“Oh shit, we just won the damn Super Bowl.”
Those were the first words out of Asa Jackson’s mouth as he ran onto the Superdome field to celebrate with his Ravens teammates. Just 14 months after playing cornerback for Cal Poly, Jackson had kissed the Lombardi Trophy and become a Super Bowl champion.
But for Jackson, there were moments during the better part of this past year when his future in football was more than in doubt.
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing
Jackson’s senior season at Cal Poly couldn’t have started any better. Already an NFL prospect, he had returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including an 100-yard pick six, and had a reputation for being one of the best shutdown corners in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Then on a special teams play, Jackson, who returned punts, was hit awkwardly and fell to the grass. For a minute, he said, he questioned what the injury would cost him with NFL teams. On the sideline with his pads off, he was inconsolable. His father had to come down from the stands to get through to him.
Jackson broke a bone in his foot and attempted to retake the field two weeks later against South Dakota, but was mostly ineffective, making just two tackles. In mid-November, he recorded seven tackles in his final appearance in a Mustangs jersey, but he wouldn’t be at 100 percent until well after the season.
“He tried to battle through it,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “And that spoke volumes for him too because it speaks about toughness, which, in the NFL, is a big part of the game.”
Throughout the winter, Jackson recovered and worked out in Phoenix with about 40 other prospects in preparation for April’s NFL Draft. On top of two or three workouts a day, the rumor mill surrounding his draft status churned online.
“Whoever tells you that they don’t look at that stuff is lying,” he said. “They tell you not to do it, but you can’t help it.”
And with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line for 22-year-old prospects, it’s not hard to understand why they look. Jackson’s childhood friend Brandyn Thompson, a former Boise State cornerback who was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 2011 and advised Jackson as he trained, said that getting used to dealing with negative comments online is a key learning experience. It doesn’t stop once a player makes it to the league.
However, Thompson felt that no matter what the blogs said, Jackson’s talent spoke for itself.
“He has superior quickness,” Thompson said. “His return skills are obviously a positive, especially when you’re a smaller player. Also, it’s the mentality. The confidence he carries to the football field is why he’s at where he’s at.”
And the scouts sorted through it all.
Some told Jackson he was a third round pick, others didn’t show interest. But by the time Draft Day rolled around, Jackson thought he’d be picked in the third or fourth round by the Atlanta Falcons. They’d talked to him the most and even flew him to Georgia for a visit. He spoke with the Ravens just twice.
But the third round passed without a call. The Falcons didn’t pick again until the fifth round and his other suitors, the Chiefs, Eagles and Lions, were taking a pass on Jackson in the fourth round. Frustrated and confused, Jackson walked out of the house where his family was gathered in anticipation of the biggest day in his life.
Sitting silently in his 1995 BMW 3 Series that had nearly 200,000 miles on it, Jackson’s phone rang. It was a number he didn’t recognize from a 410 area code that he’d never seen.
He picked it up to hear Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome asked a question that he described as life-changing.
“Are you ready to be a Raven?”
So with the 169th pick in the draft, Asa Jackson came off the board.
Taking Flight and Falling Down
The difference between playing football in college and in the NFL isn’t the size. It isn’t even the talent. According to Jackson, it’s the speed.
From the first snap in the opening preseason game against the Falcons, he could feel the difference. But the good part was he had some quickness himself. During his second preseason game against Detroit, Jackson received a punt on the Ravens 15-yard-line and bolted up the sideline, leaving four defenders in the dust. He hit a dead end on the opposite 25-yard-line, made one quick cut horizontally, galloped into the end zone and celebrated with a Gangnam Style dance.
A holding call nullified the touchdown, but it was a moment that he felt demonstrated his explosiveness. Even Walsh took notice while he was preparing for Cal Poly’s season.
“I called him and said that play alone, whether it got called back or not, is going to allow (Jackson) to make the roster,” Walsh said. “The other part of him that people don’t know, he’s a great special teams guy. He’s got an opportunity to be a great returner in the NFL.”
And just as Walsh predicted, Jackson made the final Ravens roster and was on the field for Baltimore’s opening game.
During the regular season, Jackson, like most rookies, didn’t see much playing time at his preferred corner position and instead delivered blows on special teams. Most of the time, viewers could only catch a glimpse of number 25 using his 4.4 40-yard dash speed to chase down kick returners. But late in the season, as Ravens corners fell like bowling pins, Jackson played on defense against San Diego, Pittsburgh and Washington. He recorded one tackle against the Chargers, but was otherwise statistically silent.
But then came the worst day of his career.
On Dec. 11 2012, the NFL suspended Jackson for four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. The offending drug: a generic form of adderall.
“It really hurt and really threw off my whole season,” he said. “I was making improvements and I was getting a lot more playing time. It was a huge blow to me.”
According to Jackson, he kept his Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) a secret while preparing for the draft. He didn’t want any team to have a reason not to pick him. But not getting a prescription, along with the required paperwork from the NFL, had unwittingly left him vulnerable to a suspension.
The penalty cost him more than $91,000 in lost pay and the opportunity to play in the Ravens first-round playoff game against Indianapolis. More importantly, it forced him away from the team during a final push for the postseason.
“It showed me how quickly all of this can be taken away from you, how quickly my dreams — and I’ve been playing since I was 7-years-old — can be taken away,” he said. “This has been my dream ever since then. I haven’t wanted to be anything else, other than a football player. This is what I do, this is my life, and to have it all taken away like that was agonizing and hurtful.”
Super Journey to the Super Bowl
While Jackson’s season could have ended with his suspension, the Ravens made the playoffs and won their first-round game, the fourth and final game of his suspension. His dream was back on track.
Leading up to their second-round game against the Broncos, the impending retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis wasn’t a main focus in the Ravens locker room, but Jackson said it gave the team urgency.
That was exactly what Baltimore needed, trailing Denver by seven points with 67 seconds left on the clock and 77 yards to go.
But on 3rd-and-3, quarterback Joe Flacco heaved a hail mary to Jacoby Jones, who received the pass and darted into the end zone.
“We were sitting there with no timeouts and we were just like ‘All right Joe, go to work,’” he said. “I think that game speaks to the character of our team.”
The Ravens would go onto win in a second period of overtime, propelling them to a AFC Championship rematch with the New England Patriots. That game was personal, Jackson said.
And Boston fans didn’t help themselves by taking out a billboard inviting the city to a “Ray (Lewis) retirement party.”
“Once we got wind of that, we were ready for them,” he said. “That’s exactly what we wanted.”
The game wasn’t close as the Ravens scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to race by the Patriots.
Though Jackson didn’t play against New England and wouldn’t play in the Super Bowl because of a strained hamstring that he suffered in Denver, he was with the team every step of the way recovering and preparing in case the Ravens needed him.
The team arrived in New Orleans on the Monday before the Super Bowl, and because the game is now a unique media event which saddles the players with additional responsibilities, Jackson balanced preparation with relaxation. He blew off steam by playing Call of Duty on his friend’s PlayStation 3.
When it was game time on Sunday, he headed over to the stadium and prepared like it was just another game, though it was impossible to completely repress the magnitude of the moment, he said.
The Ravens game plan worked from the beginning as Baltimore jumped ahead 28-6 after Jones returned the opening kickoff in the second half 108 yards for a score. Then the lights went out.
“First of all, (my teammates) said that Beyonce took all the power,” Jackson said. “But everyone was upset because we had just gotten a sack and we felt that we were going to bury the Niners right there. We had all the momentum in the world.”
San Francisco turned the tide following a nearly 40 minute delay, rallying to within two points with 10 minutes to go, but Baltimore ran out the clock and clinched its second Super Bowl title in franchise history.
After the initial celebration on a confetti-strewn field, the Lombardi Trophy was passed around and Jackson took his time with it.
“It was unbelievable, it was something I’ll never forget,” he said. “It was a really special moment. I had never really been a champion before, I had always done well personally but I had never really been a champion like that.”
But for champions, particularly in the NFL, there’s little time to rest. After celebrating in the victory parade on Feb. 5, Jackson returned to California.
Now, he’s awaiting workout instructions from his coaches in order to prepare for a return to the Super Bowl.