LINCOLN — Two months after a deployment in Yemen, Damian Jackson had a bag of clothes and an idea.
He wanted to play college football. And sure, it sounded crazy for the 27-year old Navy SEAL who’d never played a down of football in his life.
But after returning to the United States from duty, he had nowhere else to go. And so he fell back on what he’s done his whole life. He just followed his gut. That’s what had taken him to boot camp in 2010, to Yemen, to southeast Asia and eventually to Lincoln.
Jackson had met Nebraska coach Mike Riley once, when he was visiting colleges to attend after his service.
And when he was looking into who would let him play football, who’d take a good look at him during tryouts, Riley was the only coach who responded.
So with no previous football experience, with nearly zero knowledge of the game, Jackson moved from his home in Las Vegas to Lincoln in January 2016. He enrolled, started taking computer science classes and put his SEAL Team One body to the college football test.
And now, four months into his first football season, despite a 4-5 record, Jackson’s loving this new sport.
“It’s been really great for me,” Jackson said on Monday, speaking ahead of the upcoming Veterans Day Weekend. “Obviously I’ve never played football before this and everyone right now is treating me really well and trying to get me to become a better football player.”
Jackson joined the Navy in 2010. After boot camp, he took two years of Basic Underwater Demolition School, which led to his spot on the SEAL Team One platoon. He was deployed to Yemen and southeast Asia over the course of four years.
He was out in 2016 and is back to what he calls “civilian” life.
If you don’t recognize Jackson’s name, he isn’t hard to spot in person. If any Husker looked the part of a Navy SEAL, it’s Jackson, who sports a scraggly beard, long hair he usually throws in a ponytail and at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, he bursts out of T-shirts and his pads. He’s also the one who exits the tunnel first, holding the American flag. The team unanimously decided Jackson, a freshman, should lead the team out, instead of a senior as usual. Which meant a lot to Jackson.
But other than representing his country with that flag, Jackson’s in new territory in pads.
After he was given a spot on the team post-tryouts, Jackson was given a number, 38. Which he was OK with. He wasn’t aware linemen usually have numbers in the 90s.
He was given a position called “defensive end.” Fine with him. He wanted to go somewhere he thought he could help. And if that was where coaches wanted him, perfect.
His “welcome to college football” moment wasn’t a vicious hit in practice. Wasn’t yelling coaches or being blindsided by the workload.
It was the binder of new things he needed to learn for this new position, and this new sport.
“That whole first month I would say was the biggest hit of just trying to learn the sport, just trying to catch up to everybody,” Jackson said. “I have a long way to go to catch up to everybody, but it’s still a big hit.”
Jackson has not played a down for Nebraska this year. He likely won’t. But he’s still had a huge impact on the team, Riley said.
“From the moment he started working out with our team, he set a high standard,” Riley said. “The discipline he has in all the parts of being a teammate is impressive. I think it’s been good for our team to have him here.”
In the past few weeks, the most eye-opening experience has been the dedication the players have, Jackson said. Being a Navy SEAL, you know a thing or two about hard work. But college football is somewhat similar in terms of the commitment.
“The other players I work with, the dedication to the sport is amazing,” he said. “I didn’t think coming out of being a Navy SEAL, our dedication was about the same, and the players here have the same level of dedication that we had.”
Being a SEAL, you also know a little something about adversity. And in a 4-5 season, with speculation brewing at a place like Nebraska as the season comes to a close, adversity inside the walls of Memorial Stadium is palpable.
But Jackson knows his place. He’s sitting back. He’s observing. Learning. He talks with the defensive linemen, whom he’s grown close to. He answers questions about his time overseas. He chats with defensive line coach John Parrella a lot.
He’s studying to be a programmer and hopes to someday work for Google, maybe even in Silicon Valley.
When his time comes, when he knows enough about what’s going on, then sure, he’ll jump into a leadership role, he said.
For now he’s just happy to be playing football. Happy to be where he is, between now and his next big idea, and wherever that may lead.