Bears

How 'sharing scars' helped Eddie Jackson grow as team leader

Bears

One of the first things Matt Eberflus did when he took the job as Bears head coach was to offer everyone in Halas Hall a clean slate. He made it clear that players wouldn’t be judged for their play on past teams, or under different regimes, good or bad. Eberflus’ staff was going to look at each player with new eyes and every player was getting a fresh start. The message was both a challenge and an opportunity, and so far Eddie Jackson has made the most of it.

After two disappointing seasons with no interceptions on the books, Jackson has made a big impact again in Eberflus’ and Alan Williams’ defense, and sits tied for third in the NFL with four picks. Plenty of factors play a role in his resurgence this season, but a big one is his return to doing what he does best: ranging in the back of the defense to make as many big plays as he can.

Back in August, Jackson said the thing he liked most about playing in this new system was that he could play “free” once again. He said he doesn’t mind being asked to go down into the box to help stuff the run, but that’s not what makes him go.

“I just love getting the ball, getting interceptions, scoring touchdowns,” Jackson said.

Jackson was also one of the earlier adopters of Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. program. Other players have admitted over the months that they were initially skeptical of the slew of acronyms and fundamentals Eberflus threw at them, like H.I.T.S. or “alignment, assignment, key and technique.” It can sound like high school stuff to a professional athlete, but Jackson saw the results and bought in. Even more importantly, he saw that Eberflus and his coaches held themselves just as accountable to their own high standards.

 

“Just letting his action match his words,” Jackson said over training camp. “I feel like that's the big thing.”

Jackson himself deserves a lot of the credit for his improved play, and for seizing the opportunity of Eberflus’ fresh start. At the outset of the season Jackson looked in the mirror and knew where he needed to get better, so he approached safeties coach Andre Curtis with some improvements he wanted to make within his game. Jackson wanted to become a better tackler, and he was going to be open-minded as to how the coaches could help him. With Roquan Smith in Baltimore, Jackson now leads the Bears with 77 tackles. He’s on pace to smash his career high of 82 tackles.

“That's really why you coach,” Eberflus said. “That's one of the big reasons you coach. You give guys second chances, you give guys clean slates, and you treat guys with respect and you challenge them for who they can be and what they can do for our football team. And you coach them up every single rep.

“When a person buys into that, our standards the way we do things, man, that's a pleasure to see as a coach, because he's getting enjoyment out of it. He's in the best shape of his life. He's leading the football team. And he's playing really well.

“He’s doing everything you ask a safety to do.”

The fresh start on the field helped Jackson immensely, but he needed a fresh start off the field, too.

“I was kind of questioning God and myself.”

Alison Gore met Jackson on her very first day as a freshman at Alabama. While she was walking around getting her bearings, Jacksonー a sophomore at the timeー stopped her and started a conversation. She was drawn to his style and his good manners, and they became fast friends. Before long, they fell in love. Jackson did the little things to show Gore that she was special, like treating her to a meal on campus, or letting her borrow his car when he was at practice. Whenever Gore needed something, Jackson was there for her.

“He just always made sure I was good.”

The most meaningful way that Jackson helped Gore was when she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a disorder in which tissue similar to the tissue that grows inside of a woman’s uterus begins growing outside the uterus. Endometriosis can be painful and cause further complications.

“It had gotten extremely bad in college,” Gore said. “There were many days he’d have to tell (Nick) Saban he’s gotta leave practice just to get me to the hospital. It’s funny looking back because he’d rush into my apartment in full practice gear.”

 

Around two years ago, the couple decided to start a family, but what’s normally a cause for celebration instead began a stretch of tragic events. Gore suffered a miscarriage. Jackson and Gore tried again, and Gore got pregnant again, but she lost the baby at 6 months. Jackson didn’t want to tell many people, but he was struggling.

“I was kind of questioning God and myself,” Jackson said.

Jackson tried to put on a happy face to be strong for Gore. He tried to hide his full emotions from her and tried not to cry in front of her because he didn’t want his struggles to add to her own. He understood that whatever he was going through must be worse for her.

“It’s her body, it’s her physically going through that,” Jackson said. “Even though we’re going through it both, together, it’s her physically and her body.”

Going to Halas Hall allowed Jackson to compartmentalize the traumas in his personal life and put his attention elsewhere.

“When you’re going through stuff like that, it’s like your mind is not here, so sometimes you’ve gotta swallow it,” Jackson said. “Let me go to work, put my work face on and then let me stay focused on this. I don’t even know how to explain it. It was a tough time.”

Jackson also didn’t want his teammates feeling sorry for him, so he largely kept it to himself. He told Eberflus, Ryan Poles, safeties coach Andre Curtis and a few other guys about Gore’s failed pregnancy, but that’s it. He didn’t “want it to be a big thing.”

“It’s crazy, because I didn’t know around the time that it was happening, but I could tell he wasn’t right,” said Roquan Smith. “You know, you try to keep your distance. You check in on him, but you don’t dive all the way unless someone opens up, and that’s a sensitive subject.”

Gore noticed little changes in Jackson, too. She saw him trying to deepen his spirituality. He started posting scriptures on Instagram every day. Before the season started, she’d go into the living room on Sundays, and there she’d find Jackson listening to a sermon on YouTube.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a huge spiritual dude, but I am connected to God,” Jackson said. “I’m a Christian. I kinda felt myself shying away so I had to get back in tune.”

“Going through the loss, he was more so just making sure I was OK,” said Gore. “I kinda caught myself one day. We’ve been through so much I don’t think I’ve ever asked Eddie, ‘Are you OK?’ When we were burying our baby he just broke down at her memorial. Right then I was like, I’ve gotta be there for him just like he’s been there for me.”

 

So Gore got Jackson a book, “One-Minute Prayers For Men,” and it ended up being just the spiritual outlet he needed. In the book there are passages for all aspects of life: self-realization, relationships and marriage, family, leadership and work. If Jackson is facing a challenge in one of those areas, he’ll look up a passage on that topic.

“It’s stuff we go through in our lives daily, especially as athletes,” Jackson said. “I feel like it’s really helpful to keep you grounded sometimes when you start to walk off that ledge, or you feel like you’re on the ledge. Read that book and it can kind of center you.”

Jackson now reads the book twice a day, every day. He starts each morning with one passage, and ends each night with another right before bed. From Gore’s perspective, it’s helped him a lot.

“He’s more patient,” Gore said. “He’s less stressed. Things that might have triggered him before, it’s like we’re not going to worry about it now.

“I’m proud of him.”

“Share your scars.”

When Jackson first arrived at training camp, he looked around and saw most of the previous leaders were gone. There was no Akiem Hicks to fire everyone up, no Khalil Mack for everyone to look up to, and no Danny Trevathan to bring the room together. Even before the Bears sent Smith to Baltimore and Robert Quinn to Philadelphia, Jackson knew he needed to step up in the locker room, so he started to speak up more as a vocal leader on the team.

It’s one thing to talk about taking on a bigger leadership role, and it’s another thing to convince others to follow, but Jackson succeeded in the latter right away. The key was that Jackson backed up his talk with action. Players notice when a guy tries to be a vocal leader, but doesn’t lead by example at practice, in games, or in meetings. Jackson was helping bring players around to Eberflus’ new program and following the principles himself. That gave him credibility in the locker room.

“When he talks, everybody listens,” Jaquan Brisker said.

“When your top dogs buy in, then everyone else is going to look around and say, ‘I have to,’” said DeAndre Houston-Carson.

Jackson took Brisker and other young DBs under his wing early this summer to help them adjust at the NFL level as quickly as possible. Safeties coach Curtis tells his veteran players to “share their scars,” meaning he wants the older guys to be frank about mistakes they made when they were younger players, so that the next generation of Bears don’t make the same mistakes. The result is twofold. First, the younger guys can play better, faster. Second, the players also build a sense of community in their locker room.

“All of them have been rookies before,” Curtis said. “All of them have been through things before, injuries, so it’s good to share those types of experiences.”

 

Jackson has taken that to heart, and it’s helped the younger players. He’s spent a lot of time with Brisker to go over film, explaining what he would’ve done in various scenarios and giving Brisker pointers. Brisker has grown from that mentorship already.

“Like shooting the gap,” Brisker said. “Eddie used to tell me, ‘When you see it, just shoot it.’ I did it in college, but in the NFL I had to get more comfortable. So once I see gaps open, now I just shoot it. I just anticipate it and make plays.

“During OTAs when he would talk to me and say what he was seeing and things like that, it helped me a lot on the field just because I would know where he was going to be on the field in this call or that call. Also, the stuff he said before would trigger in my mind, ‘Oh, I’m seeing what he’s seeing,’ when I’m back on the field, so it’s all coming back together.”

Seventh-round rookie Elijah Hicks hasn’t seen the field on defense yet, but he’s made several splash plays on special teams. Hicks said he’s learned a lot from veterans “sharing their scars” and Curtis praised Hicks for absorbing the info like a sponge when the veterans open up.

“Even though we play the same position and competing, at the end of the day we’re brothers trying to help each other get better,” said Hicks.

Sharing your scars isn’t just about football though. Curtis has encouraged the players to open up about their lives outside Halas Hall to further strengthen their bonds. Once again, Jackson embraced this, and saw it as an opportunity. The “One-Minute Prayers for Men” book had helped him so much that he wanted to share it with the entire secondary. Jackson made sure there was a copy for Curtis, too.

“Eddie came home one day and he was like, ‘Hey, where’d you get these books?... Could you get like 30 more?’” said Gore. “When he took them to work I’m like, OK, it was shocking, but it was cool.”

Most of the secondary has taken the time to read some of the passages, and those who did have come away with at least a few nuggets to help them in some aspect of their life, whether it’s adjusting to the NFL or being a better romantic partner. It’s taught some to remain humble or grateful. Life changes quickly in the NFL and a player taking a step back for a big-picture view of their season, or their career, can help.

“When we got it, I started reading it right then and there,” said Hicks. “I do appreciate that a lot. It tells you a lot about the culture and the type of guys that we have, trying to be selfless. It’s something I can appreciate being a younger guy and seeing the older guys trying to help us be better people on and off the field. It’s very important.”

 

“It shows that he actually cares about the guys and wants what’s best for them,” said Houston-Carson. “You see how excited he is to talk about it and how much it means to him that it makes you want to pick it up and see what it’s all about.”

“It’s just a good balance in life,” said Brisker. “Just helping you stay straightforward, continuing on the right path if you’re falling down the wrong path.”

Kyler Gordon keeps the book in his backpack and appreciates how the small passages allow him to dig in quickly.

“I went over ‘Success’ and ‘Learning to Be,’” Gordon said. “I feel like that’s where I’m at in my rookie stage… To me they intertwined a little bit, ‘Learning to Be’ and the success, they both don’t come right away. It’s a process. So when you’re going about your thing you’ve really got to hone in and know that.

“I feel like I actually got something out of it, so big thank you to him.”

“Just a small message determines your whole day,” said Gore. “You can go to work and have a good day. You go home and you’re in good spirits. So I’m glad they’re all getting a better outlook from just a small word. I’m glad they appreciate it. I am.”

“He has that swag back.”

Jackson’s leadership style isn’t all serious. He’s a fun-loving guy and wants to help foster friendships among players in the clubhouse. To do that, Jackson has opened up his house as a hangout, and it’s become a popular spot. Jackson will do things like hire a barber so players can come over for a clean cut, or have guys over for dinner. The meals Jackson’s chef whips up have earned rave reviews around the locker room. Shrimp scampi is a favorite, along with classics like wings, mac and mashed potatoes.

The big events at the Jackson household are weekly Thursday Night Football watch parties. Lots of guys come through each week to kick back, enjoy each other’s company and watch football. Of course, there’s the added benefit of getting a look at future opponents, too.

“It’s different being able to hang with each other outside the facility, because at work it’s a different type of hang,” said Smith. “At home you can just kick back and just be yourself completely and not have to worry about other things. I think that’s critical.”

These types of interactions have made a difference in the young Bears secondary. Players use the word “brotherhood” a lot to describe the bonds that they’ve built in just a few months.

 

“He took care of me,” said Hicks. “Little stuff like that, it makes you feel like, dang, it’s welcoming. You appreciate it.”

It’s made an impact on Jackson, too. He’s clearly honored to have been named a permanent captain on the team, and enjoys mentoring the other players.

“He has that swag back,” said Jaylon Johnson. “He has that ‘it' factor back that he didn’t have those last few years, with him getting his plays called back and seeing his head go down.”

“I feel like he’s trusting himself,” said Kindle Vildor. “He’s comfortable. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on that people don’t know about going on outside of football that can play a part in how we play and we perform, because we’re all humans at the end of the day. I know he’s free and feeling good and he’s looking awesome.”

On the field, Jackson is at the top of his game. Off the field, he’s getting better, too. He and Gore are each hopeful for their future, and believe their best days are ahead.

“I think everyone may need a humbling experience, and it just takes that to point us in the right direction,” Gore said. “I just think that’s what happened to us. Being that he’s put himself in God’s hands and is honoring Him with all his work and all his accomplishments, you can’t lose.”

“One day it’s going to work out for us,” said Jackson. “We’re in a great space right now. We’re going to see what the future holds for us. God’s going to bless us, so it’s one day at a time.”

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