CRAWFORD | Rhapsody in Red: Lamar Jackson arrives in New York for Heisman moment
Lamar Jackson says his arrival in New York City for Saturday's Heisman Trophy presentation is "a dream come true." WDRB's Eric Crawford talks about his trip.
NEW YORK (WDRB) — The bus carrying University of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson pulled to a stop at his Broadway hotel, and the sophomore quarterback stepped out, and looked up.
On stages all around this spot, stories are being told, of emerging from humble origins, of overcoming obstacles, of dreams coming true. None of them take a back seat to the rapid rise of Jackson, the three-star recruit who got a five-star welcome Friday in his first trip to New York City.
“Everything seems so tall to me,” Jackson said. “Just seeing Times Square, it’s tremendous. It’s better than seeing on TV.”
Not too long ago, reporters asked him if he’d ever been to New York and he said, “Yes. I’ve been to Syracuse.”
That’s like telling someone you’ve seen the ocean after looking at a swimming pool. Jackson is learning, he needs think bigger. In July, the odds of Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy were 50-1. For most of this month, they’ve been 1-50. He arrived in New York a 1-25 favorite to win the award, which will be presented in the PlayStation Theater Saturday night.
It has happened this quickly. In August, Jackson went to ACC football media day to become the face of Louisville’s program. In December, he arrived in New York as the face of college football.
But it wasn’t entirely overnight. Jackson went to work in earnest after he threw for 227 yards and ran for 226 in a Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M. But the Heisman Trophy wasn’t on his radar.
“I wanted to win a national championship this year with my teammates,” he said. “We started talking about that in January when we got back from the bowl game. That was the biggest thing for us, but it didn’t happen, so I have to come back next year strong.”
He mentioned his team often in his conversations with reporters on Friday. Before he came down to do the media session, in fact, he stopped to call some of them.
“I love them guys, all of them,” Jackson said. “I just got off the phone with (Brandon) Radcliff and Cole (Hikutini) and Charles Standberry. They’re happy for me. They’re happier than I am, actually. Right now, it’s crazy. I love them guys, and I’m thankful they’re not the bad people who just think about you like, ‘Oh, he thinks he’s all that,’ and get mad at you because you’re in the spotlight right now. But those guys are cool. They’re humble, and I’m just thankful for them.”
Jackson, too, has humility in his manner. And if you think about how he grew up, you understand it. Not because of his family’s origins or its financial status, but because of a deliberate effort by his mother, Felicia Jones, to put it there. Jones is in New York with her son, the first significant time the two have spent together since May. But they speak almost every day, and she is perhaps his most unsparing critic when it comes to football.
She taught him the game, in their back yard. When Dan Patrick asked him in a radio interview earlier this year who the first person to tackle him was, he said it was his mother, who works as a personal trainer in Florida.
“The funny thing is, she was wearing pads,” Jackson said.
Jones values her privacy. She has not spoken with reporters during her son’s rapid rise in college football, and does not want to be a part of the spotlight this weekend.
But some things she did in raising her son provide insight. She’s not what you would call an affirmative parent, when it comes to praising her son. She might’ve told him “good game” in middle school, but from high school on, her focus has been on Jackson’s mistakes, not his many highlights. It’s fair to say, to use a phrase that has been batted around a bit in Louisville athletics lately, there were no participation trophies in Jackson’s room growing up. He has picked up on that.
“She will tell me the bad things I do,” he said. “She doesn’t really tell me the good things I do. And I say, all right mom, I’ve got to go fix it. And I get in the film room. . . . I only want to watch my mistakes. That’s the way to make yourself better.”
Asked if even in this national player of the year-type season if she has complimented him at any point, Jackson said, "I don't really know. It’s like, every game you know you’re going to have that little thing you do wrong, and she always finds it. I don’t know when she’s going to give me my credit." Then Jackson smiled and added, "Hopefully soon."
Jackson threw an ill-advised deep ball that was intercepted in the season-finale loss to Kentucky, trying to force a big play to Traveon Samuel instead of hitting an open receiver in the flat. His mother broke it down for him this way, “She said, ‘You know that was dumb pass?,’” Jackson said. “I said, ‘I know. I won’t do that again.’”
When Louisville coach Bobby Petrino calls Jackson out on a mistake, it’s one thing. “I’ll say, ‘All right coach, I got you,’” Jackson said. But when the critic is is mother, he said, “I feel like I let her down.”
There’s a Bible verse tattooed onto Jones’ left arm. When he said he wanted to put a verse there, he said this is the one she asked him to get. It’s Mark 6:4. The verse reads: “Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.’”
The translation: You might become a big shot someday, you might become a star, but at home, you’re always the same person.
That verse is imprinted in Jackson in ways he probably doesn’t realize yet. It has helped this season as the Heisman hype heated up. He first started to notice all the talk after the second week of the season. He leaped a Syracuse defender during a touchdown run and vaulted into the Heisman conversation before the highlights on SportsCenter had ended.
He responded by dialing down his consumption of social media, by purposefully ignoring TV, by trying to drown out the praise that was ramping up around him. He looked at the Sports Illustrated cover after the Cardinals beat Florida State, but he didn’t read the story, and he certainly didn’t accept the message.
“I stopped paying attention to social media,” he said. “I just tried to stop paying attention to anything. . . . With people talking about the Heisman and things like that, I didn’t really want to pay attention to that. I like playing football. I didn’t want that to take me out of my element or change me or what I was doing on the field.”
What he does on the field is electric. He’s the first player in major college history to pass for 30 touchdowns and run for 20 in the regular season. If his upbringing is the opposite of the self-esteem heavy philosophies popular today, his college career also is a bit of a repudiation of the accepted route to the big-time. He didn’t go to many high-profile camps as a high school player. And while many teams wound up recruiting him, it wasn’t until relatively late in his college career.
And many of those programs wanted him to redshirt. Others wanted to move him to defensive back. Petrino sat in Jackson’s home and told his mother that he would have every chance to be a starting quarterback at Louisville right away. Petrino had no idea whether Jackson was ready, but, Jackson said, “Other people wanted me to sit out or wanted me to change positions. They had their minds made up already. Coach P told my mother, if he comes in, I’ll give him the chance to fight for the job. That’s all I needed, a chance to fight.”
What he has done with it could be historic. Jackson said he hasn’t thought about winning the Heisman much. He won the Maxwell Award presented to the nation’s player of the year as voted by a panel of sportswriters, sportscasters and NCAA head coaches. He won the Walter Camp Foundation Player of the Year award.
If he doesn’t win the Heisman, it will be the biggest shock in this city since Election Night, 2016.
Jackson has worn the same gold crucifix to every major awards event and interview session he’s had this season. He wore it to ACC media day in the preseason. On Friday, I asked him if there was a story behind it.
“He’s the reason I’m here right now talking to you,” Jackson said. “You know, everything that happens for me is from the Lord, so I’ve always got to wear it.”
He said a cousin gave him the cross. And that his mother gave him the faith. One thing Jackson has started about is his acceptance speech, should he need to make one. He’s worked with it, along with Louisville sports information director Rocco Gasparro.
“You’ve got to think about all the people who helped you get there,” Jackson said. “You can’t just think about what you did and stuff. You’ve got to think about everyone, and that’s what it’s all about.”
On Friday night, Jackson and the other Heisman finalists toured New York City in a bus. They saw the tree at Rockefeller Center, saw Freedom Tower, and all the sights. Jackson’s story fits right in on Broadway, where the award will be presented in the PlayStation Theater Saturday night. Does he think he’ll win? The closest Jackson would get to saying is this: “The Lord’s will. I hope so. I wouldn’t say I don’t want to. I’d love to, but it’s in the voters’ hands. . . . I’ll be proud regardless.”
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