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DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia’s Prodigal Son, Comes Home

Five years after his acrimonious departure, Jackson has returned to the Philadelphia Eagles—the team that drafted him—and the city that once embraced him

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The roar of an American football stadium—especially right before the first game of a new season—can be deafening. In Philadelphia, many Eagles fans were likely to be drunk for Sunday’s season opener against Washington, just like many fans in stadiums across the country, because what is football in America without celebration aided by inebriation? As I watched my hometown Eagles on television, I found myself feeling a different kind of intoxication: I was drunk with joy, the type of happiness not caused by any substance. DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia’s prodigal son, had returned home and was playing his first game in an Eagles uniform since 2013. The 32-year-old receiver had rejoined the team during the offseason, five years after his acrimonious exit under former head coach Chip Kelly.

Jackson emerged from the tunnel during player introductions at Lincoln Financial Field and bobbed his head as if he were listening to thumping bass. The stadium announcer called out his name differently than everyone else’s—the syllables in Jackson’s name were elongated. He is not DeSean Jackson—he’s DeeeeeeShawwwwwwwn JackSunnnnnnnn. Yes, there is a difference. Jackson pounded the ground a few times as his cheerful constituency greeted him. His return to the team that drafted him in 2008 was complete. It wasn’t a dream. Jackson was back; he was ours again.

Jackson grew up in Los Angeles’s Crenshaw neighborhood and attended the University of California, Berkeley, but he might as well have been a graduate of Temple University in North Philly after the way Eagles fans embraced him. He was a second-round pick who played with the attitude of an undrafted player—diminutive by the NFL’s standards, but a giant according to its metrics.

In his first game, against the St. Louis Rams, Jackson leaped over cornerback Tye Hill to catch a pass from Donovan McNabb and ran down the sideline for a 47-yard gain. He also returned a 60-yard punt in that game, zooming past four defenders, cutting back across the field and stiff-arming a punter before jutting out of bounds. He finished with six catches and 106 yards in a 38-3 Eagles win. Jackson was the most electrifying player I had ever seen, and he was playing for my team. I didn’t know a player so slight of frame could play with such grace, and dance with so much joy. In his second season, in 2009, he finished with 1,156 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns. After McNabb’s departure, Jackson formed a devastating partnership with Michael Vick. Against Washington in 2010 on Monday Night Football, Jackson high-stepped into the end zone, backward, during an 88-yard touchdown reception on Vick’s first snap of the game. This would become a feature of Jackson’s Eagles lore: He fell backward into the end zone at the end of a 91-yard touchdown catch against Dallas in the fourth quarter of a tie game in 2010. In the Eagles’ 2009 loss to Arizona in the NFC championship game, Jackson caught a 62-yard touchdown on his face mask to briefly give the Eagles a lead. And, of course, there was the “Miracle at the New Meadowlands” in 2010.

In 2014, the Eagles released the 27-year-old Jackson two years into a five-year extension. The news baffled me—well, it broke me is more appropriate. Team officials were reportedly concerned about Jackson’s off-field behavior. It was alleged that Jackson had a bad attitude, that he missed team meetings, and that he had gang ties. It was a curious revelation. One of the most exciting NFL talents of the decade, coming off an 82-grab, 1,332-yard season, was being framed as a distraction—and therefore expendable by a new coaching staff—in part because of the people he knew and the neighborhood he claimed. Jackson denied he was involved in any gang activity, or that he had any gang affiliation. But the damage was done. He was no longer the dazzling spark that once set Philadelphia ablaze. Suddenly, he was a bad influence and, just like that, he was gone.

The reports seemed absurd and indicative of the complicated nature of fandom when it comes to black athletes. In one moment, Jackson was heralded; in the next, he was a figure to be feared. He didn’t conform to our ideas of what athletes should look like and how they should behave. In Philadelphia, he appeared in a basement cypher with Vick, Meek Mill, and T.I. He taunted cornerbacks and played with an audacious attitude. Rather than make Jackson an enemy, such behavior was endearing. His popularity was on par with some of Philadelphia’s most recognizable athletes, similar to when Allen Iverson wore mink coats and matching durags, or when Lou Williams treated an armed robber to a holiday meal at McDonald’s. Jackson made people afraid of the unapologetic, black life he led, and it cost him a job in a city where people were willing to fully embrace his complicated character.

“It was a bittersweet situation,” Jackson told the press this year about his troubling departure. “We all know how I was released.”

Jackson had been on track to become arguably the greatest receiver in franchise history: After his first six seasons in Philadelphia, he was fourth all time in receiving yards (6,117), ninth in receptions (356), tied for ninth in touchdowns (32), and tied for third with 20 100-yard games. After six days on the open market, he signed a $24 million deal with Washington. It stung to see Jackson go to a conference rival. When he returned to Philadelphia in September 2014, he nabbed an 81-yard touchdown and then gave his jersey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Only two other players in NFL history have scored an 80-yard touchdown both for and against one team.

For years, I repressed my memories of Jackson in an Eagles uniform out of spite. I couldn’t forgive Kelly and the organization for sending him away. In March, five years after his exit, I was reminded of what it felt like to love Jackson again when the Eagles sent a sixth-round pick to acquire him from Tampa Bay. He announced his return in an Instagram post with a photo of himself in an Eagles uniform. “Gotta luv it,” the caption read. Against Washington on Sunday, it was as though Jackson had never left. The Eagles trailed 17-0 when quarterback Carson Wentz heaved a 51-yard touchdown pass to Jackson. The announcer shouted his name again: DeeeeeeShawwwwwwwn JackSunnnnnnnn. And Jackson flapped his arms in the end zone. Once again, he flew like an Eagle.

Philadelphia came back to beat Washington, 32-27, behind a classic Jackson performance: eight catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns. With 31 career touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more, Jackson trails only Jerry Rice (36) for the all-time record. After his second score—for 53 yards—he somersaulted twice, then found his teammates and shimmied in front of cameras. Jackson is a perfect fit for an Eagles offense in need of a player capable of stretching the field. During pregame warmups, Jackson sported cleats honoring the late Nipsey Hussle, the Crenshaw rapper who was fatally shot in Los Angeles in March. The shoes are inscribed with a quote that reads: “You’ve got to have faith in what you’re doing and not take no for an answer.” Jackson said he’ll auction the cleats each week, with the proceeds going to Hussle’s two children.

I nearly wept while watching the game. To watch Jackson pirouette through the end zone was to get a reminder of my childhood. It would be fitting if a player previously sent away from Philadelphia returned and became the weapon to realize the Eagles’ Super Bowl aspirations.

I never believed in magic until I saw Jackson play football. I never knew it was possible for little creatures to dance with such Brobdingnagian proportions. It’s wondrous to watch such a talent streak across the field with such boundless energy. Jackson is Philadelphia, just as I am. I can see it in how he smiles on the sideline, or the energy he brings to touchdown celebrations. Every Sunday this season, he’ll be in midnight green, back where he belongs, a lost son of Philadelphia who finally made the journey back home.