PULLMAN – Brennan Jackson had never been so happy to see someone make fun of him.
Washington State’s star edge rusher was one of the hosts for the official visit of quarterback prospect John Mateer, and even back on that weekend in January 2022, Jackson ranked as one of the program’s top players. The season before, he earned all-conference honorable mention honors, racking up four sacks and leading the Cougars to their first Apple Cup win over rival Washington in a decade.
Jackson was a captain, a star, a 6-foot-4, 260-pounder . No one should have dared poke fun at him, not someone who had just met him, and especially not someone who might have a locker near his in the future.
Mateer took on the challenge and ribbed Jackson over something insignificant.
“And I just laugh and I’m like, ‘Dude, you already get it,’ ” Jackson said. “Like, I’m not someone to be feared in the locker room, per se. I’m really just a goofy dude. I don’t mind it. I’m really comfortable with who I am, because at the end of the day, if you try and conform to what other people want you to be like, then you’re never gonna really live your own life.
“So for me, I will always be goofy. I will always say things that aren’t funny that I think are funny. I’ll laugh at it. I’ll always wear my Vans that everyone tells me to get rid of. I don’t care about that. That’s who I am.”
There’s nobody better at capturing Jackson than Jackson . He knows who he is. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He didn’t mind when Mateer needled him back then, and he doesn’t care when anyone does it now, because he understands himself better than anyone else could.
“BJ is loose and fun,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said, “and can really handle his own in a social setting just as much as anybody else.”
“He really moves to his own drum, man,” said Herschel Ramirez, Jackson’s defensive coordinator at Great Oak High in Temecula, California, his hometown.
“He’s always had the ability to laugh at himself or make fun of himself,” said Travis Jackson, Brennan’s dad. “He just likes being around people. He likes other people. He just likes making people happy.”
To understand the other part of Jackson’s makeup, revisit the third quarter of Washington State’s upset over Wisconsin last weekend. About an hour after fellow edge Ron Stone Jr. strip-sacked Badgers quarterback Tanner Mordecai and Jackson fell on the fumble in the end zone, good for his first touchdown since high school, the visitors had come all the way back – well, almost.
Mordecai had just thrown a touchdown pass, helping the Badgers draw within 24-22, and Wisconsin lined up to attempt a 2-pointer to tie it up. Jackson lined up on the edge, same as he always does. That’s when he looked up and saw Mordecai point at him, and when Jackson read his lips, he understood the directions Mordecai was giving his offense.
“I’m like, ha,” Jackson said. “You messed up, bud.”
Mordecai messed up the second he snapped the ball. He darted to his right, Jackson’s side, where he pitched it to running back Chez Mellusi on a speed option. Jackson tracked Mellusi down and wrestled him to the ground at the line of scrimmage. He waved his arms in front of him, as if to say, “No way.” The Badgers never scored again.
“It’s, tell me I can’t do something, and I’m gonna show you that I can,” said Amy Jackson, Brennan’s mom. “He’s always had that mentality.”
Maybe so, but to become a face of Washington State’s program, Jackson had to take that to the extreme .
That included his time at Great Oak High, as AP chemistry teacher Jeff Maclean remembers.
Jackson and his classmates had just played their year-end video for Maclean, and they had included a blooper section toward the end of the video.
In the video that got them an A, in which Jackson and two classmates sing a goofy song to help them remember the tenets of equilibrium, Jackson sinks a 3-pointer at a local park. In the bloopers, he clanks about 20 beforehand.
“So whenever I see him now,” Maclean said, “I laugh and I go, there’s our 3-point shooter.”
For every story about Jackson obsessing over his football career in college, there’s about a dozen like these, the ones that explain why Jackson had no problem showing his classmates that his jumper needs work.
These days, Jackson finds it easy to laugh at himself. Earlier in his life, he had no choice. Throughout middle and high school, Jackson was about a year younger than his classmates.
Back then, Jackson didn’t always feel as confident in himself. Sometimes he would feel hurt by some of the jokes, but the more they saw him show it, the more his classmates would laugh.
“So he’s like, ‘I’m just gonna go out and laugh it off, because I’m kind of a goofball,’ ” Amy said. “ ‘I’m just gonna go ahead and accept the fact that sometimes I’m a goofball.’ If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?”
That’s why Jackson is an open book about every funny story from his past. There’s the time as a WSU freshman that he arrived on campus wearing fake glasses, the kind with transparent lenses that don’t actually enhance your vision. He got them as reading glasses, but as he began a new chapter in his life, he figured it was time to switch up his look.
“That was a pretty odd era of my life,” Jackson said. “I’m glad that it’s over.”
Then there’s the time when, the day of a high school bowl game in Arizona, Jackson slipped on a bag in the hotel room and hit his head. He couldn’t play in the game.
“And we had driven to Arizona for this one game,” Amy said. “He didn’t even get to play in it. He would do stuff like that all the time.”
Once, during a break in a Pop Warner game, Jackson slipped on a metal barrier and split his knee open. Another time, Jackson was late getting ready and had to run after Amy’s car because she had left for school without him, as she warned him she would.
Jackson won’t try to change the subject when these are brought up. He’ll even offer more embarrassing details. He isn’t embarrassed by any of it. He knows he isn’t who he used to be, and he likes who he’s become, so why not laugh?
“When I go on Twitter, I’ll see negative things, but that doesn’t bother me because it’s like, ‘You don’t know me as a person,’ ” Jackson said. “Even if you’re saying negative things about me, I only care about the ones from the people closest to me, because those are going to come in a different context and come in a different tone, because they’re trying to actually make me better.”
The reason Jackson likes who he is now is because he made himself better.
By now, Jackson’s trainers may have given up on reeling him in. He’ll finish up a grueling lift, and they’ll encourage him to take it easy the next day. Maybe rest a little bit.
“But I think they understand with me,” Jackson said, “that feeling of having to put in as much work as possible, that’s what made me into who I am. So I can’t get rid of that.”
Take one look at Jackson to see how deeply he’s obsessed – with lifting more than he did the day before, with developing more as a person , with treating every down of football like he may never get the chance to play again.
Earlier in his career, there was a chance he never would play again. He tore his ACL in 2018, his freshman season. A year later, he recovered and was excited to play. He was on the travel squad, which meant he was set to leave for Texas, where the Cougars were ready to square off with Houston.
Jackson broke his foot that week in practice. He never made the trip. Later in the week, as the healthy Cougars boarded a plane bound for Houston, Jackson dialed his mom’s number in his phone.
“Mom,” Brennan said, “I don’t know if I can do this again.”
“And I’m like, ‘Can’t’ is not a word that we use,” Amy said. “It’s will you or won’t you? It’s not can or can’t. It’s will you or won’t you? You either will or you won’t. That’s different. I know you can, but will you? That’s the question you need to ask yourself.”
Jackson of 2023 might have felt fired up by the challenge. Jackson of 2019 had to think about it. Back then, WSU coaches put Jackson on the back burner. They had practices to plan for, games to prepare for, and anyone injured wasn’t part of the plans.
“I was in a pretty dark place for a little bit,” Jackson said.
“He wasn’t used to being put off to the side,” Amy said.
Two months later, Jackson did more than slink to the side. He flew home to Temecula because the coronavirus pandemic had just shuttered the world. There, he thought about his place on the Cougars’ team and what he wanted out of his next season.
That’s when Jackson started to hear the concerns of coaches, teammates and fans.
“I think some people doubted him that when he came back from the second injury Was he going to lose it? Was he going to be buried on the depth chart?” Amy said. “Because now this is a guy that’s had two injuries. I think for him, he was just like, ‘I’m gonna go all in, and if I fail, then I fail. But I can’t look myself in the mirror and say, I gave it 99%, and be OK with that.’ ”
“I don’t want anybody to be able to look at me,” Jackson said, “and say I work harder than you.”
So Jackson picked up the phone again. This time, he dialed his Great Oak head coach, Robbie Robinson, and gave him an idea. Their school was shut down, too, so why doesn’t he stop by, grab some lifting equipment and turn his family’s garage into a gym?
Robinson agreed, so Jackson drove to Great Oak, threw on a mask and walked into the school weight room. He came back with enough equipment to make his garage look like Planet Fitness
. He’d wake up at 5 a.m., run a mile, return for a workout, then eat.
“I would just be really, really strict on my eating,” Jackson said.
He would spend time with his family, then return to the garage for a core workout toward the end of the day. After another run on the treadmill, he’d go to bed.
“I did that for three months,” Jackson said.
Even when months passed and he returned to Pullman, Jackson kept up the same routines. Back then, Washington State’s strength and conditioning coach was Scott Salwasser. Jackson would meet up with Salwasser at 3:30 a.m., sometimes right on the dot, ready to hit the gym for a lift.
Jackson put in so much of this work before he saw any meaningful playing time. His physical gains may have helped him become a star on the field, but they also helped him feel at ease talking about his embarrassing moments away from it.
“It kind of came with me transforming my body in a sense,” Jackson said. “When I look in the mirror, it’s like I’m in love with the person that I see. It’s not just like how I look, but it’s how I feel on the inside, what I put my energy toward. I don’t really waver off my course.”
Jackson has built a career accordingly. Last fall, he started all 13 games for WSU, totaling 41 tackles, including 12 for loss and six sacks. As the Cougars received their seventh straight bowl bid, Jackson earned All-Pac-12 second-team honors. By the end of the season, he became a semifinalist for the NFF William V. Campbell Trophy, which goes to the best football scholar-athlete in the country.
In the first two games of his final season, Jackson has done more of the same. In the Cougars’ win over Wisconsin last weekend, Stone recorded two strip-sacks and Jackson recovered each fumble, including one for a touchdown . In short, Jackson has established himself as the kind of player coaches rave about years after they leave.
After last season, Jackson could have left. He had his degree. He had completed four years of college ball. He was high on NFL draft boards, but not high enough. He wanted to boost his draft stock. He also wanted to finish his master’s degree.
He could have gone elsewhere to do that. He could have hit the transfer portal and landed at a bigger school, maybe even one that survived the Pac-12’s dismantling. Instead, he chose to return to Pullman, the small town that feels so much like his hometown.
“All the people I’ve met here, all the connections, it’s so different from anywhere else I’ve ever been,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, I wouldn’t see myself going anywhere else or being at a different school than Washington State. I think it really defines who I am, and it makes sense for what I believe in and what my priorities are.
“Gosh, I’ve been here for a long time.”
Jackson had considered what kind of legacy he want to leave at Washington State.
Two things came to mind for Jackson.
One, he wants to crack the list of program’s all-time sack leaders.
“I’m like five away,” Jackson said, “so gotta get jump-started on that here pretty soon.
Two, he wants people to remember his personality.
“I want people to remember me as a great character for Washington State. More so than on the field, I want to be remembered as an amazing individual in the community, somebody that any Coug fan that saw me out and like was willing to say hi, they felt like I gave them everything I had to be engaged in that conversation.
“I don’t know. When I leave here, I don’t want people just to be like, ‘Oh, No. 80 was a great player.’ It’s like, ‘Brennan was awesome. He was a true Coug.’ ”