In the backyard of a newly built townhouse in East Garfield Park on Sept. 13, a group of junior high and high school kids from Marillac St. Vincent Family Services peppered Eddie Jackson with questions.
The Chicago Bears safety handled it with the swagger of someone returning a pick-six.
Jackson got into the real topics at the event promoting the construction of the Harrison Row Townhomes, an affordable single-family housing complex sold through the Chicago Housing Trust. Why financial literacy is important for the kids. Why dreams beyond becoming football players or entertainers should be celebrated. Why he’s making investments for his future beyond the NFL.
But there was a lot of bold football talk too.
Can you train me?
“Yeah, I got you. I got you,” Jackson answered. “I’ve got to check what your schedule looks like though.”
What’s your Madden score?
“What you think it should be, 99? That’s what I’m saying. Yeah, 99.”
Do you think you’d be better if you stayed at wide receiver?
“I won’t say I’d be better, but I’d be one of the top dogs for sure.”
Do you think the Bears are going to win the championship this year?
“Yeah, of course, but I think that every year.”
Who’s the most competitive person you’ve played?
“I’d say Aaron Rodgers. We see him Sunday. We’ve got something for him though.”
Just two days earlier, Jackson broke a 32-month stretch without an interception when he dived in front of a pass from San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance. The feeling, Jackson said, was not so much relief or vindication but more one of being “rejuvenated.”
It’s an interesting choice of words because in the Bears youth movement under general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, Jackson, in his sixth season, is suddenly one of the more senior members of the team. The defensive veterans who led during Jackson’s exuberant first few seasons — including Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack and Danny Trevathan — are all gone, and he feels more of a responsibility to guide.
At the same time, Jackson feels new energy under the changed coaching staff and roster. And the “fresh start” coaches touted for him in the spring has led to two interceptions in the first three games of 2022. The team vibe is one Jackson hopes pushes him back to the playmaking prowess that resulted in 10 interceptions and five touchdowns in his first three seasons.
Not that he ever thought it was gone, even after a couple of years of loss on and off the field.
“I always knew what type of player I am,” Jackson told the Tribune. “My coaches, players, teammates, everyone knows. It never was a thing where my head was held low.”
‘It was just so much’
The Houston Texans were at the Bears 7-yard line and threatening to take the lead in the first quarter Sunday at Soldier Field when cornerback Kindle Vildor saw Brandin Cooks run a route the Bears prepared for in the red zone all week. Vildor jumped in front of quarterback Davis Mills’ pass, popping the football into the air.
Jackson was right there to grab the ball in the end zone. He also forced a fumble one drive earlier, though the Texans recovered it. He briefly left the game to go into the medical tent but returned to play a short time later.
“It’s just flying around,” Jackson said after the Week 3 win. “That’s what happens when you hustle and play with intensity. Good things start to happen.”
For a while, not a lot was going right for Jackson. It was more than just going two seasons without an interception or missing tackles or having officials call back touchdowns because of penalties, though those things compounded other struggles.
Over the last two years, Jackson’s girlfriend, Alison Gore, suffered a miscarriage of their first child and then lost another baby at 6 months. In between those losses, Jackson’s longtime best friend, Romario Olivier — a down-to-earth, lovable guy with whom Jackson shared secrets and advice since they were kids — died from what Jackson said was an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Jackson’s first instinct was to bury the emotions and smile. He wanted to be strong for Gore. He didn’t want people to think he was looking for pity — a “poor me,” he called it. He thought people expected him to act a certain way, that he had a responsibility to keep everyone else’s spirits up.
“Just coming in here (at Halas Hall), you’ve got guys that are looking to you,” Jackson said. “A lot of stuff was going off of my emotions, so if I come here down, everybody was like, ‘Yo, Eddie!’ So I just tried to keep a smile on my face, just come in here like, ‘All right, I’m going to hit the building. Let me just put it behind me.’
“It was just so much. And I felt like, ‘Man, ain’t nothing going good for me.’ … It was like, ‘Why me?’ You’re questioning God and stuff like that. But now I’m at peace with it. I put everything in God’s hands and I go from there.”
Jackson said he and Gore, whom he met on his first day on campus at Alabama, relied on close friends, family and God. He didn’t share their losses with many people, but it poured out of him in an interview with Bears play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak that was released in Week 2, a revelation that touched Bears fans who have followed Jackson’s ups and downs.
“People look at us like superheroes, and I get it,” Jackson said last week. “I understand the type of profession we’re in. We’re human at the end of the day. We go through stuff. We leave here, take these shoulder pads off, we walk into the house and have the same problems with family and friends (that everyone does).”
Jackson has used the phrase “at peace” for how he feels off the field and on it too.
He was open at training camp about his play the last couple of years as the Bears defense stumbled after a stellar 2018 season in former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s final year. Jackson, who signed a four-year, $58.4 million extension in January 2020, said he was complacent, that he didn’t live up to the standards he set for himself.
But Jackson seems to have a genuine belief in a turnaround, faith that the energy this coaching staff brings and the way it pushes players could change things at Halas Hall.
“The mindset we have, it’s like they’re holding all of us to the same level of accountability,” Jackson said. “They’re not letting anyone slack. We’re not taking anything that’s less than what we know we have. We set the ceiling and the standards very, very high, and we feel like we’re actually going to achieve those. And it doesn’t seem like it’s not possible.”
The spark from Jackson, who was an honorary team captain for the Texans game, certainly has been notable. And part of that comes from knowing he has a young group of players, including second-round pick Jaquan Brisker, watching how he handles himself.
‘Knowledge and experience to share’
JaMarquis Allen, a senior at Providence-St. Mel, walked out of the townhome’s yard clutching a signed football, gloves and photo and declaring his interactions with Jackson “very motivational.” Jackson spent about 30 minutes signing autographs and taking selfies with the Marillac St. Vincent kids, giving extra gear to Allen’s team, which was the first to complete a $10,000 budget at a financial literacy class a night earlier.
Allen was one of about two dozen kids who listened to Jackson talk about investing in Kinexx Modular Construction, a company with several athlete investors that reduces construction costs by assembling modular homes in its factory before putting them together on site. Kinexx was a partner of Structured Development, along with Fain’s Development, for the Harrison Row project, which will have 40 affordable homes.
Jackson’s involvement was twofold. One incentive was that Jackson, who will turn 29 in December and was accompanied to the event by his parents and Gore, wants to make investments that will help his future after football.
“A lot of people don’t know, but the average span is two, three years in the NFL and then you go bankrupt two, three years after the NFL,” Jackson told the kids during the Q&A session. “So this is a huge thing for me to create some generational wealth and create some financial stability for myself as well as my family.”
He also wanted to give back in Chicago, help with the affordable housing crisis and educate the kids.
Jackson said he didn’t really gain financial literacy until he bought his first house and thought it was important kids have schooling in it early. He started a scholarship fund with that purpose in honor of Olivier, whom Jackson considered a model of entrepreneurship after his friend started his own tow truck company.
“Everyone feels like you have to be an athlete or entertainer or something to make it out, when there’s really a million different ways,” Jackson told the kids. “And that kind of starts right now, having this information you guys are learning, being able to come out here and see what’s going on in the community and how you can impact it when you get older to help change things.”
It’s a message Jackson takes to heart too.
“I always pray not just to thank God for my blessings but to ask him for me to become one to others,” he said.
Around Halas Hall, that philosophy could help him as he learns how to be the veteran. Bears safeties coach Andre Curtis said Jackson has a quiet leadership to him — he maybe doesn’t give rousing speeches, but people gravitate to him. That includes Brisker.
When Jackson first told Brisker to let him know if he needed anything after the Bears drafted the Penn State safety, Brisker asked to watch film with him that day. That’s how Brisker found himself at the gate to Jackson’s house in awe.
“When I first walked in there, I’m like, ‘Wow,’” Brisker said during training camp. “I had to tell him, coming from where I’m coming from, we don’t see things like that. So that was very big for me. So, like, I know I’m in the NFL.”
Brisker and Jackson watched film together on their tablets, the start of weeks of film sessions and meals together. Brisker said all of the Bears safeties help him, but he was at Jackson’s house so much that “I was like, I’ve got to chill a little bit, give him some room.”
“They’ve got a genuine friendship,” Curtis said. “They spend a lot of time together studying tape, even on days off. Eddie is a private person, but he has a huge heart for helping other people and he has knowledge and experience to share with a young player, and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Jackson at one point called Brisker “Little Brother” and said that while Brisker is more settled into his own place now, he still is welcome to come over, including for a haircut in Jackson’s in-house barbershop last week. Jackson believes the infusion of youth in the secondary, which also includes draft picks Kyler Gordon and Elijah Hicks, is helping him, too, in both his preparation and his play.
“Just being one of the oldest guys in the room, all of the young guys coming in, they’re looking at you, what you do, how you work, how you are off the field, how you are during meetings,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to carry yourself a certain way.
“Just being able to play with them, just the energy they bring as young players, it’s fun. They’re electric. Everyone saw what they were capable of doing (against the 49ers), just the plays we are capable of making as a unit.
“We want to change the whole identity of this thing. Me and Quan always talk, we want to do the best it’s ever been done as a safety duo. So that’s the mindset.”
It’s the type of bold statement Jackson occasionally makes, but Curtis said Jackson and Brisker have been backing it up with the right approach.
“They’re not lacking in confidence, which is a good thing,” Curtis said. “Both of them have a humility about themselves and they’re approachable and you can coach them and you can coach them hard, and they’ll listen because they want to be really good. And that’s what they’re trying to work to do.”
So far this season, the work — and the energy and peace of mind — is paying off as Jackson is making the type of impact plays that highlighted his early Bears career.
“There may be some other people that say, ‘Well, it’s been this many ballgames, this many years since he’s had an interception,’ but Eddie does not lack for confidence,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “So I don’t know if you would say that boosted his confidence.
“When you work like Eddie works and you’re smart like Eddie, the football intelligence, the confidence doesn’t wane.”