JUST TWO DAYS before the Eagles' 2012 training camp, wide receiver DeSean Jackson sits in a dim room in his rented mansion in Malibu, Calif., bathed in the glow of a computer screen as he mouses across music tracks of a Pro Tools session. His only audience is a small painting of John Lennon sitting at a grand piano. One by one, his musical entourage arrives. He greets each man with a pound hug or nod before refocusing on the screen. With a click, he drops a bass beat, all chatter stops, and cellphones and iPads appear. The men jockey for the mic, but Jackson assumes the alpha position, jumping out of his seat with the notes page up on his iPhone. He might be renting this house, but he owns the room.
In the darkened vocal booth, Jackson, in a do-rag, T-shirt and baggy Ralph Lauren pants, bounces as he rhymes, holding the phone aloft behind the mic. The track, a midtempo jam with heavy 808 drum samples and video-game-like accents, is cued and paused on his command. "Punch it right here, cuz," he says, tapping the window. He rhymes to the beat: "It's like I'm turnt up / But don't turn me down / Riding around town / And everything go down." He pauses to change a lyric, then dives back in, pointing with his phone-free hand like he's onstage at the Staples Center. Head down. Eyes shut. DeSean Jackson is fully committed.
MATTHEW QUICK IS far from the only long-suffering Eagles fan, but it's safe to say that no other long-suffering Eagles fan has written a novel based around a family of long-suffering Eagles fans that was turned into an Oscar-nominated film. So when Quick, author of Silver Linings Playbook, is asked about Jackson's desire to build a music career, he's nothing if not precise with his words: "Let's face it. Eagles fans are not going to be excited about DeSean Jackson producing records."
Not after their team just finished a two-season descent from Super Bowl pick to punch line. Not after coach Andy Reid's 14-year reign ended. Not after QB Michael Vick spiraled -- again -- from phenom to cautionary tale. And not after a December in which Jackson spent more time on his music than on the field.
Jackson's five-year career is at a crossroads, at the bottom of a hill. It's been three years since his best campaign, when he caught 62 passes for 1,156 yards and nine TDs, and the seasons since have carried a dubious distinction: In almost every receiving and return statistic, each season has been worse than the last. Fair or not, lagging numbers and nagging injuries have led Eagles fans to question his heart -- a man forever spiking the ball at the 1-yard line.
If Philly's complicated past with Allen Iverson proves anything, it's that the city will embrace swagger so long as it's tempered with toughness. Jackson, though, is the NFL's Road Runner -- lean-limbed, lithe, with an almost delicate quality that even full sleeves of tattoos can't mask. As such, his survival relies almost solely on harnessing his gone-in-a-meep speed. For him, football is an avoiding-contact sport. So when posed a hypothetical choice between playing football and producing records -- all money being equal -- he barely hesitates. He chooses music. "Less dangerous," he says flatly.
IT'S MID-OCTOBER and Jackson can't wait to blow off steam during the Eagles' bye week. The team is 3-3, two games into what will become an eight-game slide, Jackson five games from the rib injury that will end his season. He's back home in LA, not far from where he grew up around Compton in a football family that had him running drills every day since he was 7. He was raised by devoted parents, motivated by his father, Bill, who ended talks with "think Heisman," and mentored by a brother, Byron, who has filmed every sweat-soaked scene for a documentary that has yet to be released.
For one day, at Conway Studios, Jackson says all the right things about the Eagles turning the season around. But two facts are clear: He'd rather not talk football, and he's eager to hear his music. As veteran producer L.T. Hutton mans the audio board, filling the studio with sound, the artists on Jackson's label walk in with bloodshot eyes and sink into black swivel chairs. But Jackson is on his game, working the room, bouncing and lip-synching the celebratory anthems -- "Diamonds on My Neck," "I'm on My Clique," "Showin' Off" -- from his upcoming Jaccpot Presents. An Island Def Jam rep sits nearby. An MTV crew arrives to shoot a segment about Jackson's Bentley Continental GT. "Can we hear some stuff?" the video producer asks. Jackson looks over. Hutton hits the button. "Don't mind me / I got 50 mil ... Showin' off in this b -- / Showin' off in this b -- ."
AS PLAYERS, DESEAN JACKSON and former Eagles corner Herm Edwards have one big thing in common and little else. That link is a play -- or two plays, actually, sharing one name. In 1978, Edwards returned a fumbled handoff for a last-minute win over the Giants. They called it the Miracle at the Meadowlands. In 2010, also at the Giants, Jackson returned a punt 65 yards for a last-play, game-winning score. They called that one the Miracle at the New Meadowlands.
Otherwise, in their approaches to the game, there are only differences. Edwards, all discipline, is as tight as a necktie; Jackson is as loose as a gold rope chain. Edwards never missed a game in nine years with Philly. Jackson hasn't played a full season since he was a rookie in 2008. When asked about dedication, Edwards (now an ESPN analyst) says, "An NFL career is year-round. That's how the great ones do it. But sometimes players don't achieve the greatness they could have." Hearing Edwards' take, Jackson says: "That's the old-school mentality. Football only takes up so much of my time. Music doesn't distract me. I'm able to turn it on and turn it off."
Jackson lifts his hat to smooth his do-rag at the suggestion that if his play slips yet again people will blame his label, a venture he launched two years ago when both he and the Eagles were world-beaters. As Jackson sees it, all he must do to balance football with his seven-artist roster is delegate. For that, he's named Hutton co-CEO of Jaccpot Records. "I make sure that this world stays separate from that world," says Hutton, a producer with two decades of experience working with the likes of Snoop, Shaq and Roy Jones Jr.
For his part, Reid believed he could trust the arrangement enough the past two seasons to grant Jackson creative freedom -- no ground rules, no threats. "I never had to do that, because he handled everything very well," says Reid. "It never interfered with what he was doing on the football field. DeSean is smart."
A FEW DAYS before Christmas, in a packed West Philly studio, Jackson's cred is on the line. He hasn't worn pads in almost a month, but he's primed for a contest of another sort: a $10,000 wager pitting Jackson's 15-year-old rapper Retro in an old-school battle against Philly rapper Meek Mill's artist Lil Snupe, 16. Vick and T.I. are among the judges for the five-round battle, with each rapper on either end of a red pool table, the money in the middle.
Lil Snupe opens with a menacing one-minute freestyle; Retro returns an uninspiring rhyme about Gucci, Prada and being worth "a couple mil." Jackson flanks Retro, punctuating his protégé's rhymes with frantic nods. But the next four rounds unfold as the first. Lil Snupe drops freestyle digs at Jackson, and Retro responds with premade party rhymes about a lifestyle he only aspires to. The 20-minute faceoff is over after two. Jackson hears the judges cast votes for Lil Snupe before slipping out of the room.
When video of the battle surfaces online, Jackson's Instagram and Twitter feeds fill with ruthless hip-hop fans and disgruntled Eagles faithful: "Yo @jaccpot10 stop focusing on that and start winning games." "Instead of posting on Instagram, focus on football, the job u get paid." "You need to move from South Central and move into the endzone."
It's no better on VladTV.com, the TMZ of hip-hop, where the video is posted: "D jack is a sucka just left his boy there while he rolled out just like he did the eagles last year lol."
ONE WEEK INTO the new year, Jackson is in a positive mood at a Burbank studio. After a six-week stretching regimen, he declares his ribs healed. He's open and loose, draped on a couch, but tenses when asked if his career is out of balance. "Everyone has their opinion," he says. "I'm acting. I do commercials. I do charity work almost every week. There's so many things where you could be, Why is he doing this? Why is he doing that? I'm just living my life."
With that he heads to the control room where the engineer is tweaking a mix, a work in progress in which he touches on a recurring theme: hater management. Jackson's voice booms through the speakers: "And I ain't the jealous type / I'm just livin' my life."