When former Immokalee Indian J.C. Jackson suits up in his New England Patriots uniform this Feb. 3 for Super Bowl 53, he’ll have the eyes of over one hundred million t.v. viewers from all across the globe on him, including just about everyone in the small town of Immokalee.
But that pressure and attention won’t be anything new to Jackson.
Immokalee is a football town through and through, every week during fall the entire town turns its attention to their local high school team. And the expectations are always high.
That exception comes in part from the football program’s history of success, with multiple playoff appearances and a state championship over the years. But part of it also comes from the one player that every Immokalee Indian is measured against. Edgerrin James.
James was an all-star player for the Indians who went on to play for the Miami Hurricanes and Indianapolis Colts. And every player who puts on the Indian uniform knows that eyes are on them to see if they can become the next Edgerrin James.
No one knows that expectation more than Jackson. And J.C’s former coach during his time with the Indians, Jerrod Ackley, thinks that those high expectations has helped prepare him during his Super Bowl run with the Patriots.
“A lot of people don’t really understand the kind of pressure those kids are under,” explained Ackley. “With kids like J.C., from the time they’re little it’s not unusual to hear people say that this is going to be the next Edgerrin James. They live under a microscope in that community that most people can’t comprehend. That Immokalee experience, all the way around, has helped prepare him to overcome things.”
Jackson has been able to make his own path into the NFL, even in the shadow of James.
In many ways Jackson has had a tougher road than James, and he’s had to overcome more adversity. Some of that adversity was due to Jackson’s own mistakes.
After signing to play for the University of Florida Jackson fell into the wrong crowd and was caught up with a group that committed an armed robbery in a home in Gainesville in 2015. Police charged Jackson, but he was found not guilty in court. Still, the damage was already done to his reputation and the University of Florida’s Athletic Association made the decision to not bring him back for his sophomore year.
Some people would’ve given up, but Jackson kept working. Eventually he landed at the University of Maryland in 2016.
When Jackson declared for the draft in 2018, memories of James being selected fourth overall in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts had to run through the minds of Immokalee football fans.
But Jackson wasn’t drafted in the first round. In fact Jackson wouldn’t be drafted at all. All 32 NFL teams passed on the chance to take the former Immokalee stand-out.
Shortly after the draft New England head coach Bill Belichick brought Jackson onto the team as a undrafted free agent.
And once again, Jackson kept working.
After a great performance in training camp and the preseason, Jackson earned his way on to the New England Patriots 53-man roster.
After a big win over the Minnesota Vikings in Dec., Jackson even earned praise from the famously stoic Patriots coach.
“J.C.’s really improved a lot over the course of the year and he’s gotten a lot better,” Belichick said in a press conference a week after the game. “He takes coaching well, he understands what maybe he needs to see or the technique he needs to use or how he can improve what he’s doing, and then he works on it and he gets better at it. He’s done that all year and he continues to do it.”
It echoes the sentiment J.C.’s former high school coach had about him.
“I have nothing but positive things to say about J.C. and my interactions with him,” said Ackley. “Very coachable and would responded to criticism well. I’ve heard coach Belichick say similar things that he was very responsive to coaching and that he was one of the most liked players on the team. That sounds like the same J.C. who I have known since his freshman year.”
Now, on the eve of Super Bowl 53, Jackson finds himself on the verge of accomplishing something even the great Edgerrin James wasn’t able to do. Winning the Super Bowl.
James got close during his time with the Arizona Cardinals, but the team came up short against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl 43.
Needless to say the entire town of Immokalee will be Patriots fans this Sunday. Including Jackson’s former coach, Ackley, who finds himself rooting for New England despite being a fan of the Denver Broncos.
“It pains me to say it because the Patriots have had a great rivalry with the Broncos for a long time,” said Ackley. “But it would be phenomenal if J.C. can win a Super Bowl ring. So I’ve been joking that I will be begrudgingly cheering for the Patriots.”
If Jackson and the Patriots can secure a victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Feb. 3, perhaps when parents in Immokalee watch their kid play under the Friday night lights they won’t say their son is going to become the next Edgerrin James. They’ll say he might be the next J. C. Jackson.