Eagles' Jackson returns to be center of attention

Sept. 9, 2010 at 4:09 a.m.

By Ashley Fox

The Philadelphia Inquirer


PHILADELPHIA - Jamaal Jackson felt a pop, and almost instantaneously, 1,200 miles south in Miami, his mother Sadie Smith screamed, "That's my baby," and almost jumped through the television.

It would be several hours later on Dec. 27, 2009, when Jackson got the diagnosis every professional football player fears: a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Jackson's season ended that day in the first quarter against Denver, and the Eagles lost not only their center who had started 71 consecutive games, but also what then-quarterback Donovan McNabb called the team's most valuable player.

Although his initial prognosis was for a nine-to-12 month rehabilitation, Jackson is scheduled to start at center in the Eagles' season opener against Green Bay on Sunday, just eight months after undergoing reconstructive surgery. His return is a huge lift to an offensive line that was ineffective in two games without him last season and to first-year starter Kevin Kolb, who needs a trusted, reliable, stabilizing force snapping the ball to him.

"That means the world," said Todd Herremans, the Eagles offensive guard.

But there are plenty of questions surrounding Jackson's return, questions that won't begin to get answered until the game progresses on Sunday. Will his knee hold up? Will he have the stamina to play 60 snaps against the Packers' 3-4 defense? How will he fare against Green Bay's aggressive 337-pound nose tackle, B.J. Raji?

And just how was he able to go from the operating table to the playing field in just eight months?

Worth the weight (loss)

Know this about Jamaal Jackson: He appreciates the value of a dollar, and the importance of hard work.

The summer before his senior year at Delaware State, Jackson worked as a doorman at a movie theater in Dover, Del. He made less than $6 an hour directing patrons to the correct theater, then scraping bubble gum off the seats after they left.

"It's a very degrading job," said Jackson, whose first paycheck for three weeks of work was $380. "It humbled me a little bit."

That spring of 2002, Jackson weighed 350 pounds. His position coach at Division I-AA Delaware State, Jeff Braxton, told him he had the potential to play in the National Football League, but he would have to retool his body. Jackson started working out religiously, and changed his eating habits from a diet of fast food to one that consisted of chicken, tuna, and salad.

Every day after practice that fall, Jackson worked on his conditioning - riding an exercise bike, or using the elliptical machine - for at least 45 minutes. By the time scouts saw him before the 2003 draft, Jackson was down to 315 pounds.

"Jamaal was so talented, so much better than anybody else that we didn't have anyone on the field to push him," said Braxton, now the head coach at Cheyney University. "We really didn't talk about him playing at the next level until going into senior year. I took the time to challenge him to be the best in the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) but also to be the best center in the nation. He never backs down from a challenge."

Jackson set a school record with 45 consecutive starts, but he didn't get drafted in 2003. Instead, he signed with the Eagles as a rookie free agent - his signing bonus was $5,000 - and made the team's practice squad. In a 2004 preseason game, Jackson suffered a torn triceps and missed the entire year. But midway through the 2005 season, starting center Hank Fraley injured his rotator cuff and the Eagles promoted Jackson to the active roster.

He didn't relinquish the starting job - a span of 71 consecutive games - until injuring his ACL. And at 30 years old, Jackson wasn't ready to give up the job this season to either Mike McGlynn or Nick Cole.

"Irony," Jackson said when reminded that he earned his starting job because the man ahead of him on the depth chart had suffered a season-ending injury. "Irony."

Asked whether his experience replacing Fraley played into his accelerated rehabilitation, Jackson admitted that it did.

"I totally understand the business," said Jackson, who is under contract through 2013. "If that's how everything plays out, I'm fine with it, because one thing you can't judge is a man's character and my heart to try and come back and play. That's my thing.

"I'm just trying to do whatever I can do to help produce for this team in any way I can. If that's helping Mike or helping Nick or whoever is at center, or if it's playing center, I'm going to do it."

There is no question inside the NovaCare Complex that the Eagles' offense functions more smoothly when Jackson is snapping the ball.

"He's the center I'm most comfortable with since I've played the most snaps with him," said Herremans, who cited the Eagles' 13-3 record over the last two years when he and Cole were at guard and Jackson was at center. "But I think a lot of guys feel that way, too."

To Eagles coach Andy Reid, Jackson is a Pro Bowl-caliber center.

"He's smart, and he's an extremely talented blocker," Reid said. "He's a big guy, and he and the quarterback are right on the same page. That's the important thing. He can hang mentally with the quarterback."

Even Reid is surprised that Jackson seems ready to start on Sunday.

"I've seen other guys that have gotten ready that fast, but I've seen some that can't do it," Reid said. "Probably more that can't do it than ones that can."

Fast recovery

After Jackson had the operation on Jan. 5, his surgeon, the famed James Andrews in Alabama, told him it would take nine to 12 months before he'd be ready to play in a game. Jackson rehabilitated every day at the NovaCare Complex, and in April, Andrews told him his knee was "looking good."

"That's when I started believing this would be possible to be ready for the 12th," Jackson said.

In July, Andrews cleared Jackson to practice, but Eagles head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder and Reid were conservative and didn't allow Jackson on the field with the first team until a couple of weeks ago.

Even so, Jackson's return is ahead of schedule.

"That's good," said orthopedic surgeon James L. Carey, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Cartilage Repair and Osteochondritis Dissecans Treatment. "That's actually ahead of the curve."

A Bucks County native, Carey in 2006 co-wrote a study with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine that looked at NFL wide receivers and running backs who tore an ACL between 1998 and 2002. Of the 31 players, five never returned to the game. Of the 26 players who did return, 16 needed nine to 12 months to get back on the field, and 10 needed more than a year.

Although his study looked at two "skilled" positions, Carey said it was reasonable for an offensive lineman, whose job requirements are different, to need a year or more to recover.

"His early return is consistent with an athlete who has been compliant with everything that was asked of him and an athlete that works hard," Carey said. "Dr. Andrews' technical skills shouldn't be overlooked, but that took a couple of hours, and the rehab is months and months. The athlete's role and the athletic training staff is really critical."

So, too, Carey said, is the fact that Jackson just turned 30 in May, that he had not had surgery on the knee before, and that the injury reportedly was only to the ACL and not to any of the other ligaments in his knee, or the meniscus.

And, although it didn't seem that way initially, the timing of Jackson's injury worked in his favor.

"Built into that nine to 12 months is you have to wait for the season to start, and that gives him an opportunity to come back in eight months," Carey said. "If he injured his knee in September, no one's playing football in May.

"I think that was probably the biggest thing we shouldn't overlook. It's great he's ready to get back, but ... most injuries are in September and October, so they automatically go into that nine-to-12-month bucket. The cyclical nature of football helped him."

But whether Jackson is the player he was before the injury remains to be seen. The production of the players Carey studied dropped by one third post-injury.

Getting game-ready

Twice a night, every night, Jackson gets into his recliner, elevates his knee above his heart, and slides a compression sleeve over it. For half an hour, he uses what's called "Game Ready," a device that simultaneously supplies intermittent compression with cold therapy.

Jackson credits that system and the Eagles' training staff, which scrapes the outside of his knee every other day to break down the scar tissue, with helping him get ready for Sunday. Still, he is reluctant to declare his rehab a success.

"I feel confident," said Jackson, who will wear a knee brace during games. "But I still haven't played a whole game, and I'll have to see how I hold up (through) four quarters of football."

Reid is taking a similar approach. He said Jackson's ability to play an entire game is "an unknown."

"I can't tell you that I'm not going to keep a close eye on him," Reid said. "I will do that."

He won't be the only one. Jackson's mother, Sadie Smith, will be in the Lincoln Financial Field stands, wearing her No. 67 Eagles jersey and keeping her fingers crossed.

"Sunday is going to be exciting," Smith said. "That's when I get jitters. It's like I've got to play. I'm trying to be confident. He's a big part of the team, and he loves the game and he loves his teammates. I just want him to be safe and strong."


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