Rick Swain leaned back in his plush chair. He had a story to tell, and he wanted to get comfortable. The 68-year-old is a fifth-generation Floridian, recently retired after four decades of coaching high school football. He agreed to meet me in a Tampa casino about an hour from his home to talk about the best high school player he’s ever seen. “It was like watching a video game,” Swain said. “I praise the football gods for sending Lamar Jackson to me.”
Swain’s assured tone made me wonder whether he did pray to a holy power for the deliverance of a football phenom. Jackson was barely 6 feet tall, twigs for arms and spindles for legs, when he arrived as a sophomore transfer student at Boynton Beach High School, where Swain was the football coach. In one of his first practices, Jackson turned upfield for a long touchdown run that nearly made Swain break out in a sweat. “Jeez,” he thought to himself. “We’ve got something here.”
Amid wisps of cigar smoke, Swain recounted tales of his star quarterback’s high school exploits: How Swain told recruiters they’d need to buy backup throwing nets because of Jackson’s arm strength; or how Jackson would make leaping, one-handed catches to intercept passes during practices. “He’s like lightning in a bottle,” Swain said. “He’s not like other people.”
Swain was easily convinced of Jackson’s talent at the time, but the 22-year-old has faced skepticism about his ability to play quarterback at the highest levels throughout his career, even after he won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore at Louisville in 2016, or when he was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens in 2018. Some of these reasons are practical: Could a dual-threat quarterback who relies so much on his running ability withstand the hits he’d take in the open field? Jackson admitted he was too skinny in his rookie season in 2018, and said he gained nearly 10 pounds of muscle this offseason to prepare himself for the rigors of a 16-game season. “When I got a little big, they said I was fat,” he joked. “So I don’t really know.” Some of the criticism leveled against Jackson, however, is rooted in racial stereotypes often attributed to black quarterbacks. His throwing ability was questioned. During the draft process, scouts and analysts said he was better off switching positions from quarterback to receiver. It was a refrain Jackson had heard from college recruiters when he was in high school, one that serves to erase or diminish his ability as a quarterback. Jackson said a scout from the Los Angeles Chargers asked him whether he was going to run receiver routes at the combine. At his combine press conference, Jackson was asked how he felt about teams suggesting he change positions. “I’m not going to their team,” he said. When he was asked about possibly playing a slash role, he replied, “That’s basically another positions. You’re just trying to reword the question.”
As he enters his second NFL season and his first as the Ravens’ full-time starter, Jackson insists the criticism hasn’t bothered him, and that he uses it as motivation. “You guys saw me last year,” he joked with reporters during training camp in July. “You guys know. I was horrible. [I threw] a lot of ducks.” He wants to “make [his critics] eat their words.”
Last season, Jackson took over the starting job from Joe Flacco in November and led the Ravens to a 6-1 finish and a playoff berth. But Jackson played poorly in a 23-17 loss at home to the Chargers in the AFC wild-card game and was booed by Ravens fans. It was a humbling moment, and Jackson’s teammates spoke out in support of him after the game. It didn’t lessen the organization’s belief in him. In a league trending toward pass-happy offenses, Baltimore will have perhaps the most run-heavy offense. The Ravens want Jackson to home in on the uniqueness in his game, not succumb to the pressure to alter it.
“I just don’t want him to get caught up in, ‘You have to be a pocket passer. You have to do this,’” said safety Earl Thomas, who arrived from Seattle this offseason in free agency. “No, Lamar. Be who you are. You be special. If you have to take off, take off. Make the defense work.”
The organization doesn’t just believe in Jackson—head coach John Harbaugh and his staff want to create an offensive revolution with him. New offensive coordinator Greg Roman has changed 30 percent of the playbook to gear the attack around him. The Ravens traded Flacco to the Broncos in February. They selected two receivers and a running back in the first four rounds of the draft and signed veteran running back Mark Ingram in free agency, acquisitions intended to aid Jackson’s development. It’s rare that a young, black quarterback is given the keys to a franchise and set up to succeed so early in his career.
“He has it, there’s no question, that desire to be great,” said James Urban, the Ravens’ quarterback coach. “I think as much as anything with Lamar, I would say that he wants to prove [the Ravens’ front office] right, rather than prove everybody else wrong.”
Rick Swain isn’t surprised that Jackson’s moment has arrived so quickly in Baltimore. What shocks him is the notion that Jackson would ever have to change his game. The way Swain sees it, why the hell should he?
“You finish your career after 42 years, and that’s what you end it on?” Swain said. “Shoot, Lamar was the greatest daggum athlete I ever coached. I know I’m makin’ a few guys mad, but go head and race him. Outjump him. Outrun him. Outthrow him. Outthink him,” Swain starts to chuckle, incredulous at the idea. “You can’t!” he says. “That’s just it. That’s just Lamar Jackson for ya.”
The legend of Lamar Demeatrice Jackson Jr. began in Pompano Beach, Florida, 35 miles north of Miami, where his mother, Felicia Jones, raised Jackson and his siblings. Jackson’s father died when he was 8 years old, and during his Heisman speech, he revealed that his grandmother had passed away on the same day. “Losing my father and my grandma on the same day, it hurt me. I wanted to cry real bad,” Jackson said. “My mama was the real soldier. … She told me, ‘Lamar, do not cry.’ I remembered that for the rest of my life.”
Growing up in Pompano Beach, football was Jackson’s guiding light. Everyone, it seemed, had a story about his athletic prowess from as early as his time playing for the Pompano Cowboys youth football team. Jackson’s childhood friend Chauncey Mason remembers watching him play against Mason’s older cousin’s team. “Literally, he snapped the ball first play of the game, just rolled out and ran,” Mason told me in July. “What he does now is exactly what he did as a kid.”
Another childhood friend, Shane Williams, was impressed by Jackson’s demeanor from an early age. When Jackson was 7 years old, he pulled Williams aside during a street ball game when he noticed that Williams was getting discouraged. “Everything’s going to be all right,” Williams remembered Jackson saying. “All you need to do is not back down from these guys, because if they see that you got some fear in you, then they’ll just keep talking, and going to keep pushing and pushing and bullying you. You can’t let that happen. You’re better than that. You got to be stronger than that.”
Jackson’s mother orchestrated some of his most grueling workouts. Swain said Felicia would have Jackson do dropbacks in the Atlantic Ocean and run drills on the beach. Other days, she donned pads for contact drills in the backyard. “She was waylayin’ his butt!” Swain said. “Knockin’ him down! He’d tell me, ‘I was cryin,’ and his mama would say, ‘Go back and do it again!’” In The Players’ Tribune, Jackson described going for long runs with his mother across a bridge near his childhood home. He said they were more tiring than any football game. After church on Sundays, Jackson and his friends hit the football field. They shared dreams of winning the Heisman Trophy. “Meet me in New York!” they joked with each other. It was already in the works.
“Miss Felicia’s a baller herself,” Mason told me. Jackson’s friends admired her commitment to her son’s development. “When it came down to Lamar, and actually getting Lamar to where he needed to be, she put him through it,” Mason said. Jackson’s friends were no exception. “She’s going to push us just as well as our own mothers,” he said. “That’s why our own mothers respect her that much too.” (Jones could not be reached for an interview.)
In the spring of Jackson’s junior year at Boynton Beach High School, Swain called one of his former players, Lamar Thomas, who was a receivers coach at Louisville. Swain told him he needed to see Jackson.
“This kid is probably the best athlete I’ve ever coached,” Swain said.
“Say that again?” Thomas recalled saying. “C’mon now, Coach.” Swain insisted he was being serious, so Thomas relented. “I’ll be on the next flight down,” Thomas said. When he arrived at practice, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Jackson was rated only a three-star recruit, and his game was a bit raw, but Thomas was convinced. “Damn, he is a really good athlete.”
Thomas’s challenge was convincing his boss at the time, head coach Bobby Petrino, to take a flier on Jackson. His highlight tapes focused on his dynamic running prowess, so Thomas told Swain to change the tape to feature some of Jackson’s big throws. Petrino was sold when he saw the new tape.
The last hurdle, of course, was Felicia. “It took a while for me to get inside her circle, for her to trust me,” Thomas said. “And you know, she tried to run me away,” but Thomas refused to go anywhere. “She tried to stare me down. She tried all kinds of stuff. But I said, ‘I ain’t going nowhere, Miss Felicia!’”
Thomas said Petrino had to assure Felicia that Jackson would play quarterback. Coaches from other schools paid lip service to his desire to play quarterback. “I think that’s what she really wanted to hear,” Thomas said.
Felicia, Thomas said, wanted her son to become a better player and a better person. She wanted coaches to prepare him to play quarterback at the next level.
“She pushed her son like no other,” Thomas said. “And he wanted to be pushed.”
In three years as Louisville’s starting quarterback, Jackson passed for 9,043 yards and 69 touchdowns and rushed for 4,132 yards and 50 touchdowns in 38 games. He entered the 2018 NFL draft and hired Felicia as his manager. Not only would he have to once again defend his ability to play quarterback but now also his choice in representation. Former lineman Geoff Schwartz said Jackson was making a mistake. “What happens in the NFL when Jackson doesn’t get his way?” he wrote. “Does his mom call his coaches then?”
“When I read some of this stuff [people said], what they don’t understand is that it’s always been them,” Thomas told me. “That’s their trust. They trust each other. And yeah, she’s not an agent, but she probably didn’t want anybody else to come in because it’s always been them. You know what I mean? It’s always been them. And I don’t fault her for it because when the going was rough, and the going was tough, it was them. Her and him … so to protect her son, that’s what she wanted to do.”
Jackson waited until the 32nd and final pick of the first round before his name was called. Four other quarterbacks had been taken before him. After he walked onstage and shook hands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he was interviewed by Deion Sanders for the NFL Network.
“I see you a little bit upset, a little perturbed,” Sanders said.
“Yes, sir,” Jackson said.
“But guess what,” Sanders said.
“I’m here,” Jackson said. “I’m a Raven. It’s on. All year. Every year.”
“What are they getting?” Sanders asked.
“Everything out of me,” Jackson said. “They gonna get a Super Bowl outta me. Believe that.” He looked directly to the camera. “Believe. That.”
Inside the Ravens team offices, there was a celebration. Harbaugh told a reporter that after Jackson fell to the Ravens, it sounded like a “thundering herd of buffalo running down the hall.”
Once again, the beleaguered boy from South Florida was made to show his resolve. Life had a way of always challenging Jackson, from childhood tragedy to being overlooked as a high school recruit, and then on the draft stage in Arlington, Texas. It took only one team to believe in him. And he intends to repay that faith.
Purple flags planted in the front lawns of homes line the road to the Ravens training facility in Owings Mills, Maryland. Hundreds of fans have arrived before 10 a.m. on the first day of camp, looking for a front-row seat to Lamarmania. Live ravens stood perched on the arms of team personnel, while children ran through the grass behind the practice fields in Ravens headbands and oversized Jackson jerseys. Jackson’s name and visage were everywhere in sight. Fans cheered each one of his completed passes—one man seemed to want to jump from the stands to go onto the field to hug him.
Early in Jackson’s second NFL training camp, his decision-making seemed quicker. His deep ball was more effective, and the zip on his passes was sharper. His base was wider. He was also a more commanding presence, quick to reassure rookie receiver Miles Boykin after the third-round pick dropped a surefire touchdown. “One of the things I love about him is his calming presence,” Boykin said. He counseled rookie quarterback Trace McSorley on making the right reads from the pocket. “He’s got something not a lot of people have,” McSorley said. “He’s got a gift.” And he’s energized his offensive line. “I really don’t have a problem blocking for him. I like what he does out there,” Ronnie Stanley said.
There was still time for a few jokes—the affable Jackson wasn’t all business. The kid who used to crack on recruiters in high school has kept his South Florida charm. He imposed rookie duties on receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, the Ravens’ first-round pick, and Jackson’s old Florida youth football foe.
“You know, he be makin’ me take him home and stuff,” said Brown. Jackson and Brown have bonded over their love of the rapper Kodak Black on their drives together. “We just be talkin’ about life and football.”
Jackson’s teammates all seem to have a story to tell about the time he first blew their minds on a football field.
For guard Matt Skura, it was a preseason game against the Rams last year. “I was blocking a nose tackle, and me and the defender got separated by a couple of yards. The next thing I know, Lamar ran it between me and the guy I was blocking, and then went out to the right and scored a touchdown.” Skura made Jackson sound like Barry Sanders, juking three men before reaching the end zone. “That was when I really saw, in person, live, that this guy was special. I’ve never seen someone do that before.”
What everyone wants to know, though, is how much has Jackson’s game improved. He said he has a greater command of the offense, so there’s more communication at the line of scrimmage, which has allowed the team to increase the pace, “instead of telling my coach to say the play over and over again, having the clock run down,” he said.
Jackson’s teammates feel as though something special is brewing in Baltimore. It’s bright as day around the facility. “You can just see it,” safety Tony Jefferson told me. “You feel the vibes around the locker room. We’re all levitating toward him.”
One teammate, in particular, has taken notice. Ravens backup quarterback Robert Griffin III said he first met Jackson when he visited the Ravens practice facility for pre-draft interviews. Harbaugh brought Jackson over to Griffin for a brief introduction.
“Oh man,” Griffin remembered Harbaugh saying, “Lamar is your biggest fan. He saw you on the field. He was just gushing. He wanted to run out there and give you a hug.”
“Lamar will never admit that,” Griffin said, smiling at the memory. “He never acts that way toward me out on the field because he’s my brother. We’re in this together.”
Griffin, a former Heisman winner at Baylor and the no. 2 pick by the Redskins in 2012, arrived in Baltimore the same year Jackson was drafted. He made sure he sought Jackson out and offered himself as a mentor.
“To be quite frank, he’s a black quarterback. I’m a black quarterback. There’s things that we face that a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge or pay attention to that other quarterbacks won’t,” Griffin told me. “That’s just the bottom line. It’s not something that we complain about, but it is something that is there. I wanted him to know those things from the jump and just how important every little thing is.”
Griffin said he faced the same criticisms as Jackson when he was a young quarterback. But he also notices a renewed sense of enthusiasm among Baltimore’s black fan base.
“I think the city gravitates toward that. It’s like having role models,” Griffin said, adding, “I think that’s what the city sees when you have an African American quarterback that’s starting. They gravitate toward that because they want to be that.”
Griffin also strikes a note of caution based on his own experience. “I never changed. I was the same guy every single day. We just started losing. And when you lose, bad things start to happen.”
It’s an ominous message, and one Jackson is already familiar with after his experience in his first playoff game. But there was only enthusiasm and positivity at Ravens training camp. Jackson’s emergence as the Ravens starter has energized the team’s black fan base. Baltimore was besmirched by President Trump this summer as being a rat-filled hovel; it’s been the site of protests and police killings in the past decade. For fans like Anthony Harden, a 31-year-old West Baltimore resident, Jackson is a hopeful symbol for the city. “Anytime you get a beacon of hope and get a light shining through the crack, even if it’s something like a football game on Sunday, even with all the controversy behind the NFL,” he said.
“If you live in Baltimore, man, and you wake up every morning and somebody got killed the night before … they can look at Lamar, not necessarily to say, ‘Well, I’m going to be an NFL quarterback.’” More importantly, Harden said, “it could definitely serve as an inspiration.”
The Ravens have given Jackson the tools to succeed. It’s a wait-and-see experiment for a young quarterback heading into the biggest season of his life. At this point, let the critics come. Jackson said he has all the love he needs in Baltimore. “This is my new home here. I’m going to be here for a long time,” he said. “I don’t plan on leaving.”