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Adoree’ Jackson is becoming an NFL star, but he loves coming home to Belleville

Belleville native Adoree Jackson now a star for Tennessee Titans

Adoree Jackson, a cornerback for the NFL's Tennessee Titans, talks about the 618.
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Adoree Jackson, a cornerback for the NFL's Tennessee Titans, talks about the 618.

The bright lights of the National Football League and the accompanying fame of being a professional athlete haven’t spoiled Adoree’ Jackson.

Jackson, 22, a cornerback and kick returner who recently completed his rookie season with the Tennessee Titans, was in metro-east heaven during a weekend return to his roots.

The former student at Westhaven Elementary, Central Junior High and Belleville East spent Friday afternoon touring the Illinois State Police District 11 headquarters in Collinsville as a guest of family friend and ISP trooper Calvin Dye Jr.

Friday night, Jackson was like one of the kids at Belleville East, where the Lancers played the East St. Louis Flyers in a Southwestern Conference boys basketball game.

Saturday afternoon, Jackson hooked up with Jeff Creek, his freshman basketball coach at East in 2010-11, for lunch at 54th Street Grill & Bar in Shiloh.

Later Saturday, Jackson treated nieces and nephews to some high-flying fun at Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park in Fairview Heights.

After attending church services Saturday night with parents Chris and Vianca, Jackson was ready for some downtime at his boyhood home on South High Street in Belleville.

Jackson’s eventful 48-hour visit ended with a Sunday morning return flight to Nashville. Call it the Spreading Good Cheer Tour.

“He loves it around here,” said Creek, a 2001 graduate of Belleville East. “Every time he’s home, he’s always happy and always has a smile on his face. It’s hard to explain how good a kid he is. He always is willing to help other people out. He’s so humble and will do what everybody wants him to do. He’s just a class act.”

Giving back is what Jackson most enjoys. Want a picture with him? Just ask. Need an autograph? No problem. Interested in a story or two? He will share.

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Tennessee Titans star cornerback and kick returner Adoree Jackson, a Belleville native, takes a seat in a squad car Friday at Illinois State Police Headquarters in Collinsville. David Wilhelm dwilhelm@bnd.com

“I just try to embrace it,” the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Jackson said of the ever-increasing demands on his time. “When I was a kid, I wanted to get a jersey signed by a Michael Jordan, or like a Marshall Faulk, Reggie Bush. But never being able to meet them, it makes me understand what kids go through. So when a kid asks for this or that, I don’t mind taking a timeout because I was that kid that didn’t get that opportunity.

“Maybe that will go a long way for them. That’s how I view it.”

Growing up

Jackson forever will be bonded to his formative years in Belleville. He basked in a fun-filled childhood, using his personality and outgoing nature to stockpile hordes of friends.

The Jacksons weren’t rich, but they were proof that money isn’t everything.

Young Adoree’ immediately gravitated to sports — watching on television, then taking to the streets in an attempt to emulate the athletes.

Chris Jackson, a 1983 graduate of East St. Louis High, said basketball was his son’s first love. Michael Jordan, the fourth-leading scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association with 32,292 points, was one of Adoree’s heroes — in real life and in the movies. “Space Jam” was on continuous play mode, with Jackson and his parents memorizing ever scene.

“He’s a basketball player. That was his goal,” said Chris Jackson, 53. “He always wanted to be Michael Jordan because he’s had ‘Space Jam’ ever since he was a kid. He watched that movie 24 hours a day. That’s the only movie he would watch. I’m like, ‘This kid’s crazy.’”

So was one of Adoree’s earliest athletic accomplishments, which occurred in the Jacksons’ South High Street home, near the St. Clair County Fairgrounds.

“We’ve got a king-size bed, and we had a Playskool (basketball) goal,” Chris Jackson said. “Adoree’ (with a running start) jumped over the bed and dunked the ball. He looks at his mama and his daddy and said, ‘You all may never have to work anymore.’”

Adoree’ isn’t sure, but he thinks he was just 2 or 3 years old.

Vianca Jackson, 57, chuckled at the memory.

“We had to buy three different goals because he kept breaking them,” she said, adding that Adoree’ also had a favorite superhero: Spider-Man. When he wasn’t flying over the king-sized bed, Adoree’ was mimicking Spider-Man.

“He started walking on the floor like Spider-Man, with his hands out, saying, ‘I got you, Mom,’” Vianca Jackson said. “Then he started walking on the inside of the door frame, all the way up. He jumped down on his little legs, with his hands out, and said, ‘I got you.’

“If Adoree’ would see something, he would magnify it, dissect it and do the same thing he had seen. He didn’t need to look at it for long. He was always doing something.”

His No. 1 passion

Jackson quickly became proficient at basketball, his No. 1 passion. When Jackson was a freshman at Belleville East, he stood just 5-7 or 5-8. Creek used him at point guard.

“I pushed him really hard,” said Creek, 35, now in his first season as the Lancers’ varsity coach. “He was a kid that could take it, and when you pushed him, he just got better.

“I knew right away that he was going to be one of the best, if not the best, athletes to ever come out of Belleville East. He was that electric and that athletic as a freshman at first day of tryouts. He stood out over everybody.”

With Jackson running the controls, East finished 22-1 and avenged its only loss of the season, against East St. Louis, to win the end-of-season championship in 2011. Among Jackson’s teammates were Cortez Holman, Cameron Hunter, Daymione Cross, Parker Hendricks and Domonic Blaylock. Another freshman, Darreon Reddick, played junior varsity.

“I remember that freshman basketball team,” Jackson said. “I still believe we were the best team to ever come out as freshmen. We lost one game, but we won the championship. It was crazy. ... We knew how good we were, so by the time we all got to play with each other, it was a bond that couldn’t be broken. We were just out there being dominant.

“I still talk to them to this day about how things were back then, how well we played, if anybody else is doing as good as we did.”

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Southern California's Adoree' Jackson signs autographs for fans before the first round of the 2017 NFL football draft, Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Philadelphia. Julio Cortez AP

How much did that team mean to Jackson? Creek said it was one of the focal points of the discussion when the two caught up for lunch Saturday.

“We probably talked 30 minutes about his freshman basketball team,” Creek said. “That team was unbelievable. His first love, just like most kids, was basketball.”

Jackson said Creek was “hands-down” his favorite coach.

“It’s just how he acted,” Jackson said. “Coach Creek was one of those guys who didn’t care how good you were; he was going to push you to do your best.

“One time we were playing, and it was a crunch-time game. He put faith in us to go out there and play ball. Even when we were down, he didn’t yell at us; he didn’t waver. He was just that type of guy. That meant a lot to everybody out there. ... He was able to relate to us and understand us. He’s probably the only coach I talk to (regularly).”

Since the team was “loaded from top to bottom,” Creek occasionally turned it loose.

“There were times I didn’t coach Adoree’ because he was that good,” Creek said. “I would let him get out and go on the fast break. And he loved playing defense. He was 5-7, 5-8, and he didn’t care how tall the other guy was. He was going to sit down and guard him.

“It’s rare when your best athlete also is your best behaved and hardest worker. You didn’t have to worry about his grades, you didn’t have to worry about him working hard — and he was your best player on the court. It’s such a rare package to have.”

Jackson also had supreme ability in football and track and field. Soon, Creek said, it became obvious those were the sports in which Jackson would shine the brightest.

“Football was one of the things I gravitated to late,” Jackson said. “I played basketball ever since I was 2. I played soccer a little bit, and then I got into track. I think soccer transitioned me to have the footwork that I have. The conditioning and the speed, to be able to go up and down the soccer field and be able to play (helped).

“I learned football in fifth or sixth grade, so I started out pretty late. I saw a highlight of Reggie Bush, and ever since then, I kept going with it.”

There never was a shortage of humor in the Jackson home, which helped Adoree’ develop his personality. But it didn’t come at the expense of discipline.

“I was taught respect at an early age,” said Jackson, who almost never loses eye contact when talking to another person. “You always want to make sure you leave the right first impression. That’s just me being myself. I’m always trying to be positive, put a smile on somebody’s face and be vibrant because you never know what somebody else is going through. If you can do that, you can help them go a long way.”

Vianca Jackson said giving respect to other people wasn’t optional for Adoree’. It was demanded.

“That’s how I was raised,” Vianca Jackson said. “My grandparents and my mom always said when you’re talking to people, give them eye contact. Let them know you have their attention.”

“I wanted to stay”

There was agony in Jackson’s heart when it was determined he would move to California following his freshman year at Belleville East.

The genesis of the life-changing event began with Jackson participating in the Rising Stars Camp at the University of Southern California, designed for players with indisputable Division-I potential in football.

While at the camp, Jackson was so impressive that USC offered him a scholarship. He initially was overjoyed. After all, it’s where one of his idols, Bush, played in college.

But upon his return to Belleville, Jackson didn’t tell his parents. Finally, a recruiter from USC called the Jacksons to determine whether Adoree’ would accept the opportunity. Chris Jackson was stunned, and after the conversation ended, he went directly to Adoree’ to question why he had not shared the information.

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Tennessee Titans cornerback Adoree' Jackson (25) takes a kick-off against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff game in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. Reed Hoffmann AP

“He said, ‘Daddy, I didn’t think you were going to let me go, so there was no need mentioning it,’” Chris Jackson recalled.

After much consternation, Chris and Vianca Jackson decided it would be best if Adoree’ moved to California. Jackson packed his belongings, moved in with his older sister, Lekisch Williams, and enrolled at Junípero Serra High School, a Catholic college preparatory school located in Gardena, about 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles and USC.

There, Jackson would gain exposure, attain a top education and capitalize on favorable weather to train for football and track and field.

“It was real hard,” Chris Jackson said of his son’s departure.

Adoree’ remembers not being hip on the idea of leaving Belleville.

“I wanted to stay,” he said. “I didn’t really think I was going to go to California. ... I thought I was going to stay here anyway (and that) it would be pointless for me to just go out to California and play. When I came back from California, I went to the McKendree camp, so I already had the mindset that I was going to be here and play varsity.

“Then he decided to let me go to California, and everything was history from there.”

What helped sway Jackson was seeing a highlight tape of Marquise Lee, a former player at Serra who now is a receiver with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“He was dominant,” Jackson said. “I saw myself in him, so I was like, ‘Alright.’”

Jackson was Mr. Everything while at Serra, playing receiver, running back and defensive back in addition to returning kickoffs and punts. He helped Serra win a state championship.

Jackson also participated in basketball and track and field, although he gave up basketball his senior year, following his verbal commitment to USC. He signed his national letter of intent with the Trojans in February 2014, spurning Oklahoma, Florida State, LSU, Tennessee, Arizona State, Florida, Miami, Nebraska, Texas A&M and many others.

At Belleville East, Jackson had placed second in the long jump at the Class 3A state meet in Charleston with a leap of 22 feet, 11 3/4 inches, an amazing feat for a freshman. At Serra, Jackson earned two state titles in the long jump, recording a personal-best of 25-5.

All of his accomplishments were a precursor to a stellar two-sport career at USC.

In football, Jackson was the Pac-12 Conference Freshman of the Year and was named a Freshman All-American in 2014. He put the stamp on his season by scoring two touchdowns in the Trojans’ 45-42 victory over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl — a 98-yard kickoff return and a 71-yard catch.

As a junior in 2016, Jackson won the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in the country and the Jet Award as the top return specialist in the nation. He also was recognized as the Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12 and was a consensus All-American.

There also is a laundry list of track and field highlights from USC. Jackson won Pac-12 championships in the long jump in 2015 and 2016. He was fifth both years in the NCAA Championships. Jackson also competed in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

He turned in a career-best 25-11 1/2 in the long jump in 2015, which earned him an opportunity to make the U.S. Olympic team. He competed in the Olympic Trials in June 2016 but jumped 25-1 3/4 and did not make the team.

Jackson could have remained in Belleville. His talent was so unique that there was no possibility he wouldn’t have latched on with a Division I program.

“I would have probably gone to a Big Ten school or to the SEC,” Jackson said. “Sometimes I felt like if I had stayed here, me and my friends could have all gone somewhere (together). At the same time, I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed here. ... But we all still stay in touch, and they’re all still doing well. You never know what could have happened.”

Creek, the East basketball coach, said Jackson “was born to be a star.”

“He would have gotten his scholarship offers here. He was that good,” Creek said. “He just got noticed earlier out there. That (Serra) program is a big-time program. There are a lot of kids who have gone to USC out of that football program. They already had that pipeline going.”

“It’s breathtaking”

The Titans selected Jackson in the first round (18th overall) of the 2017 draft after Jackson decided to skip his senior season at USC.

Jackson rewarded the Titans with a dynamic rookie year. He started all 16 regular-season games at cornerback and led all rookies in snaps with 1,258, which ranked second overall behind Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu (1,263).

Jackson registered 70 tackles, forced three fumbles and had a fumble recovery. He returned 34 punts for 290 yards (8.52 average) and 25 kickoffs for 578 yards (23.1 average). He rushed five times for 55 yards.

“It was one for the books, I would say, just going out there and playing all those snaps,” Jackson said. “Just to be out there and learn and experience ups and down, highs and lows from everything, I think that’s what I took away from it. Because without those lows, you can’t appreciate the highs that we had throughout the season. I was just fortunate enough to be in that situation and thankful to have the coaching staff and the players I had around me.”

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Adoree' Jackson, left, poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Tennessee Titans during the first round of the 2017 NFL football draft, Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Philadelphia. Jeff Haynes AP

The Titans were 9-7 in the regular season, then rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit to defeat Kansas City 22-21 in the first round of the playoffs. It was their first postseason win in 14 years.

Tennessee was eliminated in the second round, losing 35-14 to the New England Patriots.

Jackson said he felt strong from the preseason through the playoffs.

“They do a great job monitoring our reps, having us out there and knowing what we need, what we don’t need,” he said of the coaching and training staff with the Titans. “We’ve got a nutritionist, a weight room, guys who are veterans in those fields. They know what they need and can take us to the next level. They do a great job.”

After the season, the Titans fired head coach Mike Mularkey and replaced him with Mike Vrabel, a former NFL linebacker who was the defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans this season. Tennessee also announced that 80-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau would not return.

“Coach LeBeau, when I first met him, he said he thought I was going to be a great corner in this league, and if they were able to draft me, they were going to use me to my best abilities,” Jackson said. “Just having him and (secondary) coach Deshea Townsend there to help me and groom me helped make me a better player than the older guys in the room.”

Townsend could return, since he and Vrabel were teammates with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1998-2000.

Mathieu, Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch were just some of the players Jackson said he was fortunate to meet. He also enjoyed matching up with Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green and Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, whom he rates as the best receiver he’s ever defended.

“Even if the route was over, (Brown) would get open,” Jackson said. “He has so much talent. He can do whatever he wants. He doesn’t talk at all.”

Jackson said he is the fastest player on the Titans, just ahead of receiver Taywan Taylor and fellow cornerback Brice McCain. Jackson is not impressed with his official time of 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which was recorded at the NFL Scouting Combine last March in Indianapolis.

“I’m a long strider,” Jackson said. “The 40-yard dash isn’t my thing. In the 100, I go 10.3.”

Vianca Jackson doesn’t know how her son became such a freak athlete. She was on the track and field team at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, but said she wasn’t a star. Chris Jackson didn’t participate in sports at East St. Louis.

“I never had any dream that I would have an athlete in the family that would go off and be an NFL superstar,” Vianca Jackson said. “It’s breathtaking.”

Mama’s “Sweet Pea”

Whether watching a movie, running errands or going out to eat, Jackson cherishes his time with his mom.

Vianca Jackson has been a rock of stability in Adoree’s life, the other half of a parenting team that has helped shape him.

She calls Adoree’ her “Sweet Pea.”

As a child, Adoree’ went grocery-shopping with Vianca. When they returned, he couldn’t wait to get the supplies in the house and move on to the next thing.

“She used to call me ‘He-Man,’” Adoree’ said. “I tried to grab all the bags and carry them in like I was tough. You don’t want to make too many trips. One and done.”

Vianca Jackson said Adoree’ was no older than 2.

“He has always been so strong,” she said.

But when Vianca Jackson was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2015, she never considered telling Adoree’, who was concluding his sophomore year at USC. Vianca had four chemotherapy treatments, followed by lumpectomy surgery Dec. 2, 2015, at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Not until after surgery did Vianca tell Adoree’ about her battle.

“I didn’t want him to worry,” she said. “He’s always been an ‘A’ student. I didn’t want his grades to drop or (his performance) on the field to suffer. I couldn’t see myself telling him. I’m glad I didn’t. I was going to walk through the fire, and I wasn’t going to be burned. I was going to be OK. ... He knows why I didn’t tell him. I couldn’t. He was doing too well.”

Vianca also didn’t tell her husband, her daughter or her other son, Chris (called Little Chris), now 27, about the cancer until after her first chemotherapy treatment had ended.

“I told them, ‘No matter what happens, do not tell Adoree’ because I’m going to be fine,’” she said.

Today, Vianca Jackson is cancer-free.

“Everything is good now,” Adoree’ Jackson said. “That’s one of the other blessings that makes me more appreciative of everything I have in life. You never want to lose your mom, but you’re more appreciative of everything around you. You get to see life in a different view.

“Having her go through what she went through ... I think everybody in my family understands and appreciates things a lot different.”

Last Oct. 16, Vianca was welcomed to Nissan Stadium in Nashville as the Titans’ honorary “12th man” for their game against the Indianapolis Colts, which the Titans won 36-22. The NFL honors breast cancer survivors each October.

“It was cool to see her out there. She enjoyed it. She had a blast,” Adoree’ said.

Chris and Vianca Jackson attended every Titans home game.

“They come support me and see me,” he said. “They’re not far away — an hour plane ride or a five-hour drive. It’s the little things people don’t understand (are so meaningful). Having them come by, even if they don’t stay, knowing that they’re there is pretty cool.

“Everything they’ve taught me has helped me. They just raised me (right). They’ve made everything in my life a lot easier. ... I’m thankful who my parents are.”

Adoree’ said Chris Jackson has been his “guide” through life.

“It’s always best to have somebody wise to help you and guide you all the way,” Adoree’ Jackson said. “You’re never too smart, you’re never too old to need understanding and help. It’s a great thing to have my dad in my life. He’s always going to give me advice, but I always tell him it’s my decision. Whatever I do, he’s going to back me up 100 percent.”

Coach Creek and Dye Jr., 38, the ISP trooper and a Belleville East graduate, laud Chris and Vianca Jackson for their parenting skills that have enabled Adoree’ to keep his feet planted firmly on the ground.

“He’s the same exact guy now that he was in high school his freshman year,” Creek said. “When I talk to him, it’s like me having a conversation with him when he was at Belleville East. Of course, he’s much more mature now, but he’s always been so humble. He’s always let everybody else tell him how great he is.

“He’s not a braggadocios person at all. He knows he’s good, and he knows what he’s capable of. He knows he doesn’t need to say anything about it.”

Dye said: “I never have seen any arrogance. I think that credit goes to his mom and dad. Neither one of them raised him to be that way — or to forget where he came from.”

“A place where talent is”

Jackson, who still wears eye black with the numbers 6-1-8 written in white, said there never will come a day when his roots won’t be important.

Wherever his path takes him, he will continue to visit family and friends. He vows never to surrender to the trappings of greatness.

“You never discredit where you come from because it’s going to help you and it’s going to mold you,” Jackson said. “Going to school in Belleville made it a lot easier to go out there and pave a different way. It helped me a lot.”

When he arrived in California, Jackson said his first mission was “to make sure you stay grounded and remember where you came from.”

“That was one of my biggest (motivating) factors. I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” he said. “I didn’t really care about if I was playing good. I didn’t want to disappoint anybody back home. I left at 15 to go play sports and better my life. Everybody knew that. So for me, it’s about staying on the right path, so everybody else didn’t feel I was a bust or a disappointment. That’s what I always use to drive myself: the fear of letting someone else down.”

Dye, who also helped Creek coach Jackson at Belleville East, said the 618 is in Jackson’s blood. He remembered a story from 2015 that sheds light on Jackson’s ambition to not disappoint or embarrass his hometown.

“His father let me know he was going to be home Christmas Day, and he invited me to drop by and talk to him,” Dye said. “His name was in the Heisman Trophy (talk), and he was on national television. He’s popular in LA, the second-biggest city in the country, and all the writing is on the wall for him to go pro.

“He’s in Belleville, Illinois, on Christmas night, when most 20-year-olds are at a function, a party or a get-together, and this young man ... is in the room with his mother watching a movie. He came out smiling. That is where he wanted to be.”

Jackson said any negativity toward the 618 shouldn’t be individualized.

“Sometimes you get a bad rep from areas you grow up in,” he said. “But you’ve got to understand that not everybody is the same, so you shouldn’t be (judgmental) toward somebody. There are guys like Jeff Thomas (a receiver from East St. Louis High) that came out of here and went to Miami. He’s doing phenomenal down there. There are other guys in the future that are going to be able to do well.

“So this is just me trying to go out there and promote and understand that 618 is a place where talent is.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm

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