Carolina Panthers

Donte Jackson is key to future of Panthers’ secondary. But he’ll never forget his past

Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson gets a tattoo that reminds him of home.

Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson is playing for his neighborhood of Shrewsbury, New Orleans. To remind himself where he came from, he got it tattooed on his arm.
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Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson is playing for his neighborhood of Shrewsbury, New Orleans. To remind himself where he came from, he got it tattooed on his arm.

Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson has the word “Shrewsbury” tatooed across the length of his right forearm. It’s a permanent reminder of where he comes from.

And what he’s made of.

Shrewsbury is a small neighborhood in Northeast New Orleans. The Mississippi River laps at its boundaries on windier days.

That’s where Jackson grew up. And he grew up running.

“I always was the smallest dude in the neighborhood, I was always smaller than all of my friends,” he said. “I was always the fastest, though.”

Yashica, Jackson’s mother, raised him and his three siblings alone. Jackson’s father went to prison when he was 6. They have a good relationship now, but Jackson is closest to his mother. He said she hustled harder than anyone he’s ever known, stretching to make ends meet and support them.

Squeezed underneath Highway 3046 in Shrewsbury, there is a little park called the Frank Lemon Playground. It has a youth football team, which Jackson joined at age 7.

“You needed 12 (on a team) to play. And we had exactly 12 players,” Jackson laughed. “So we had 11 guys who played both sides, and then the 12th guy who was on the team just so we could have enough players.”

Yashica never missed a game. And she always brought a crowd of aunts and cousins.

“(The Jacksons) travel, and we love sports,” Jackson said. “Sports is the one thing that kept us together even through the worst of times. Sports has always had everything come back together, and that’s where my family has found a level ground.”

It was like that for his friends on the Lemon Playground team, too.

Shrewsbury was an easy place to find trouble, Jackson said.

“It was hard, you know. My neighborhood wasn’t the best neighborhood. Drugs, violence all around,” he said. “It was normal. That’s what we thought life was, what we thought everybody did.”

But sports took the boys out of what they were surrounded by every day, Jackson said. And they could all count on each other.

“Those 10 guys that I played with, those were the 10 guys that I hung with every day in the neighborhood,” he said. “That was our football team, our basketball team, everything. Same group of guys who I grew up with from age 7 to 13.”

All of his Lemon Playground teammates were small-framed, like him. Scrappy, like him. Fast.

But Jackson was always a little faster.

At Riverdale High school, the city and state began to find out just how much of a gift his speed was.

As a football player, he played both offense and defense — just like on the Lemon Playground team. He finished his senior year as the No. 3-ranked prep player in Louisiana, labeled as an “athlete.” He also won back-to-back state titles in the 100 and 200-meter dash in 2015 and 2016.

It was more than enough to convince coaches at LSU to offer him a scholarship. The school is only an hour and a half from his family, and a mecca for NFL-caliber defensive backs.

So naturally, he accepted.

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Transcendent speed

Jackson arrived at LSU for summer camp in 2015, and was put through his first conditioning test in the swampy Baton Rouge air. It was mostly sprints, no pads.

After, the strength coaches found it hard to describe what Jackson had just showed them.

“He just floats,” said Tommy Moffit, LSU’s director of strength and conditioning. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him without pads, just running. ... His acceleration, his stride is just graceful.

“The first time I saw him run, I was like, ‘This guy is legit.’ ... When he sprints, it is something to see.”

But, as coaches soon found out, Jackson was much more than the undersized, speedy kid out of Shrewsbury.

“There are people who are quick, and there are people who are powerful,” Moffitt said. “Donte is both. He’s got great quickness, but he also possesses a tremendous amount of power, which allows him to be strong at the point of attack, and stick his foot in the ground and run with the guys.”

Jackson was also a two-sport athlete at LSU, as a starting defensive back and the leadoff runner in the SEC-champion track team’s 4x100 relay. Marrying the two sports made him better.

“(Track is) about going against the guy next to you. ... And I think that has a lot to do with (who he is now),” Moffitt said. “Because in a team sport you can be successful based on the actions of someone else, but in an event like the 100 meters, you’re only successful because of your reaction time to the gun and how fast you are.”

That’s kind of like going against an NFL receiver one-on-one. The snap is the gun; and then it’s just Jackson trying to beat his man.

Track also helped build a mentality that’s crucial in cornerbacks: A short memory.

Jackson definitely has that quality, Panthers coaches say often. He is able to treat each play as the play. And then it’s over. Then, the next play is the play. Like running sprints.

The Panthers saw that on tape as they scouted Jackson, before selecting him in the second round, No. 55 overall, this spring.

When they got to his game against Auburn in 2017, they were blown away. Jackson made six consecutive big plays, including three pass breakups.

He continued his introduction to the NFL with similar tenacity.

In training camp with the Panthers, Jackson almost immediately won the starting No. 2 corner job. He made plays on the ball and few mistakes, and his confidence was palpable.

Often as he battled receivers, he was outsized.

But it didn’t matter. That’s just Shrewsbury.

“I’m always going to win. Always competing,” he said. “Always want to get after it, regardless of how big the opponent is.

“I think that comes from my background, growing up. And how hard you have to be just to walk through my neighborhood.”

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Never the biggest guy, Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson (26) competes both physically and with his uncommon speed. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A new superhero

There is a new generation of kids running around Lemon Playground these days, but Jackson said they all know his name.

“It’s little kids who didn’t even know me when I used to be back there a lot, I’m a superhero to them now,” he said.

Jackson the only one of his original youth football friend group who made it big.

“I’m the only one still standing, I think,” he said. “So me getting out there every week is me playing for my neighborhood, playing for the people back home who are still out there fighting adversity. They expect me to go out there and play hard.”

New Orleans is a Saints city, but in Shrewsbury on Sundays, Jackson said everyone watches him play for the NFC South rival Panthers.

“Lemon Playground, that’s where it all started. From scoring touchdowns on that field, to getting drafted,” he said. “That’s why everybody there is with me. Everybody knows what you have to be made of to come through there. So that’s what I’m playing with right now.”

Jackson leads the Panthers in interceptions, with three through his first four games. He has matched his promising ability with a confidence that has drawn comparisons to notoriously chatty former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman.

Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson celebrates after picking off Cam Newton at training camp.

Jackson is flattered by that. But he also wants to be something different, something more special to the people of Shrewsbury.

“Action Jackson.”

He didn’t create the nickname for himself.

“Little kids love it, more than the adults do,” he said. It sounds like a superhero’s name.

“When I was young, professional athletes were superheroes to me. ... I just think that the whole ‘Action Jackson’ moniker is more for them,” he said.

“I just like to go out there, have fun, and show them that you can make it from anywhere. Just keep going.”

Jackson plays for those kids, and for the neighborhood, for his brothers, sister, his aunts and his cousins. His mom.

Like the ink on his arm, they stick with him wherever he goes. However fast he runs.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue
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