When the Atlanta Falcons signed a free-agent defensive end last month, the Internet message boards lit up.
It wasn’t that the die-hard fans questioned the move — most agreed the team needed to shore up its defensive front. They didn’t even question the acquisition so much, nor the money spent to get him. No, the most frequent response, even by those who follow the game the closest was, “Who is this guy? Who is Tyson Jackson?”
Folks in Louisiana know Jackson, from Edgard, starred as a two-way lineman for West St. John, helping the Rams win two Class 1A state championships and being named the All-State Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He went on to LSU, where he was a two-time All Southeastern Conference second-team lineman and helped the Tigers win the 2007 national title.
For the past five years, he has been with the Kansas City Chiefs. The third overall pick in the 2009 draft, Jackson went from LSU’s 4-3 defense into the Chiefs’ 3-4 defense. At 6-foot-4, 296 pounds, Jackson is considered a strong, outstanding tackler especially good at stopping the run. With the Chiefs, Jackson had 200 tackles and nine sacks. While not huge numbers, they are solid for his position, and the five-year, $25 million contract he just signed is proof of that.
But he’s gone about his business quietly and humbly. So when he signed with the Falcons, it’s not that surprising that some were asking “Who is he?”
“I’m sure I get that a lot,” Jackson said. “Just because it’s not a very glamorous position. It’s not a sack position from an outside linebacker’s standpoint. Or the receiver position that’s constantly getting the ball or scores touchdowns. But it’s a key role when you’re trying to build a defense and stop an offense.
“To be honest, the position I play is not a fan favorite. People look at the position as one that anyone can play. The thing about it is, when you play a 3-4 defensive end, it’s rare that you can find guys that can play the position. So I really relish it. I’m in a position that’s hard to do, and I’m one of the best guys in the NFL who can do it. The people in Atlanta can expect a tough, hard-nosed football player.”
Jackson is respected for other reasons as well. Smart, humble and hard-working, Jackson is in no way considered a celebrity. He’s not likely to be featured on the scandal website, TMZ. He doesn’t have a Twitter account nor a Facebook page.
“He’s a very private person,” said Martin Sylvain, who coached Jackson through biddy and junior high basketball and high school football. “God gifted him with great ability, for one thing. He has a phenomenal personality and an outstanding work ethic. He works very hard at what he does. And he has great commitment. He’s going to do what you ask him to do. He’s very coachable. I loved coaching this kid.”
“I’m just consider myself the old-school football player,” Jackson said. “I don’t really get caught up in the hype like on these reality shows and everything that comes along with the NFL lifestyle, you know? I just do my job. I take advantage of the NFL and the opportunities that they give us. But other than that, I just treat it as a business.”
In businesslike fashion, Jackson has proved himself. After redshirting his freshman year at LSU, Jackson played in 53 games, making 39 starts (29 straight). He finished with 122 tackles, 27 tackles for losses and 18½ sacks. He had 18 pass breakups and 33 quarterback hurries. In 2009, he became the highest LSU defensive player drafted, going to the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round and signing a five-year, $31 million contract after a brief holdout.
While he spent five seasons in Kansas City, “freezing,” he says, he remained loyal to his Louisiana roots. With part time homes in Kansas, Atlanta, Miami and Tampa, Jackson said he lives a little bit all over the place, with his stuff spread everywhere. But he returns home as often as he can to visit with his family and to get a good healthy dose of home cooking — seafood and charbroiled oysters, in particular.
“The last time I came to Louisiana was during Mardi Gras,” he said, before sneaking back for Easter. “No, I didn’t go to Bourbon Street. I haven’t been there in quite some time. I did partake in some of the festivities. I just came out and enjoyed the family and enjoyed some good home Louisiana cooking. I was able to get with my family and a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time. I just enjoyed being back in Louisiana.”
Jackson also has remained loyal to his alma mater. He established a foundation that provides school supplies for students in Kansas City, at West St. John Elementary School in Edgard and, soon, in Atlanta. The Tyson Jackson Foundation also sponsors the annual Rudolph G. Dinvault golf tournament, which helps fund academic scholarships and assists the athletic department at West St. John High. It has sponsored an etiquette program for seventh-graders, provided football and baseball uniforms and equipment for local schools and for St. John the Baptist Parish youth organizations.
But Jackson is proudest of the foundation’s leadership program, which awards $5,000 to a student who demonstrates outstanding leadership qualities. Jackson said he personally reads every application and consults with a panel to choose each year’s winner.
“I just want a leader,” Jackson said. “They just have to be able to take charge, pick up someone who is down. With just that quality, you can overcome so many obstacles. It makes you so much better. That’s what I look for when I’m choosing a candidate. I just want to give to kids what I never had. People ask me why I don’t do something for sports. The reason I chose to use academics is there’s way more doctors and lawyers and paramedics and sportswriters and beat writers and teachers and technicians in the world thab professional athletes.”
Jackson said the road to NFL glory is not smooth. Being an LSU Tiger helped, he said.
“The things that I thought I knew about football when I left high school, they were so minute that I was lost by the time I got to LSU,” he said. “It was like speaking a whole new language. The pros was a smoother adjustment just because I was at LSU, one of the premiere programs in college football, and we had a lot of guys at LSU who went to the pros. They were constantly coming back to give us insight. ... You can get the most talented athletes in the country, and only a small few of them are going to make it through as a professional.
“There’s a lot of other things that go into it that put me in the position I’m in right now. I’m just proud that I stayed the course and continued to push myself. I realized how blessed I am. So many guys don’t make it.”
Now Jackson is anxiously awaiting the opening of the season against the Saints. He said he’s already being bombarded with ticket requests from family and friends — most of whom are, of course, die-hard Saints fans. They’ll just have to switch sides, Jackson said.
“If they’re going on my tickets, they better be wearing Falcons’ colors,” he said. “I’m very excited. Just the atmosphere of a game like that, how can you not get excited? I can’t wait.”