When you’re a kid growing up in the Greenville section of Jersey City, there aren’t a lot of chances to think about the big time, like, for example, playing in the National Football League. The frame of mind is generally much more sedated and simpler. It’s called survival. It’s called getting out.
When you grow up in an area where drug abuse is a way of life, where murder is prevalent, where death at an early age is almost too accepted and anticipated, you just hope to have the chance to make it to the next birthday, the next milestone. You aspire to be different than the norm. You want to upset the cattle cart, break the mold, be your own success.
That’s been Rashawn Jackson’s approach ever since he was a little boy growing up in the shadows of the Curries Woods housing projects, one of the most troubled areas in Jersey City.
It could have been very easy for Jackson to simply fall prey to the streets. There were countless others over the years who did exactly that.
But Jackson had a goal in mind, a dream, one that was going to take him out of the tough streets of Greenville and to higher ground.
So Jackson went to St. Peter’s Prep and had a brilliant football career there with the Marauders. It landed Jackson a ticket out, a scholarship to the University of Virginia, where he excelled and became one of the most feared and respected fullbacks in all of college football.
When the time came for the National Football League draft last April, Jackson was all set to hear his name called.
“I was expecting to be picked somewhere between the third and sixth rounds,” Jackson said in a phone interview last week.
The pre-draft prognosticators all had the same forecast. Jackson was destined to be picked somewhere in the upper part of the draft. So he sat with his family in his Jersey City home, watching the draft, awaiting his destiny, seeing that lifelong dream become a reality.
It didn’t happen. Jackson went undrafted.
“Of course, I was a little disappointed when I didn’t get drafted,” Jackson said. “I was expecting something different. But I figured things happen for a reason. I didn’t let it get to me too much. I knew that someone was going to give me a shot.”
That someone was the Carolina Panthers, who quickly signed Jackson to a free-agent contract in the ensuing day right after the draft.
The door was opened. Jackson was going to get his shot at the big time. He was just going to have to bust his tail, show off his immense talent, his size, strength and quickness, to the Panthers’ coaching staff – and he would earn a shot at becoming a player in the NFL.
Last week, Jackson headed to the Panthers’ training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. for the month-long journey toward securing a spot on the Panthers’ roster come time for the season opener Sept. 12, where if he’s fortunate, Jackson will secure a homecoming because the Panthers will christen the new Meadowlands Stadium when they face the Giants.
Jackson didn’t have much time to get star-struck and awed about being in an NFL training camp. He had to get right to work, learning the Panthers’ playbook.
“I’ve been trying to find my niche, as [Rich] Hansen [the St. Peter’s Prep head coach] calls it,” Jackson said. “I really haven’t had time to think about where I am. I’m just fitting in.”
But when Jackson arrived at the camp at Wofford and saw his Panther helmet and jersey hanging in his locker, he had to do one thing.
“I took a picture of the locker and sent the picture to my father,” Jackson said. “He wanted to see my locker. He’s really excited about it and more excited about it than me. Of course, I’m nervous, but I have a job to do now. The first day, I had to be a little narcissistic and look in the mirror, but I now know that there are so many things that I have to do better to make this team. Once I got hit, I realized where I was and I felt like I belonged. The pro game moves so fast and it’s up to me to keep up with it. I hope that I’m able to make a long career out of this.”
Jackson knows that he’s not being brought in to become the Panthers’ main running back. That will fall on the shoulders of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, two up-and-coming standouts in the Panthers’ backfield.
“I went through the mini-camps and OTAs [Organized Team Activities] through early May and June and got accustomed to some of the players,” Jackson said. “There are a lot of good guys here. They seem to be looking out for me and that has really helped the transition. DeAngelo and Jonathan are two steps ahead of everyone else. They are great players. I have a challenge to try to keep up with them, but everything moves so much faster.”
Jackson believes he has a chance to stick with the team.
“I don’t want to sound cocky or anything, but I have a lot to contribute and a lot to offer,” Jackson said. “I can be a versatile back. I’ve been blessed with speed and the ability to catch the ball.”
But Jackson realizes that he’s not about to be handed a roster spot. He’s going to have to earn it.
“No matter where I go, I always have to prove myself,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t matter if I was taken in the first round or not taken at all. When you come into camp, everything is equal. But I do feel I have to prove myself because I wasn’t drafted. I want to be able to do my best to do whatever it takes to make this team better, to make this team win. And we can take it from there. There are no guarantees. I don’t have anything yet. It’s all about who’s relevant at the end of training camp.
Added Jackson, “If I work hard and prove that I can play, I’ll get my shot. But it’s all coming down to who’s going to be on the field to help the Panthers win. That’s what I have to do. I have to do my best.”
Jackson realized that for most of his life, football was a game he played for fun. Now, it’s become his profession, his livelihood.
And he has a month now to make that lifelong dream become a reality.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.