FOXBOROUGH — How one responds when something they love is torn away often serves as a barometer of character. To wallow in self-pity is to admit you’ve been conquered. The alternative? Hunker down, buckle up, and continue to grind.
For Patriots rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson, there was a point in college where he lost something of great value. The game he loved had been torn away, and the career he once took for granted felt less attainable than a winning lottery ticket.
So Jackson, feeling as though his life were careening out of control, turned to his family as a stabilizing force.
“My family really just stayed on me,’’ said Jackson. “That right there motivated me, just getting football taken away from me. That’s something I loved to do, so I just had to humble down. I know I wanted to be in the NFL, so there’s certain things I had to do to get here.’’
A four-star recruit out of Immokalee High School in Florida, Jackson set out to realize the dream of many a football player born in the Sunshine State: to suit up for the Gators.
His first year at the University of Florida proved a harsh dose of reality.
First, he suffered a shoulder injury early in his freshman campaign that required labrum surgery and prompted Florida to red-shirt him. In December, he was involved in a shooting when a man walked up to a car occupied by Jackson and two friends. Jackson was “grazed in the eyelid’’ by a bullet but didn’t sustain serious injuries.
Things went from bad to worse the following year. In April of 2015, Jackson was booked on three counts of home invasion with a deadly weapon and one count of burglary of an occupied dwelling.
Prosecutors claimed Jackson played an integral role in planning the robbery. The defense pointed to Jackson’s absence during the actual stick-up. Per reports, Jackson initially entered the victim’s house with two acquaintances before leaving. His associates then pulled a gun on the victim and took around $400 in cash and belongings.
Though a jury found Jackson not guilty, his time as a Gator was over before it had hardly begun.
With options sparse and his morale at rock-bottom, Jackson turned to Riverside Community College in California.
“I lost it all,’’ Jackson said. “Went to a junior college, had to sacrifice my family and everything to humble me down and make me who I am today.’’
Jackson eventually began to recoup his status as one of the country’s most electric young cornerbacks. In 2016, he enrolled at the University of Maryland, hoping for a chance to toss his name back into the ring of hopeful NFL draftees.
Even today, a massive grin comes to Jackson’s face when reflecting on his time as a Terrapin.
“When I got to Maryland, it was a great opportunity for me and for my family,’’ he said. “I started when I first got there. I’m playing throughout the season, stayed healthy. Then, going into Year 2, I’m steady balling. I keep balling, and the rest [is] going to be history.’’
But Jackson’s strong performance as a junior in 2017 wasn’t enough to offset lingering character concerns held by NFL owners and general managers. That Jackson was not selected in April was simply another in a series of twists and turns that have brought him to Foxborough as an undrafted free agent.
“Drafted or undrafted, everybody gets the same opportunity,’’ he said. “It’s what you do with it.’’
Jackson is making the most of his. He is part of a glut of young talent in New England’s secondary.
“The young guys work hard,’’ said veteran safety Patrick Chung. “A lot better than a lot of rookies we’ve had in the past, except for an exceptional few.’’
Jackson is a physical defender, his aggressiveness on full display in recent practices. On Monday, he picked off a pass thrown by Tom Brady, batted a ball out of the hands of receiver Chris Hogan, and deflected a Brian Hoyer attempt.
Among those whose heads have been turned are the McCourty brothers, Devin and Jason. Both cited Jackson’s eagerness to learn as his defining characteristic.
“I talk to J.C. 15 times throughout the day,’’ said Jason McCourty. “Just like, ‘Hey, when you see this coverage, do that, or when he says this in a meeting, do this.’ ’’
Chung offered the on-field assessment.
“He can play,’’ said Chung. “It’s not anywhere close to where we need, because we have a higher standard here, but he can play. He’s quiet, just does his job and tries to learn the defense.’’
A spot on the roster is far from a guarantee. Garnering work with the special teams unit during last Thursday’s preseason opener was a sign that the coaching staff is noticing the work ethic with which Jackson grounds himself.
“I made sacrifices,’’ said Jackson. “I put the work in. I put the extra work in. It’s all paying off now.’’