Green Bay Packers UDFA: Highway to Hell Leads to Golden Opportunity

Back in high school, a teacher predicted Don Jackson would be dead. Instead, this greatest of comeback stories has earned his chance with the Green Bay Packers.

“He’ll be dead or in jail before he’s 17.”

That was the message to Don Jackson’s girlfriend after Jackson got in trouble — again — at Valley High School in Sacramento.

Jackson is not dead. Nor is he in jail. Rather, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound running back is one of the top members of the Green Bay Packers’ undrafted rookie class. He’ll be in Green Bay for this week’s rookie orientation camp, which starts Friday.

“Not even a chance I could have imagined this,” Jackson said on Monday. “Going through everything that I went through to get to this point is unorthodox and not really natural. It was full of speedbumps. I couldn’t have pictured this six, seven years ago. But it’s real, it’s here now, and I’m excited about the opportunity.”

To say Jackson’s life was going down the wrong path would be an understatement. More like a highway to hell. Growing up in South Sacramento — aka “South Sac Iraq” — guns and gangs, drugs and alcohol, were a way of life. His brother, who was in prison for vehicular manslaughter, was his role model. His mom set up a trip to jail when he was 11 to hopefully open his eyes to where his life was headed.

Rather than scared straight, Jackson was straight thrilled.

Nothing, in fact, scared Jackson. Certainly not violence and prison. His indifference drove just about everyone out of his life.

But not everybody.

“I had mentors. I had people that stuck with me,” Jackson said. “When I was going down the path I was going on, there were a lot of people that just said, ‘You know what? I’m done with it,’ and they wrote me off. My high school football coach (at Laguna Creek High School), Mark Nill, and getting closer with God and finally finding faith. The people in my life — my mom, my dad, my high school coaches, those were the people that didn’t quit on me when a lot of other people did. All those people ran out on me. The people that stuck with me, they are the reason why I’m here right now.”

The kid who didn’t care about anything found something to care about: football.

“I’ll never say it was just an automatic switch,” he said. “When close friends started to pass away, I had a moment where I could look at everything from a broad perspective and look at where my life is and I just wanted to do better at that point. Some of that stuff hit me hard and I wanted to do better. I didn’t want to keep seeing people in my city, people in my family, get accustomed to this. I was tired of this being the norm. I wanted to go make something different happen.”

Nill, the football coach and English teacher, played a big role. Where others saw a punk only looking for a fight, Nill saw a kid worth fighting for.

"He was always a happy kid," Nill told the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal. "He was always full of energy and wore his emotions on his sleeve. It was actually real easy to try to guide him in the right direction. A lot of times, teachers will push kids away because they don't want to deal with their (stuff). With Don, everybody really wanted to help him because they believed that he wanted help. That doesn't mean he didn't fall down. He did. He'd go through up and downs and bad patches, but he wanted to push through. He wanted to do well.”

Jackson has done unbelievably well. In football, he was selected the best player in Sacramento as a senior. The kid who got kicked out of two high schools and was hopelessly behind academically transferred to Calvine High School, a continuation school in Sacramento created to help credit-deficient students, to get enough credits to graduate on time.

“I had a principal and counselors there that worked really hard with me,” Jackson said. “They built a plan and helped me through the hoops I had to jump through so I could graduate. We did it. It was hard work, man. It was every single day. I was working on the weekends crazier than I ever have in my life. I don’t remember how many credits I was behind but I was up late taking extra online classes and a bunch of other stuff.”

Because his grades as a freshman and sophomore were so abysmal, Jackson was ineligible to play for a Division I program. So, he went to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

“I remember the first day I got there, I called my high school coach and told him, ‘I’ve got to leave. I’ve got to get out of here,’” Jackson said. “I wasn’t used to it. There was nothing there. I was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, so it was a complete culture shock. But it was the best decision of my life — hands down, the best decision.”

Jackson missed his first season there (2011) due to injury but took advantage of the time to continue to pile up the credits. It took him just three semesters, instead of the usual four, to power through the academic program and earn his associates degree. In 2012, he won a national championship and led the nation with 8.7 yards per carry.

And he was off to Nevada to chase the impossible dream of the NFL.

“When I got to Nevada and I got to meet people that had been to the NFL and I met people who knew what it took to get there, I started playing some pretty good football and I got put into a position where I was the captain of my team and I got to lead the troops,” Jackson said. “I learned a lot of stuff. Then I finally looked at it like, ‘I’ve got a pretty good shot at it. Just keep doing what I’m doing.’ All I can take care of is the stuff that I can control. I can control my work ethic, I can control my attitude and how I approach everything, and I try to approach everything with as much energy and passion as I can, so it’s infectious for my teammates. Just give it all I can. I knew if I could do that, I could give myself an opportunity.”

After rushing for 332 yards in 2013, Jackson rushed for 957 yards in 2014 and 1,082 yards in 2015. Not only did he star on the football field, but he continued to shine as a person. He got his degree in communications and is now only a handful of classes short of earning his master’s degree. Someday, he’d like to be an athletic director so he can help kids.

On Saturday, Jackson went undrafted. He chose Green Bay, which was his only predraft visit.

”I got to feel the grass (at Lambeau Field),” Jackson said. “It was a crazy feeling that I was here.”

It’s all crazy. Who possibly could have thought Jackson would get a degree? Be a football star? And most impossibly of all, a role model?
“We’re changing the dynamic of our city,” Jackson said, listing several former Sacramento natives, including fellow running back Devontae Booker, who was drafted by Denver in the fourth round. “The stuff that’s going on bad (in Sacramento), that’s going to happen. But we see more and more kids are more driven to go be Division I college football players, to make it to the NFL. All these kids see what we’re doing and see that it’s possible, it makes me happy. It warms my heart, really, to see that they look at me and say, ‘I can do that. That’s what I’m going for.’ It’s great to see.”

Today, the only violence associated with Jackson is his running style. And about that teacher who thought Jackson might be dead by now?

“I have talked to him,” Jackson said. “When I talked to him about it, he was happy to be motivation. I think that’s what it was. I don’t think he meant it — I don’t know what was going through his head that day, but all I know is he’s a good guy now and he was a good guy then. He wanted the best out of me, because he was a coach — he was a teacher but he was an ex-coach and football-oriented, so, of course, he’s going to give me his best punch, simple as that. When he said that, I took that and ran with it and I used it as my motivation.

“I reached out to him a few years ago and I said, ‘Hey, Coach, I just wanted to let you know ...’ I wanted to remind him of the conversation and the differences that me and him had. I told him, ‘I got my degree at Iowa Western, I won a national championship and I just got accepted into Nevada with a full-ride scholarship, and I want to thank you for being motivation.’ When he wrote me back, he said, ‘You’re welcome. I’m just happy to see that you turned it around and things turned out the right way for you.’”

The right way is Green Bay, where he’ll attempt to author another chapter in this most remarkable of comeback stories.

“That’s all I wanted was get an opportunity,” he said. “What I do with that is fully up to me. I’m ready for that challenge.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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