MOSCOW, Idaho – Back in Las Vegas, the father and son still cross paths. Their meetings are infrequent, unexpected – and usually awkward.
Deonté Jackson has stumbled across his biological dad a few times when he’s out with friends or running errands. During each encounter they catch up for a few minutes, like old classmates, and then scatter in different directions.
“It will be like, ‘Hey, you. How are you?’ ” Jackson said. “It’s a little weird. But I still love my father. I know he has a tremendous love for me, but he was very young and it was just a choice and he made it.”
His father’s choice was to not be around for Jackson’s childhood, a decision that the fifth-year senior running back at the University of Idaho relates matter-of-factly and without bitterness or anger.
For others, it might not be that simple. But Jackson, a father of two children with separate women, looks back at his childhood and sums it up in just a few words: “I had a great life growing up.”
In his dad’s absence, he leaned on two other prominent male figures – his grandfather, a former Marine and Caesars Palace pit boss, and his uncle, St. Louis Rams star running back Steven Jackson.
Both helped nudge Deonté to where he is now, two months away from graduating college and prospering during his final season with the Vandals (3-2) after an injury-riddled career.
“Those are two guys he looks up to the most,” said Korey Toomer, Deonte’s cousin and Idaho teammate. “If you watch him on the field, he kind of runs like Steven. He really looks up to him and critiques himself off of Steven.”
Maybe that’s because Deonté views Steven as more than an uncle. The two became close while growing up – five years apart in age – in Las Vegas, where Deonté’s mother and Steven’s older sister, Rhonda Jackson-Pullens, worked for the city’s housing authority.
While she was away, Deonté and his three siblings stayed at their grandparents’ house after school. Steve and Brenda Jackson brought stability and structure, and up until middle school, they also gave Deonté a chance to be around his uncle all the time.
Before Steven left for Oregon State, he would drag Deonté along to pick-up games – even though Deonté was much smaller and younger. Now in the offseason, they work out together in St. Louis.
“I would say they’re more like big brother/little brother than uncle and nephew,” said Steve Jackson, Deonté’s grandfather and Steven’s dad.
Deonté is far from a 236-pound bruiser like his uncle, who’s in his seventh year with the Rams, but he’s proven to be just as stubborn in gritting through injuries. The 5-foot-9, 199-pound back is “a tough son of a gun,” UI coach Robb Akey said.
He earned that reputation through two years of playing through unrelenting pain.
In his redshirt freshman season, Deonté rushed for 1,175 yards and offered a ray of hope for Vandals fans during an otherwise miserable 1-11 season. But his 240 carries took a toll.
He injured his ankle during that first season, and then hurt his back the following spring. The two bulging disks and balky ankle lingered for two years and were a major reason for his drop-off in production.
Yet his health started to improve when he began seeing Clayton Skaggs at the Central Institute for Human Performance in St. Louis. The chiropractor had worked with Steven, 27, and many other professional athletes, and he made a major difference with Deonté’s back.
Most of the pain is gone now, and Deonté has again become a threat in the Vandals’ running game.
“It’s finally the truth. I’ve been saying it over and over,” he said. “I can honestly say that this year I felt as good as I did coming into college.”
Idaho running backs coach Jeremy Thielbahr has noticed the difference. Deonté, refreshed from two years of carrying a lighter load, has his burst back. He’s able to make most of the cuts and jukes that were his trademark during his freshman year.
“The first couple of practices (of fall camp), we were very excited about what he was doing,” Thielbahr said. “And he’s got his explosiveness back. He’s able to plant on that ankle better than he was before.”
Deonté also claims he’s regained the 4.4 speed that he had coming out high school in Warren, Ark. He had moved to the South to live with relatives before his sophomore season, a year after his coaches in Vegas wanted him to move up to varsity as a freshman.
His grandfather disagreed with the decision, which created friction between the coaching staff and the Jackson family.
By 2006 Deonté, despite his small frame, had caught the eye of coach Dennis Erickson, who had returned to UI after guiding Steven at Oregon State. Erickson left after just one year for Arizona State – and nearly took Deonté with him.
Erickson made it clear, Deonté said, that he would have a scholarship at ASU if he transferred. The running back was tempted.
“But I just knew that wasn’t the right (place) for me,” he said. “I needed a place like this, a smaller town, a place where I can enjoy college but stay focused, because that’s one thing my family definitely instills in all of us – education is first and the No. 1 thing.”
Deonté’s approach comes in large part from his grandfather. With Deonté’s father out of the picture, Steve made sure to play a large role when it came to discipline and dishing out advice.
Deonté tried to absorb all he could.
“At a young age, I don’t remember exactly what age it was, he said, ‘Grandpa, is it OK if I call you Dad?’ ” Steve recalled in a phone conversation from Las Vegas. “And I said, ‘I would be honored if you wanted to call me Dad.’
“We had a pretty close relationship. He’s a strong-willed young man, so I had to keep a tight range on him. But we got to be pretty close.”
Deonté consulted with his grandfather and uncle regularly through the last two seasons, when his carries were severely cut. Last year, though, he found a new role as the team’s designated pass-blocker.
While De’Maundray Woolridge evolved into UI’s featured tailback, Akey put Deonté in games during key passing downs, knowing he was the Vandals’ most effective all-around running back.
At first, the ponytailed junior wasn’t sure to make of his life as a blocker. But he slowly took pride in it.
“It made me find sunshine through the darkness,” Deonté said. “I just took that sunshine and grew with it.”
Now he’s focused on providing for his children. He has a 2-month-old son who lives in California and a 3-year-old daughter in the process of moving in with Deonté’s mother in Las Vegas.
“That’s one of the reasons why I strive so hard, to make sure I can be there for my kids,” he said. “I don’t have to be afraid to fail as a father. As long as I’m doing everything I can to make their life the best.”
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