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The scenario has played out in DeSean Jackson’s mind more than once.
Fans are packed into SoFi Stadium. Jackson breaks from the huddle and lines up wide. At the snap, the still speedy 14th-year pro beats a defender and sprints deep down the field.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford lofts a ball high and far. Jackson jets under it to catch a game-winning touchdown pass.
“That’s a very familiar sight for me, man,” Jackson said of the possibility. “I’m sure it is for a lot of people too.”
The Rams made a blockbuster move by trading for Stafford, giving coach Sean McVay an experienced, savvy, strong-armed quarterback like he always wanted. Jackson is the key piece for a Rams team considered a strong contender to play in the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in February.
But signing Jackson, a Los Angeles native and former Long Beach Poly High star, also was important.
Jackson, 34, is one of the most dynamic deep-ball threats in NFL history. He ranks first among active players with a career average of 17.4 yards per catch. In stints with the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Football Team and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he consistently scored on pass plays that covered 60 yards or more.
Last season, despite injuries that limited him to only five games in a second go-round with the Eagles, he scored on an 81-yard pass play.
When the Rams open their season at home against the Chicago Bears on “Sunday Night Football,” McVay is expected to show that the offense can once again thrill fans by sending the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Jackson deep.
“He’s a big-time factor — he’s done a great job in that part of his game,” McVay said. “But that certainly isn’t exclusively the way that you can use him.”
Jackson grew up in the Crenshaw District but attended Long Beach Poly, where the football program has produced more NFL players than any other public high school in the country.
Gene Washington, Willie Brown, Willie McGinest, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jackson are among 58 former Jackrabbits to play in the NFL, according to pro-football-reference.com.
As a high school senior, Jackson scored 15 touchdowns, eight covering 60 yards or more.
In the 2004 Southern Section Division I championship game at Angel Stadium, Long Beach Poly played Los Alamitos. And when a Long Beach Poly cornerback suffered a leg injury on the opening kickoff, the coaches turned to Jackson.
“They came to me, they’re like, ‘Man, we ain’t got any other choice… You’ve got to play corner,’” Jackson said. “I’m up for the challenge. I’m like, ‘Let’s go.’”
Jackson intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown in a 21-6 victory.
“He pretty much won us that championship,” former Poly coach Raul Lara said.
That was the last football game that Jackson played for a Los Angeles area team.
As Jackson and his teammates celebrated the victory, national signing day for college recruits loomed two months away.
Jackson was thought to be a lock to continue his career in Southern California by following what had become a Poly pipeline to USC.
But that’s not how it played out.
Lane Kiffin still does not know what wrong. Neither does Norm Chow.
Both were part of Pete Carroll’s USC coaching staff in 2005, when the Trojans were coming off a Bowl Championship Series title game rout of Oklahoma.
When Jackson arrived at Long Beach Poly, he joined a program that was sending four seniors — safety Darnell Bing, running back Hershel Dennis, offensive lineman Winston Justice, and defensive lineman Manuel Wright — to USC.
Jackson appeared on track to be the next in line.
“He was very slight way back then but just electric,” Kiffin said. “He was really different than any other receivers we'd had.”
Said Chow: “He was a ‘wow’ guy. Like, ‘Wow, look at that.’ He was something.”
The pressure for Southern California players to sign with the Trojans was immense, said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.
“At that point in time Pete Carroll wasn’t recruiting — he was selecting,” Biggins said. “He was deciding if he wanted you, and you went there and there were no questions asked.
“I talked with a lot of kids who actually wanted to go to other schools because they wanted to play more…. and then they’d wake up the next morning and they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t pull the trigger and go somewhere else.”
Jackson noticed the trend.
“It was like almost guaranteed that people from Poly went to SC,” he said.
“I just kind of felt they took it for granted that I’m in their backyard and they’re the best school, they’re winning all these championships — ‘Oh, we got them in the cup,’” Jackson said. “I felt like they were giving other recruits better treatment.
“They told me I could wear No. 1 and they ended up giving it to [receiver recruit] Patrick Turner…. It just kind of felt like disrespect.”
Jackson said he visited Oklahoma, LSU and Florida and saw that other schools also had great programs. California, riding high under coach Jeff Tedford with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running back Marshawn Lynch, also stood out.
Carroll declined an interview request, but Chow said the staff sensed something was amiss after they did a home visit with Jackson’s family.
“My mom, she really wanted me to go to SC,” Jackson said. “My dad, he really wanted me to go to Cal…. I guess my dad wasn’t feeling the SC visit, but my mom was all in on it. So, I guess they got a feel for that….’We got a problem,’ because they knew my dad ran everything.”
On Feb. 2, 2005, Jackson appeared on television to announce his decision. He chose Cal.
“It went down to the wire all the way,” Tedford said. “I don’t think we absolutely felt it was a slam dunk until the letter came across the fax machine.”
Quarterback Mark Sanchez was on the same USC campus recruiting visit with Jackson and had played in two postseason all-star games with him.
“He was telling everybody what they wanted to hear in return, like ‘Yeah, I’m coming there. Yeah, Fight on, bro.’ He was selling it — until he wasn’t,” said Sanchez, now a FOX Sports game analyst.
“You can’t fault him for it…. Looking back at it, at the time you’re like, ‘Damn, we lost a really good player,’ and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe he would do that! But I mean everybody does that. That’s the whole process. He kind of flipped it on its head and marched to the beat of his own drummer, which I respect."
Jackson has no regrets. He said that getting away enabled him to “grow up on my own” and “kind of like create my own destiny.”
“I had a vision, and I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “So, I went three years and said I was going to the NFL — and that’s what happened.”
Los Angeles is home for Jackson, but he embraced Philadelphia during eight seasons with the Eagles.
After the team selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft, Jackson emerged as an electrifying receiver and punt returner for a team that advanced to the NFC championship game. The Eagles made the playoffs three more times during Jackson’s first six seasons, describing the time as the “most fun” of his career.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook, safety Brian Dawkins and cornerback Asante Samuel were among players that mentored Jackson.
“Vets to groom me the right way coming in,” he said.
Jackson was especially dynamic when catching passes from quarterback Michael Vick.
“We had some of those crazy games and passes and stuff that was like some of the funnest ball to play,” he said.
But after the 2013 season, the Eagles under first-year coach Chip Kelly released Jackson, who was coming off a career season and had been voted to the Pro Bowl for the third time. The move came the day NJ.com reported that the Eagles were concerned about Jackson’s alleged ties to gang members in Los Angeles.
Jackson denounced the report. A few days later, he signed with Washington, where McVay was the offensive coordinator. A month later, Kelly told reporters that releasing Jackson was “purely a football decision,” that had nothing to do with a report.
“I had a huge chip on my shoulder from 2013,” Jackson said. “Chip Kelly came in and they released me for allegations and speculation and all types of crazy stuff. I could have went to a lot of teams but I felt like I wanted to stay in the division so I could make them pay.
“So, I stayed and every time I played the Eagles I kicked their ass, and I went crazy on them.”
In five games against the Eagles over three seasons, Jackson amassed more than 100 receiving yards three times and scored two touchdowns.
Jackson then played two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he was traded to the Eagles in March 2019. He scored on two pass plays of more than 50 yards in his first game, but injuries limited him to eight games in two seasons. In his final game with the team, he scored on an 81-yard pass play.
Before the 2020 season, Jackson was at the center of controversy because of his social media posts that included images of anti-Semitic quotes falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler. He also posted messages in admiration of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has been identified as anti-Semitic by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Eagles released a statement calling the posts “offensive, harmful and absolutely appalling.” Jackson apologized on social media and to the Jewish community, pledging to educate himself and work with organizations to be more informed. He met with a Jewish group and spoke with a Holocaust survivor.
Jackson said this week that he had learned from the experience.
“I had to clean up my actions and be a man and apologize and really let people know that wasn’t my intentions,” he said. “I feel like I learned a lot from that because I was able to learn about the Jewish community and what they endured in the Holocaust…. Never try to put anyone down. Never try to make my race bigger than another…. It’s all about peace and love.”
After the Rams signed Jackson in March, receivers coach Eric Yarber immediately called him. Yarber had recruited him as an assistant coach at the University of Washington.
“I still had his number in my phone,” Yarber said. “I said, ‘You’re the missing piece! You’re the missing piece!'”
Jackson’s ability to track long passes dates to his Poly days as a major league baseball outfield prospect, Yarber said.
“Usually, when you’re catching deep balls, a lot of times when you look back you lose speed,” Yarber said. “He’s one of the few guys that can hold his speed or even gain more to find a ball.”
Jackson will turn 35 in December. But Yarber and the receiver’s new teammates say he has not lost a step.
“The first two days of practice when I saw him out there, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, he still has the pop,” Yarber said.
“He still looks like he can run to me,” Stafford deadpanned.
“He’s still got the wheels,” receiver Cooper Kupp said.
All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey has matched up against Jackson during workouts. Ramsey did not hesitate when asked what jumps out about Jackson.
“Speed,” Ramsey said. “A lot of speed, which is impressive at year 14. So, he’s still got it.”
The Rams’ challenge will be keeping Jackson available for games. During training camp and the preseason, rest days were mandated so that Jackson would be in top form for the opener.
Bears coach Matt Nagy was a member of the Eagles staff for Jackson’s first five seasons. He anticipates Jackson will be at full throttle Sunday.
“Don't get it twisted,” Nagy told Chicago-area reporters. “He might be older in age, but he can still blaze.”
Rams receiver Robert Woods grew up in Carson and watched Jackson play in high school. Now they are teammates on a team expected to contend for a berth in a Super Bowl that will be played in Inglewood.
“It’s kind of super cool,” Woods said.
About 40 family members and friends will be at SoFi Stadium on Sunday to watch Jackson in his first game with the Rams. It is a team built to win a Super Bowl in its home stadium, a feat achieved for the first time by the Buccaneers.
“Being back home, just knowing the possibilities, that the Bowl is here in L.A., and to see what Tampa did in their backyard when they had the Super Bowl, I mean everything is written,” Jackson said.
The Rams must navigate a schedule that includes a game against the Buccaneers at SoFi Stadium on Sept. 26. There also will be tough NFC West games against the Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. So, Jackson is not looking too far ahead.
He said he was focused on providing long-proven playmaking skills, helping younger players and remaining physically sound.
But Jackson has envisioned catching a long touchdown pass from Stafford in the opener.
“Hopefully, this first game we’ll be able to showcase, you know, what this year’s going to be like for the 2021 Los Angeles Rams,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.