Branden Jackson didn't get here by himself. This is the story of how a fallen brother, a resilient grandmother and an NFL analyst he never met have contributed to the Seahawk defensive end's ascent.
Branden Jackson gets his motivation from NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein.
Granted, Jackson — the Seahawks’ second-year defensive end and third-year pro — has never met the man. And maybe that’s the point.
On July 26, less than an hour before the first practice of training camp, Jackson tweeted a snippet from the scouting report that Zierlein — an NFL Draft analyst for NFL.com — produced more than two years earlier.
“Good athlete with quality movement skills who doesn’t make nearly enough plays against the run or as a pass rusher,” Zierlein wrote in his evaluation of Jackson. “His best bet is to pack more muscle on as a strongside defensive end who can offer backup potential.”
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To be fair, that’s what the 6-foot-4, 295-pound undrafted defensive end has been in his first two NFL seasons, making one tackle in three games with the Oakland Raiders in 2016 before producing 11 tackles in 12 games with the Seahawks last season.
But is that all he can be?
In the midst of a radically transitional offseason for the Seahawks’ once-dominant defense, Jackson is getting starting reps opposite established standout Frank Clark. He was perhaps the least talked-about starter throughout the entirety of training camp.
And he’s here to prove you wrong.
Lance, are you listening?
“I think I take everything, positive and negative, to heart. Whether or not that’s good depends on the person,” Jackson said last week. “That’s just something that I never forgot.
“Coming into the draft, I was invited to the combine late, and I was excited to just go out there and perform. To have someone just — before I could even get out there — minimize my talents … he’s not me. I don’t know how much film he’s seen on me, but it’s something I never could forget. It’s not that I’m angry with him for that. But he has to know that he’s pretty much with me for my whole career now.”
Branden Jackson gets his focus from Chauncey Williams.
And, during his career at Texas Tech, he got his number from Williams, too.
On July 1, 2012, Williams — Jackson’s 18-year-old stepbrother — was shot and killed while sitting with friends on the back porch of a house in McKeesport, Pa. The plan was for Williams to transfer from the Community College of Allegheny County to Robert Morris University, then eventually make another jump and play Division I football, just like his brother.
Instead, Jackson wore Williams’ No. 9 throughout his four-year college career.
“He’s still behind everything that I do when it comes to football,” said Jackson, who recorded 135 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and three forced fumbles at Texas Tech from 2012 to 2015. “For him not being here, just to lose a guy that looked up to me, that wanted to be in the position that I’m in, he’s never seen me play college or play pro. So everything I do, I remember that it’s for him.
“A lot of things don’t bother me. A lot of things don’t faze me mentally, because I’ve been through some things. He’s one of the main things that keeps me going and why I can brush bad plays off, good plays off and stay focused.”
Branden Jackson gets his grit and resilience from Shelia Alston.
“I’ve never heard my grandmother complain,” Jackson said of Alston. “Suffering through diabetes, kidney failure, she’s never said one thing. Getting up and going to dialysis, working at the port authority bus company, cleaning the train tracks out there when the steel mills were going … she’s just a resilient person.”
She’s also a generous person. How else could you explain the fact that, besides raising her own four kids, Alston cared for “16 or 17” foster kids as well?
“Before going to college, I assumed they were all my aunts and uncles,” Jackson said with a smile. “I never knew, because she always treated them all the same. They were foster kids, but I don’t treat them that way, and they don’t treat me that way.
“That’s my family, and it’s all because of my grandmother. That’s where I get a lot of my resiliency.”
Branden Jackson gets his technique from Michael Bennett.
In an interview during the draft process in April 2016, Jackson cited Bennett as his biggest influence as a player.
Then last season, he shared a position room with him.
And Bennett shared everything else.
“It was honestly a dream come true,” Jackson said. “When I first got here it was honestly hard to be around him, when I watched so much film on him growing up. To be a fan and now be a peer and be in the same room as him was kind of surreal.
“But I took his entire game. Everything that I’ve learned from year 1 to 2 has been taken from him. I got to see him play physically and see the way he studies. I think that a lot of plays I’ll make this year will be Michael Bennett-like plays and will resemble the things that he did, just because to this day I still watch his film. We still keep in contact. I still look and check to see what he’s doing up in Philly. That’s a guy who my eye will always be on.”
The Seahawks are certainly betting on Jackson (and some combination of oft-injured veteran Dion Jordan and rookie Rasheem Green) to deliver Bennett-like production in 2018, after the team shipped the nine-year veteran and a seventh-round pick to Philadelphia for wide receiver Marcus Johnson and a fifth-round pick in March.
And so far, at least, Pete Carroll likes what he sees.
“Branden’s been really consistent,” Carroll said last week. “He’s been tough. He’s been versatile, and he can play some different spots. He’s got a really good motor, plays really hard. He’s a lot stronger than he was a year ago, more fit and all.
“He’s right in the rotation. He’s playing for us. I like the fact that we have flexibility with him too.”
Branden Jackson gets his joy from football.
It’s true, the 25-year-old McKeesport, Pa., native is a product of his surroundings — of all the people that supported him (or dismissed him) along the way.
But the game, too, has provided something deeply personal.
Tune out the scouting reports and sold-out stadiums, and the sport is uniquely his.
“Football is the only thing I have for me,” Jackson said, drenched in sweat, on the heels of an impromptu post-practice autograph session. “It’s the thing that makes me the happiest. It’s the thing that I don’t have to worry about giving to someone else. As selfish as that sounds, it’s all mine.
“That’s why I love the game so much. I can just be myself. I can be out here amongst people that love and have the same passion as me, and I don’t have to worry about the distractions of the world. I can just go out here and play.”