Each time Vincent Jackson returns home to Security, he ends up at S.S. Subs alongside Christopher Smith, and the close friends devour pizza subs, heavy on mozzarella and pepperoni, and revisit games.
“You remember that fourth-down catch against Mesa Ridge?” Smith asks.
And then a jolting realization arrives. Smith realizes he’s talking to an NFL star who earns millions to catch passes for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Does he really expect Jackson, his friend since sixth grade, to remember a play from their days as high school football teammates at Widefield High?
The moment always ends the same way. Jackson engages in a distinct, unhurried conversational beat, listening carefully and taking his time before responding.
“Yes,” Jackson says, answering his old friend, and this begins a precise examination of that fourth-down catch.
Jackson has taken an unlikely ride from his days as a basketball and football star at Widefield. When he searched for scholarships, his only offers came from Columbia of the Ivy League and Northern Colorado. He believed Colorado’s Gary Barnett and Colorado State’s Sonny Lubick made a grave mistake overlooking him.
He was right. He signed a $55 million contract, $26 million guaranteed, with the Bucs a year ago. It was money well spent. He caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards in 2012.
Smith wants this clear:
His friend has not purchased a Maserati, and he still eats the same pizza subs he enjoyed when he was 13.
“To think he got that contract, it’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around,” Smith said. “But he hasn’t changed. He’s still humble. He’s still Vincent.”
As teens, Smith and Jackson cleaned rooms at the Super 8 near Garden of the Gods Road. They rushed to the lobby, exhausted from vacuuming and scrubbing, and Jackson always wanted to know how many rooms Smith had finished.
“Eight,” Smith said.
Jackson smiled before reporting his count.
“Twelve,” he said.
Even then, Jackson burned with competitive desire. Never satisfied, he always wanted more.
He traveled to Greeley with a partial football scholarship, earning a greater amount of aid for his academic prowess. His friends, including Smith, wondered why he had not pursued basketball.
He failed to find instant stardom, but during his junior season he emerged as one of the nation’s top receivers. As a sophomore in high school, Jackson stood 5-foot-10 and wondered what was wrong. His 6-2 father, Terence, towered over him.
The growth spurt arrived. By the time he was a UNC junior, Jackson stood 6-5 and weighed 240 pounds, presenting a terrifying challenge to defenders. He was too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers.
Jackson admits he was nervous when he prepared for the NFL combine. He wondered if he could compete with big-name receivers from big-name schools.
He instantly realized he belonged. He also, for the first time, wondered how his college career might have been different if recruiters had recognized his potential.
He had endured, and enjoyed, 11-hour bus rides to Montana State with his UNC teammates while these receivers, his competition for NFL jobs, had flown on jets. He had been forced to search for a college home. These receivers had been hounded by recruiters.
“I wanted to prove it didn’t matter where I had come from,” Jackson says. “I wanted to prove I could make myself an elite player in the league.”
That was his goal, and that is what he accomplished. He’s caught 344 passes in the past eight seasons for 6,138 yards (a 17.8 per-catch average) and 45 touchdowns. He spent seven seasons with the Chargers, where he often terrorized Broncos defensive backs.
His legal troubles (two DUI arrests) in San Diego are becoming a distant memory. He’s healthy as he dives into the middle of his prime football years. He’s living in a gorgeous Florida home.
Still, he often returns to Security, which for him is aptly named. He spends time with Smith and other high school friends and teammates, and everyone acts as if Jackson is not routinely a star on ESPN highlights. Back here, he’s the kid who cleaned rooms while awaiting his growth spurt.
He sleeps in his old bedroom, his high school diploma hanging on the wall beside Michael Jordan posters. His mother, Sherry, has kept the room much the same as it was during his high school days.
In this room Vincent plotted his rise in sports. In this room Vincent sleeps soundly, a multimillionaire savoring a peaceful, happy return to where his unlikely rise began.