him about coverages and pass routes from the vantage point of the receiver and the defensive backs.
A fastidious sort—"I walk by his room, and two seconds after he's gotten up his bed is made," says defensive back Gary Doxy, one of Jackson's roommates—Jackson quickly absorbed every detail his mentors offered. He learned how to angle his body on a bomb to make sure the pass arrived over his outside shoulder, forcing the defensive back to go through him (and risk an interference call) to get to the ball. He learned how to keep his arms pumping as he came out of his break in order to create more separation. He refined his already ankle-breaking moves: The little backward hop that freed him from his pursuers on the punt return against Tennessee wasn't just instinctive, it was a maneuver that he had practiced with Booker.
Bottom line, Jackson was doing graduate-level work as a high schooler, which helped him arrive in Berkeley as not merely a speedy receiver but a remarkably polished one. "He really understands the craft," says Cal wide receivers coach Dan Ferrigno. "You can tell that he's already been coached well."
The Jacksons' living room. DeSean, a high school senior, sits talking to several major league scouts. A slick fielding centerfielder, he has a chance to be taken in the upcoming draft, and Byron has coached him for hours about how to handle this meeting: Don't tell them that you're leaning toward playing college football; let them know you're just as interested in baseball. But eventually DeSean can't help himself. He tells them that no amount of money could make him hang up his shoulder pads. "I love football too much," he says. The sound in the background is Byron groaning.
It was assumed by nearly everyone who followed the recruiting scene that Jackson not only loved football, but also that, as a Southern California product, he loved USC football in particular. The Trojans may have been among those who assumed too much, because rumor had it that the reason Jackson surprised everyone and chose Cal over the football power in his backyard was that USC took his signing for granted, perhaps even prematurely leaking reports on signing day that he had already committed. After two years of questions about his snubbing of the Trojans, Jackson finds the subject tiresome. "I've got nothing against USC," he says. "I just wanted to go somewhere else and be more on my own. I feel like I definitely made the choice that was right for me."
But the Trojans will only become a more frequent topic of conversation for Jackson and his teammates as their Nov. 10 meeting approaches, especially if both teams remain undefeated. The Bears were justifiably encouraged about their chances of doing that after the victory over the Ducks, in which they showed a toughness they hadn't been required to display all season. Tailback Justin Forsett pounded his way to 101 yards on 23 carries; quarterback Nate Longshore came back from a fourth-quarter knee sprain to finish with 285 passing yards and the two touchdowns to Jackson; and the Bears kept their composure despite trailing 17-10 heading into the fourth quarter. "Finding a way to win against a very good team, a ranked team, in a hostile environment is a good step forward for us," Tedford said.
Just as Jackson's performance was a step forward for him in the Heisman race after two weeks of being stuck in neutral. But winning the hardware is at best third on his list of goals, after winning the national championship and reaching the NFL. "I remember standing on the sideline at a Raiders game when my brother was playing for the Chiefs," he says. "I thought about how one day I wanted to wear an NFL uniform. But I have a lot of things to accomplish in college before I start thinking about the NFL."
The day that Jackson's college career ends will also be the day that his brother finally hits the stop button on his camera for good. "I'm tired of looking at my little brother through a lens," Byron says. But even if the tape stops rolling, you get the feeling that DeSean Jackson will still be on fast-forward.
Phil Taylor offers his viewpoint in the Hot Button every Wednesday.
ONLY AT SI.COM
What a Letdown
Five upsets of top 10 teams shook up the rankings and took the luster off what could have been a special first Saturday in October
THE UPCOMING Showdown Saturday has been, if not canceled, at least downgraded to Survival Saturday, not unlike the way a hurricane devolves into a tropical depression. The eagerly anticipated clashes of the undefeated—Florida at LSU and Oklahoma versus Texas—no longer form a perfect storm after the shocking losses suffered last Saturday by three of those teams, which now know all about depression.
But Oklahoma, Florida and Texas, which before the upsets were ranked third, fourth and seventh, respectively, aren't the only teams feeling blue. Five of the top 10 teams lost last weekend—including No. 5 West Virginia to No. 18 South Florida 21--13, and No. 10 Rutgers to Maryland 34--24—and of the top 25, seven fell to unranked teams. It was an utterly unpredictable weekend that made a mockery of the polls and called into question much of what we thought we knew about the college football pecking order.
For instance, wasn't the Big 12 North supposed to be a cut below the South? It certainly didn't seem that way in Kansas State's 41--21 manhandling of Texas in Austin and in perhaps the weekend's most surprising result, Colorado's 27--24 home victory over Oklahoma. After going 2-10 last season, the Buffaloes improved to 3--2 on Kevin Eberhart's 45-yard field goal as time expired, but the game was really won along the line of scrimmage. The Sooners, who entered the game averaging 61.5 points, had only 46 snaps to Colorado's 82, and stunningly, the Buffs' offense wore down Oklahoma's defense. On the Buffaloes' first 21 rushes, they gained 41 yards. On their last 25, they gained 120. "I compare it to taking out concrete," said Colorado coach Dan Hawkins. "The first few hits with a sledgehammer don't do much."
Turnovers and inferior special teams play dogged several of the upset victims. Kansas State pressured Texas quarterback Colt McCoy into four interceptions and scored on a kickoff return and a punt return. No. 13 Clemson missed four field goals and had a punt blocked in a 13--3 loss to Georgia Tech. Penn State quarterback Tony Morelli threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in the No. 21 Nittany Lions' 27--20 loss at Illinois. And while No. 22 Alabama avoided similar gaffes, Crimson Tide fans had to come to terms with something more troubling: the possibility that new coach Nick Saban might not be a genius. Alabama generated little offense—78 total yards and three first downs in the first half—in its 21--14 loss to Florida State in Jacksonville.
Even some of the ranked teams who won struggled in the process. No. 1 USC committed three turnovers and 16 penalties in a 27--24 victory over Washington. That performance wasn't lost on the voters in the AP poll, who dropped USC to No. 2 behind LSU. Meanwhile, No. 9 Wisconsin held off Michigan State 37--34 despite allowing the Spartans to pile up 565 yards of total offense. "We don't get any style points for doing things pretty," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema. "We are not a pretty football team."
Forget aesthetics; the so-called elite teams need to focus on results. The ones who stay in the championship chase will be the ones who recognize that every week is Showdown Saturday.