LOS ANGELES — Every morning he made the journey: the walk to the bus stop through South Central, the bus to Vernon Station, the blue-line train to Long Beach and his high school.
DeSean Jackson was a freshman at Long Beach Polytechnic High then, and some mornings were peaceful, and others were not. One side of a road might be Neighborhood Crips territory, the other patrolled by Bloods, the Rollin 40s or any of the 300 street gangs in Los Angeles. The bus would take him through neighborhoods where a hat or a gold chain is a statement, the train through four rival gang territories.
Many athletes spend years trying to escape their pasts, trying to put behind them a time that, among other things, drove them to reach their sport’s mountaintop. But Jackson, a 27-year-old wide receiver who recently signed with the Washington Redskins , has maintained a connection with his roots, which outsiders see as questionable — though others who grew up here understand it as the norm.
“We are a product of our environment,” said Donovan Warren, a childhood friend of Jackson’s who, like the three-time Pro Bowler, moved beyond the streets of Southern California to play college football and in the NFL.
Two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Eagles released Jackson, a talented player in the prime of his career — but one whose six NFL seasons have been defined as much by attitude as ability. A contract that called for him to make upward of $47 million helped to push him out the door. Nothing, though, drew attention like Jackson’s alleged connections to the Crips and a published report on NJ.com that outlined those ties.
Jackson, now a millionaire and an NFL star, has maintained relationships with purported gang members but has repeatedly insisted he has never been in a gang. Other than a guilty plea for disturbing the peace in 2010, his criminal record is clean. It’s just that here, a talented athlete guarantees nothing but trouble by turning his back on his past and the characters within it; safety is found through coexistence.
“You don’t just turn those relationships off,” said Don Norford, a longtime track and assistant football coach at Long Beach Poly. “These are the people he grew up with. He can’t come home and act like he doesn’t know them. He’d be in trouble with me. . . . In our community, that’s something that you just don’t do.”
Not that everyone is comfortable with this arrangement.
“DeSean is one of the most loyal people,” said his mother, Gayle Jackson. “Too loyal for me.”
He ran into his older brother’s house once, he and his friend followed and chased on the way by gang members.
“Where you from?” they had asked him, a question as common as it was dangerous. It was meant to determine a stranger’s gang allegiance; the wrong answer or a volatile color might lead to a confrontation, and anyway, good thing Jackson possessed sprinter’s speed.
“Any given day, anything can happen if you cross the wrong person,” said Byron Jackson, 46, who grew up in the Washington area before the boys’ late father, Bill, moved the family to Los Angeles.
Out here, among the contrasting scenes of palm trees and off-white paint that workers slap on walls to cover graffiti, Jackson and thousands like him adapted to a harsh landscape. Warren said it’s common for young African Americans to be assumed gang members, which can lead to trouble. “Imagine going through that every day: the threat of having to fight and defend yourself,” Warren said.
Once, longtime friend Khalid Rahim said, Jackson ditched his bicycle and ducked into a garage to lose pursuing gang members. “You’ve got to survive,” said Rahim, adding that his own experience included being shot twice in 2007.
Bill Jackson wanted DeSean to play at the area’s best football school, even if it was more than an hour away from their apartment in South Central and even if it meant he likely would sit alongside gang members on the train to downtown Long Beach. Success sometimes comes by traveling unusual or inconvenient roads, his father told him, and the young man took stock of his dad’s words and toughened himself for his challenges.“The reason,” Warren said, “why DeSean is so physical on the football field.”
If a gang member sat next to him, friends said, sometimes the ride was uneasy. Would Jackson need to run or fight, or would the threat simply pass when the doors opened at the next stop? Other times, if someone approached Jackson to ask where he was from, a gang member might answer for him — speaking up that Jackson wasn’t from anywhere, because he wasn’t in a gang.
After school, there was football or baseball or track, and then Jackson’s father would pick up his son and a few friends. “We didn’t have time to be in the streets,” Rahim said. “Sports got your time after school. The only time you could do something was on campus. You can’t be a gangster on campus.”
Jackson, who declined an interview request for this story through his publicist, was insulated not only by sports but also a strong family. Bill and Byron mentored Jackson and his friends, and Gayle provided a willing ear. Friends said Jackson didn’t need affirmation from gang leaders because he had plenty of it at home.
Still, gangs were all around him — in classrooms, on fields and tracks and on those rides to school. Some members chased a better life, the same as Jackson, and others strayed. Jackson, for his part, judged no one. Their lives were different, but that didn’t make them wrong.
“We’re all just trying to make it,” Rahim said.
Jackson kept climbing the football ladder, moving from Long Beach to Berkeley to play wide receiver at the University of California. Friends said he hoped his success would inspire younger athletes, and his neighborhood bona fides allowed him to enter any school or playing field and connect with youngsters.
“You know their mothers, their fathers,” said Norford, the longtime coach. “And I teach that: You always come back to your roots.”
During the spring of 2008, Gayle Jackson said, teams investigated her son’s background before the NFL draft. Team officials spoke with neighbors and teachers, she said, and somewhere along the way, some heard Jackson was closer to the gangs than he was letting on. She said the family believes this rumor — along with an indication that Jackson isn’t a team player — was among the reasons her son dropped from the first round.
“It was always this character thing,” she said, “and I never understood where it came from.”
Jackson’s father, who had pushed him toward football and acted as a father figure to DeSean’s close friends, died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. Byron Jackson said his brother took the loss hard, and DeSean buried himself in work with at-risk youths in Philadelphia and Southern California. He started a charity and worked on anti-bullying causes. He also leaned, during his most difficult days, on friends he had grown up with; those who knew his dad and understood this shared culture — no matter the direction of their own lives.
“There are times when he could’ve made better decisions on who to be around and who not to be around, but that’s life,” said Byron Jackson, a filmmaker who last year produced a documentary about DeSean’s rise and relationship with their father.
Others suggested he distance himself from the more questionable characters, advice that close friends said he heeded.
“I’ve told DeSean, like: ‘Look, man, that’s not right for us. That’s not the right situation,’ ” Warren said. “ ‘We don’t need to be around that guy right now. That’s not saying necessarily that he’s not our friend or we don’t associate with him, but just at this time and point, it’s not good for us, not good for our brand, not good for you, our safety, those types of things.’ ”
In 2011, Jackson’s phone rang. Eric Crosson, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, was calling to ask about Theron Shakir, a friend from high school and a suspected member of the Crips. Shakir and Marques Binns, a former defensive back at Oregon, were being investigated in connection with the December 2010 killing of a 14-year-old boy.
“I never thought that he was a suspect,” Crosson said of Jackson. “I was really just interested in what information he might have.”
Jackson admitted to Crosson that he knew Shakir, and last week during an interview with ESPN, Jackson said he and Shakir “grew up together, played ball together” and had maintained a relationship. Binns told NJ.com this week he didn’t know Jackson, but Crosson said Binns had conversations with Jackson and had been on the payroll of Jackson’s record label, Jaccpot Entertainment.
Crosson said Jackson answered his questions about Shakir and Binns, and the wide receiver’s involvement in the case ended there. Shakir was later acquitted, and Binns was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
But while Crosson and Jackson were talking, he asked about something else: Why did Jackson spell his company name that way, seeing as how Crips avoid spelling words with “ck” — because that could mean “Crip Killer”? Crosson said Jackson told him that it was simply because the name “Jackpot” was unavailable. He has used the spelling in other instances, though: His Instagram handle, which he recently changed, was “jaccpot10,” and when Jackson autographed a 2010 Pro Bowl helmet for his brother, he signed it “D-Jacc.”
Crosson said he also found it interesting that Jackson has occasionally appeared in photographs showing what appeared to be gang hand signs. Jackson also flashed a Crips signal during a game against the Redskins last year; referencing it during the ESPN interview, Jackson said that was his way to “connect me with me and my boys.”
Jackson’s family doesn’t much care for the gestures, though. Byron Jackson called his brother’s use of them “immature.” Gayle Jackson said her son should avoid setting such traps for himself.
“DeSean shouldn’t even have taken the picture,” Gayle said, referring to one photograph. “He shouldn’t even have been — it gives the impression that it’s a gang sign. . . . When I look at it, it doesn’t look like a gang sign to me.
“But it’s questionable, and anything that’s questionable, in my mind, don’t do it.”
Early in 2012, Gayle Jackson began issuing reminders to her son and his friends: The NFL was again watching.
Before the Eagles offered Jackson a contract extension, Gayle said, the team — which employs a security team that investigates players and prospects — was again looking into Jackson’s social life.
Gayle told members of her son’s circle to pull up their sagging pants, to trade their tank tops for shirts with collars, to leave the jewelry at home and to wear clothes that covered tattoos. “Perception,” she said, “is everything.”
If Jackson was interested in that long-term contract, changes were necessary.
“Everybody had to stop; certain people had to quit hanging around,” said Rahim, who has known Jackson for more than a decade and said he lived with him in Philadelphia. “You had to clean it up.”
The Eagles signed their best receiver to a five-year contract extension. Nine months later, Andy Reid, the coach who had twice taken a leap of faith on Jackson, was fired.
Last season, Jackson had his most productive year as a pro: 82 catches, 1,332 yards and his third Pro Bowl appearance. But reports in Philadelphia suggested Jackson clashed with new Eagles Coach Chip Kelly and had a reputation as a locker-room malcontent who wouldn’t communicate with teammates and coaches.
“You can’t just talk to him and not get to the point,” Norford said. “As long as you get to the point, he’s going to listen and understand.”
Rahim said Jackson handles difficult times by preferring to be alone, playing video games or taking long drives. In 2012, Jackson addressed his reputation during an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“People misjudge it sometimes and think I’m selfish or I’m quiet or I’m rude because I don’t talk,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “It’s just coming from where I came from, the things that I saw, the obstacles that I had to face in life that brought me to where I am today.”
More recently, the Inquirer reported that on March 1, the Eagles began trying to trade Jackson. With no offers, according to the newspaper, the team cut him March 28. The Eagles declined a request to interview Kelly for this story.
Rahim said Jackson asked Kelly why he was released; Jackson was told the team was heading in a different direction. Jackson told friends, though, that he believed his release was related to money; he was scheduled to make $10.25 million in 2014.
Teams interested in Jackson acted quickly, though none faster than the Redskins. Several teams contacted Crosson to vet Jackson and ask about his gang connections; Washington did not call, the detective said. The night before Jackson’s visit to Redskins Park, the team’s star quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who was in Los Angeles for other reasons, went to Jackson’s home in nearby Tarzana to recruit the wide receiver. “I came out here,” Griffin said, “to get my boy.”
They stood near a fire pit and talked about family and death, their shared experiences of running track and playing football. They joked about which of them would wear No. 10, if it came to that. After Griffin left, Jackson stood in his walk-in closet with his two brothers, choosing between two suits in order to make the right impression on the Redskins.
“I want a job. I want to play football,” Jackson said as Byron, his older brother, shot video he’d later show The Post.
Byron Jackson said he hopes this recent experience reminds his brother that, yes, impressions matter. He said he hopes DeSean realizes that no matter the journey he once took — the walk, the bus, the train — his life must be different now.
“DeSean is part of a culture that he’s evolving,” Byron said. “He’s part of a culture that I might not understand. I can’t say that what DeSean does is wrong or right. I just hope he evolves — and he won’t give people a reason to judge him.”