"Come on Desean, you can do it," says an off-camera voice, and the spindly 7-year-old nods confidently before sprinting past, arms pumping. He barely breaks stride as he leaps over a weight bench that is half as tall as he is. At the top of his jump, he snares a football in his tiny hands and pulls it under his arm as his feet touch the ground.
The kid is so polished and the scene so absurd, you'd think the video had been staged for YouTube. But this clip is the real deal—DeSean Jackson, vintage 1994. Every other day, DeSean's big brother, Byron, a former NFL wide receiver, followed the action through the viewfinder of a camcorder as two of his pals sent tiny DeSean hurdling over suitcases and scooting around little orange cones.
Since those days 13 years ago—before he was college football's most dangerous player, before he scored on one of every five punts he fielded and averaged 18 yards per catch as a Cal sophomore— DeSean was drilled to be a star. And confidence came easily to the kid whose dad parted his company each time with, "Think Heisman, DeSean."
Confidence? These days, rival players and fans see it more as arrogance and selfishness. But they don't have access to Byron's extensive video library, recorded proof of just how hard DeSean has always worked. Would the critics call him MeSean and The Diva if they saw the tape of his prepubescent weight-bench vaults or any of the other hundreds of hours that Byron filmed of his kid brother as he was being molded into a pass-catching machine?
Actually, DeSean couldn't care less. His long line of mentors taught him that, too.
BEHIND THE CARDINAL-COLORED walls of USC's practice field and the faulty gate they sneaked through—just like on every other weekend morning this summer—two grown men and a scrawny 14-year-old run drills. As they glance over their shoulders for security guards, one of the men plays tight defense while the other tries to decapitate the high school freshman, who is all of 5'2", 110 pounds, with spirals from 10 yards away. The ball hardly makes a sound when the boy plucks it from the air.As he makes catch after catch, the men remind him why he's here. "They say you aren't good enough, aren't big enough, aren't tough enough. You'll never play at Long Beach Poly." The kid, his shirt drenched with sweat, just shakes his head.
The men, who by then were used to the teenager's nasty edge, took it upon themselves to sharpen it along with his game. They realized that if DeSean was not to fall short of his dream of NFL stardom—a dream each of the men had come so close to grabbing themselves—he'd need more than quick feet and sure hands.
Unlike his little brother, Byron Jackson is softspoken and laid-back. As a wide receiver at San Jose State, his speed and crisp routes made him one of Jeff Garcia's favorite targets. But Byron never stuck in the NFL, spending just one season on the Chiefs' developmental squad. One day, realizing he might never see the field in a game, he asked a photographer to snap some pictures of him catching punts in practice, irrefutable evidence that he'd been there. Byron never did get into a game, and he never again tracked down that photographer.
Back home after he was released, Byron didn't want his 7-year-old brother to ever feel as if no one was paying attention. Ever since, whenever his little brother has competed—in track meets, football games, baseball games—Byron has been there, camera rolling.
To this day, when DeSean comes home, his mentors take him to a practice field—often at Poly, where, yes, he was a two-time all-state selection—to ready him for the league that had no room for the rest of them. Darrick Davis, a teammate of Byron's at Santa Monica JC who played wideout in the CFL, mans up on DeSean, teaching offensive technique and defensive tendencies. Travis Clark, the guy zinging passes, played safety at Utah State before getting cut in Falcons camp. He's also in charge of motivation and making sure that DeSean reins in all that restless energy. Byron, a freelance video editor for Fox Sports, films it all.
THROUGH THE SIDELINE din at the 2005 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, the audio is crystal clear. "What the heck was that kid thinking?" a fan says amid laughter. "He's an idiot!" another cries. "He needs to get kicked out of the game." A pan up to the JumboTron captures a replay of the action in question. On the screen, an 18-year-old sprints down the sideline, ball tucked under his arm …30 …20 …10 …and then, as if he's hit a hidden springboard, he vaults into the air, flying cleats over helmet toward pay dirt. Except he lands a half yard short.
"What the hell are we going to say to him?" Byron's disembodied voice asks in disbelief. "Don't you say anything to him," Travis replies. "DeSean has to be DeSean. Let him fly."
The unsportsmanlike display—a move DeSean later dubbed the Reggie Bush—earned a penalty and got Jackson benched for a series. Even in the moment, he knew the ill-fated flip would make every sportscast in America. But true to his word, Travis didn't jump down the kid's throat about the showboating. He knew DeSean's obsessions with making plays and winning games would have the kid already beating himself up.
Those who saw the game almost certainly don't remember that the next time he got on the field, DeSean snatched a deep ball from a defensive back. Or that after taking a pitch on an end-around, he fired a strike downfield for a TD. Or that he finished the game with seven catches for 141 yards and was named MVP. All anyone remembers is the flip.
"It was a mistake," Jackson said after the game. "I guess I should've taken off from the 5." And then he paused, reconsidering. "Actually, it was something I shouldn't have done."
PETE CARROLL AND THREE assistants in USC golf shirts sit in the Jackson family living room, each giving a pitch for what should be an easy sell: "Let's go, you know you wanna be a Trojan." "DeSean, you grew up a diehard Trojans fan" …"You can be USC's game-breaker once Reggie leaves for the NFL." But when DeSean asks to wear No. 1, Carroll says, "Hey, it's not about the number. We want you to come to SC because we want you to be a Trojan."
The coaches are shown out, and DeSean and his dad, Bill, discuss the visit. Maybe, DeSean reasons, Carroll has promised the number to Patrick Turner, a wideout from Nashville. "They're taking me for granted," he says. And no one disagrees.
Requesting a specific number may seem a petty demand, but DeSean considered that jersey to be a "Superman cape." And, anyway, everyone in his family felt DeSean, the top recruit in Southern California, had more of a claim to No. 1 than Turner. Jackson had earned it not only with his showing in the All-American Bowl but also in the state championship against Los Alamitos. When Poly's star cornerback was injured on the opening kickoff, Jackson—who had never played defense—volunteered to step in and cover his star counterpart, Jeremy Childs (now at Boise State). Jackson picked off two passes, including one on the third play that he returned 68 yards for a touchdown.
On the eve of signing day, DeSean was still torn between USC and Cal, where he knew he would stand out instead of being just another guy in a group. Then a local paper reported that someone at USC had leaked that DeSean was planning to sign with the Trojans. "I had people calling me, 'So you're going to SC, huh,' and that really turned me off," DeSean says. Cal, though, was exciting to him; he'd be a leader there. "Plus," he says, "I wouldn't have my family all up in my business."
Yeah, like that was going to happen.
A CROWD OF USC and Cal players mingles on the field of the Coliseum, shaking hands after the Trojans' 23-9 win. DeSean approaches USC cornerback Terrell Thomas, Iooking as if he is going to congratulate his rival. Just then, the Trojan turns directly into the lens. "Put the camera on this," he says. "Two f—in' catches! Two f—in' catches!" he says, as he points at Jackson. "I shut you down!"
"You didn't shut me down," Jackson yells as he is pulled away. "Y'all were playing Cover 2. You triple-teamed me with a linebacker and a safety. Play me one-on-one, then tell me I only got two catches."
That day last November still stings today. No subject gets DeSean more riled than USC, particularly the two losses he's endured, in which the Bears scored 19 points total. As much as everyone around DeSean wants to see him win the Heisman, he doesn't hesitate to say he'd take knocking off the Trojans over some trophy any day. "Honestly I don't need to win it if we beat SC," he says. And for a moment, he doesn't sound quite so self-involved.
Asked about the Thomas incident, DeSean lets fly: "That dude was just talkin' to be talkin'," he says. "If Pete Carroll told his 10 other players to focus on everything else and it was just me and Terrell Thomas, oh, man, I'd expose that dude. But being the best player, you gotta deal with that stuff. It just makes you better."
His big brother can't be pleased when DeSean goes on a rant like this. "I don't feel like anybody has challenged me in the Pac-10, because no one plays man coverage. It's usually Cover 3, Cover 4, Cover 2. In the SEC, they man up. I respect Tennessee's cornerbacks because they do." Just like that, DeSean is once again "just being DeSean."
That DeSean can be tricky to manage for low-key head coach Jeff Tedford. Mostly, Tedford likes what he sees. "Being away from home has been good for him," says Tedford. "He's his own guy."
And that means coming strong with his own opinions. "I think Coach Tedford just has to let us play loose," DeSean says. "Let us off the chain. We're like pit bulls strapped down. I know he's a great coach, but he could just let us do some simple things—maybe a little hitch here to get us going and keep the athletes happy. Everything ain't gotta be hard."
Of course, with DeSean, it's never easy.
REPORTERS SWARM DESEAN at Pac-10 media day, blanketing him in a way that makes USC's defense look downright passive. Tape recorders whir and cameras click. Someone tells him of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh's comment about USC's being "maybe the best team in the history of college football," and DeSean shakes his head. "I don't know about all the talk," he tells the crowd. "They're a great team, a great program, but separating them from the rest of the conference? That's uncalled for.They lost last season to Oregon State and UCLA—teams we beat."
Byron, not surprisingly, has the camera rolling, and Travis laughs when he hears his protégé's response. "He really is like a lion in a rabbit's body," says Travis, who insists DeSean is just misunderstood. "He really is a lovable kid."
Lovable to Cal fans, lamentable to almost everyone else. But like him or not, DeSean Jackson is ready for his closeup.