FOXBOROUGH — It was May, and Stephon Gilmore was keeping an eye out for one of his new teammates at OTAs. He was helping out his agency, which was also representing a cornerback named J.C. Jackson, an undrafted rookie who’d just signed with the Patriots.
Gilmore was happy to play big brother, but he knew there were no guarantees Jackson would be his teammate for long. Everyone in football knows what undrafted free agent means. He took the praise he heard of Jackson with a grain of salt, until he saw him play.
“I’m like, ‘Sheesh. How did this dude go undrafted?’ ” Gilmore said.
The answer to that question is simple: April 18, 2015.
That evening, Jackson and two companions entered the apartment of a marijuana dealer in Gainesville, Fla. According to the Gainesville Police Department, Jackson left quickly. After he did, one of the two remaining visitors pulled out a handgun and robbed the place, leaving with $382, some drugs, and two video game consoles. All three were arrested and, though he was not part of the burglary itself, Jackson was charged with four first-degree felonies. Life in prison was on the table.
A jury found him not guilty of all charges that November, but Jackson’s reputation had been tarnished. Before the arrest, Jackson was a freshman at the University of Florida who had been highly recruited, and penciled in to start the following season. After it, he got kicked off the team and set off on a path unrecognizable from the one he’d imagined for himself, but one that’s wound its way to the destination he always hoped for.
“I just believed,” Jackson said. “I have to get to the NFL.”
Talent stood out
Football was Jackson’s way out of Immokalee, Fla. A handful of current and former NFL players, most notably running back Edgerrin James, once called the South Florida town home, so making the league felt attainable. Jackson’s father, Chris, had his son running sprints on sand when J.C. was 5 years old, the beach sculpting calves capable of propelling his frame high in the air.
Jackson was a four-year starter on both sides of the ball at Immokalee High School. Those teams were loaded with Division 1 talent, but Jackson stood out, collecting more than 1,000 all-purpose yards, 15 touchdowns, 53 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 1 forced fumble as a senior.
Immokalee won the district championship that year but for Rich Dombroski, then Jackson’s coach, it’s a play from a Monday practice that stands out, a play when Jackson ran into trouble and still found a way to get where he was going.
“We had him beat on a hitch and go,” Dombroski said. “He bit up on the hitch and our receiver blew by him. Well, J.C. stopped on a dime, caught up to the kid, and knocked the ball out of the air. It was one of those things where we looked around as coaches and were like, ‘Did we just see what we saw?’ ”
Recruiters saw plenty from Jackson — fluid hips, long arms, a short memory, and ridiculous ball skills — to want him to play cornerback in college, even though he’d played more receiver to that point.
He was a four-star recruit and 247Sports’ No. 136 overall prospect in the class of 2014. The Sunshine State’s holy football trinity — Florida, Miami, and Florida State — all offered scholarships, and they weren’t alone. One afternoon, Jackson opened his front door and found a line of cars waiting outside, college coaches sitting in each.
“It got crazy,” Jackson said.
Jackson is exceptionally confident, but he’s also a people pleaser. This made choosing a college difficult, because he couldn’t please everyone. He’d ask Dombroski where he should go almost daily, until the coach sat him down in the weight room one day and said he needed to choose for himself.
He chose Florida, which was also the favorite of his mother, Lisa Dasher. He’d grown close with then-Gators coach Will Muschamp and got to Gainesville feeling like things were falling into place. On a team with seven other defensive backs currently in the NFL, including Patriots second-round pick Duke Dawson, Jackson was expected to play as a true freshman.
Then he hurt his shoulder in the first game of the season and needed surgery. Muschamp got fired. Jackson, 19 at the time, lost his mentors and gained too much free time. He didn’t use it wisely.
“That’s when everything went sideways,” Jackson said.
Change of plans
For the first time, Jackson questioned himself and his plans. It was the only time in his life he ever considered quitting football. He might have, had the thought of letting his family down not stopped him.
His father played a year of college football, then left school, and he’d pushed his son hard so that the ending of J.C.’s story would be different from his.
And both his parents had supported him through his trial. They’d given up their home to keep up with legal fees.
Jackson didn’t quit. He enrolled at Riverside City College in California. He’d played all of one college football game and had gone from sought-after recruit to sleeping on his friend’s couch, playing junior college football, hoping another D1 opportunity would find him. He went to class and got good grades, but Jackson was sad, bored, and lonely.
“That was the last thing on my mind was to go away to Cali and go to JUCO,” Jackson said, still incredulous. “When I was just at the University of Florida? It was hard. But I made that decision so I had to pay for it.”
Where he saw a fall from grace, those back home saw Jackson putting up a fight.
“A lot of kids from Immokalee, if something happens, they end up coming home,” said Dombroski. “And now you’re working in the fields. I didn’t want to see J.C. waste his talent.”
The talent was still there, as was the network of college coaches keeping tabs on whether they could use it. D.J. Durkin, then the head coach at Maryland, had been the defensive coordinator at Florida during Jackson’s time there. He sent his defensive backs coach, Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, to Riverside to meet Jackson. Abdul-Rahim had coached now-Lions cornerback Jalen Tabor, Jackson’s roommate at Florida, in high school, and Tabor vouched for Jackson.
“They’re kids. You’re talking about 18- or 19-year-old kids,” Abdul-Rahim said. “They’re going to make mistakes, you know? And the reality of college football and the reality of student-athletes is that their mistakes are shown to millions.”
Abdul-Rahim wound up bringing Jackson to College Park in August 2016. Jackson picked off three passes in his first practice.
Jackson started every game in 2016 and 2017 for the Terrapins. He made 80 tackles, intercepted four passes, and defended 13. He was close with his coaches and never got in trouble at Maryland. When he declared for the 2018 NFL Draft, he’d heard himself graded as high as the second round. He expected to hear his name called at some point.
It wasn’t. Teams had character concerns. The Rams, Broncos, and two other teams had called Dombroski about Jackson before the draft, asking if he could be trusted to stay out of trouble. Dombroski swore up and down that he could, but they still stayed away. Jackson watched the draft at home, nerves giving way to sadness and anger with every round gone by.
Landing with the Patriots was a small consolation because Jackson knew the team’s history of playing undrafted rookies. When he got to Foxborough, though, it became clear quickly that he wasn’t a typical undrafted rookie. By training camp, he was getting time with the first-team defense, and it wasn’t just Gilmore wondering how he’d fallen.
“I remember like a day or two into training camp, I went up to him and was like, ‘How did you not get drafted?’ ” said veteran cornerback Jason McCourty.
By the numbers, Jackson has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL this season. He’s played in 13 games and has been starting since Week 13. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks have a 42.0 passer rating when targeting Jackson, the lowest for any corner in the NFL with more than 25 snaps in coverage. Jackson has yet to allow a touchdown, and he’s intercepted three passes and broken up three more.
Yet as well as he’s played, his draft status follows him like a shadow. Opposing quarterbacks keep throwing his way, long after he’s shown that his is not a favorable matchup for their offenses. When the Patriots played the Steelers in Week 15, Jackson locked down JuJu Smith-Schuster all game long, but Ben Roethlisberger still targeted him deep on a critical third down near the end of the game. Jackson broke up the pass.
He’d given up just one catch to Smith-Schuster at that point. He was in tight coverage. Would Roethlisberger have thrown that pass if he hadn’t looked at Jackson and thought “undrafted rookie”?
Meanwhile, Jackson looks at those matchups and sees battles he’s supposed to win.
“He’s fearless,” said Abdul-Rahim. “He doesn’t look at who he’s going against, he looks at the opportunity to be a great player. I think that helped him with the Patriots. He walks in there and he’s out there, he sees Tom Brady. You see so many people, so many wide receivers that have had storied careers that you have to shut down, but he has an important trait as a corner, and that’s a short memory. He exudes confidence.”
“I think now, every time I walk on the field I think, I’m here,” Jackson said. “I think, I’ve been through so much and now I’ve got a chance to do big things.”
Some of that confidence is God-given, but much of it is the swagger of a four-star recruit stepping out his door and finding a caravan of coaches waiting to court him. Jackson has been a great player for a long time. He expects success.
“He’s not Malcolm Butler. He was an Under Armour All-American,” said Abdul-Rahim. “But the whole deal isn’t where you start, it’s where you finish.”
Football teams are big organizations. They need labels and hierarchies to make sense of it all. But when those labels mislead, they can be hard to shed. Consider all the times Jackson has been compared to Butler, the most famous success story for an undrafted Patriots corner, despite the fact that going undrafted is about all the major recruit and West Alabama product have in common.
Jackson wants a long career so he can support his family, which includes a young son. He doesn’t have hobbies outside of football, or a Plan B if it doesn’t work out. But it will work out, because he’ll make it that way, because he’s always made it that way. When he does, he won’t be surprised, even if everyone else is. The surprising part, to him, is the winding path he took to get here, but where Jackson is now is where he always planned to be.