Jackson, former Glenbard North, NU star, gears up for third NFL season
It's a long way from Glenbard North High School.
As Los Angeles Chargers running back Justin Jackson rides out the COVID-19 pandemic in California's Orange County, he's reminded of what feels like a lifetime ago. Even though it's only been a handful of years since he graduated high school, the distance seems more than just a few thousand miles.
Three years into his NFL career, this is by far the strangest off-season for Jackson, who is finding ways to stay fit in an effort to take a significant step beyond his first two NFL seasons. Assuming the season does happen, he'll be ready.
He knows no other way.
"You've just got to deal," said Jackson, 24. "It's really putting the onus on us as professionals to make sure we're in shape and working out and doing what we can with the limited resources we have with everything that's going on."
National Football League facilities are closed, meaning Jackson and his teammates must power through with Zoom meetings and training wherever they can. That requires finding fields to run on, working out in gyms in small groups and, for Jackson, leaning on the work ethic he built on Glenbard North's Weber Field in Carol Stream.
Jackson rushed for a remarkable 3,171 yards in only 10 games his senior year at Glenbard North in 2013, and finished with 6,531 yards and 85 touchdowns in three varsity seasons. Four starting seasons at Northwestern yielded four thousand-yard campaigns, 5,283 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns.
Despite proven production, Jackson still endured a long weekend waiting for the dream phone call from an NFL team aiming to draft him. He and his family waited until the seventh and final round on the third day, where he was picked by the Chargers with the 251st overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft.
A mix of relief and rejuvenation followed as Jackson approached the biggest challenge of his playing career.
"It's like the worst day until it's not," he said. "You're just sitting by the TV with your phone for hours. But then when you get that call, it's the best thing ever. It was an awesome moment.
"I always wanted to go to L.A. and experience the West Coast," he said. "Being able to do that was awesome as well. It really worked out."
While still carving out his niche in the NFL, Jackson's approaching veteran territory. He rushed for 206 yards in 13 games as a rookie and last year added 200 yards on only 29 carries in a season cut short by hamstring issues.
Finally healthy -- especially now after an extended off-season -- he's in full attack mode for his third season. With last year's starter, Melvin Gordon, moving on to the Broncos, the running back room is headed by new starter Austin Ekeler, Jackson and UCLA's Joshua Kelley, picked by the Chargers in the fourth round of last month's draft.
Jackson will seize whatever opportunity is placed in front of him.
"I'm planning for it all," he said. "(Ekeler) is a great running back and he's a great contributor to the offense. I know I can do my thing. We have a different type of game, which makes us versatile and dangerous. I'm planning on carving my niche on the offense and getting my touches every game."
The competition is obviously much more intense, but Jackson's approaching it the same way he did at Glenbard North and Northwestern.
"It's leveling up," he said. "Everything's getting better so you have to work that much harder. You've got to craft your skills that much better and that much more precise. That's something I've learned over the first two years.
"I'm grinding and I love it," he said. "It's my job, but I also love to do it. I love interacting with the fans and getting to know my teammates and coaches. Why not go all in and have a good time with it?"