Donte Jackson learned the hard way, now he teaches

Donte Jackson

CHARLOTTE — When Donte Jackson was new to the Panthers, he had a handful of old guys to show him the way — or at least to try.

Now that he's an older version of himself, he can look back and understand their lessons better — now that he's expected to share them.

But there's also a younger version of himself that's giving him a new perspective on how he's supposed to play — and who he's supposed to be.

The distance from the headstrong rookie who didn't always want to hear the advice of veterans like Mike Adams and Captain Munnerlyn to the guy voted captain by his peers last week is vast. But it's no greater than the miles from a guy who walked in the door knowing everything (even if he didn't), to the guy who walks into his house today and knows it's time to get on the scooters and ride with his 3-year-old daughter.

In four short years, Donte Jackson has gone from being looked after by the OGs, to looking after his own crop, now that he's a team captain. More importantly, he knows his daughter Demi is watching now, so he can't be who he was as a rookie, and teaching her is an assignment he can't screw up.

Asked this week how much of his maturity was based on time spent in the league, and how much comes from being a dad, Jackson's answer was clear.

"All of it is fatherhood. All of it," he replied. "I think my daughter, I look at her, and I think, 'I can't let you down.' I can't let none of my nonsense or none of my things that I don't quite agree with affect you. I can't be that loudmouth guy all the time. I have to sit back and just listen. And now that she's 3 years old, and she can talk to me, she can ask questions. Most of it is not wanting to let my daughter down at all.

"I don't want her to see me throwing my helmet down, or see me smacking a bench on the sideline, because now she can comprehend. Now that she has a little more understanding, I don't want her to be like, 'What's dad doing, why's he throwing his hat?' I take things a little more slowly and think about things more before I act. I'm more mindful of what I show and what I portray. I get angry. Everybody does. Football is an emotional game. Now I channel that energy other ways."

Donte Jackson

Getting him to this point took time, and the work of many.

The image of Jackson that was burned into many minds was the one presented by the Amazon documentary series "All or Nothing," which went behind the scenes of the 2018 Panthers. And those cameras caught Jackson at his rookie best and his rookie worst. Episode 5 of that series, which led up to and included the pivotal Pittsburgh game, showed a Jackson whose talent was immense, and my god, did he know it.

One scene showed Adams, who's now an assistant coach with the Bears after a 16-year career, offering instructions on the practice field. He gently chided Jackson about the too-much space he was leaving, saying, "You're covering grass a lot."

"I cover bodies," Jackson fired back. "I make it look like they've got our uniform on."

The next scene showed then-assistant secondary coach Jeff Imamura in the meeting room, pointing out errors to Jackson and saying, "the concern is about focus, that's all."

"Ain't nobody got to be concerned about me at all," Jackson replied dismissively.

The show also pulled back the curtain on the kind of counseling that happens when coaches aren't in the room, as Adams, Munnerlyn and Eric Reid told Jackson that even though he was making highlights by picking off passes, he was also making too many avoidable mistakes by being careless.

"The picks hide some of that, but you can't hide it from us, we're on the field," Adams told him.

"All due respect, I feel where you coming from," Jackson replied. "I'm my own worst critic. I know y'all see s--- I don't understand because y'all are OGs, but I take this s--- serious. . . I hear where y'all coming from, but ain't nothing more important to me."

Donte Jackson with Mike Adams and Captain Munnerlyn

When the OGs think back to that version of Jackson, and contrast it with a player now being put into a leadership position by his teammates, they can only smile.

"For him to be voted a captain, that's a big deal," Adams said this week.

Asked if he thought Jackson would reach this point, Adams laughed for a moment, but acknowledged that the potential was there.

"He was just young," Adams said. "He didn't know what he didn't know. He didn't know how to listen to us, to learn from what we were telling him, or when something happens, what to take from it. He'd get in situations where he'd get caught, and he didn't know what to say. Now he does. He's learned what to do and when to do it.

"All the credit goes to him, for realizing what he needed to do. He listened to the OGs, and he learned."

Likewise, Munnerlyn hoped Jackson would one day reach this point, this place he's at now. But a captain?

"No, I didn't see that," Munnerlyn said. "It's a very young secondary, though, so he has to be a leader. Jaycee Horn and those guys, they'll listen to him because he's the older guy now. He's the one who knows, the one who's seen it. They can look up to him.

"But Donte's worked his tail off to get to this point, and he deserves it. He doesn't have a Luke Kuechly or a Thomas Davis to look up to, or a Pep (Julius Peppers) or (Greg) Olsen. He has to be that guy now, him and Shaq Thompson. There's a new regime. These young guys see Shaq and Christian McCaffrey, and Donte, ... those are the guys now."

Donte Jackson huddle

As Munnerlyn noted, getting Jackson to this point was not something one person could make happen. And there were plenty of potholes along the way. Munnerlyn recalled the day after Ron Rivera was fired and the 2019 season was circling the drain, when Jackson blasted interim coach Perry Fewell after a loss to the Falcons, blaming "horrible calls" by the coaching staff.

"I told him, you can't do that," Munnerlyn recalled. "We're corners, we get put on an island sometimes. That happens. What you can't do is take it to the media. I was upset, and I told him immediately, you can't do that. Things like that take off.

"Now, he's got the big shoulders; now he doesn't mind when something is said, now he knows that he can't say things like that. When you're a corner, you make more plays than you give up. You never do it like that."

That memory stood in sharp contrast to the Jackson he heard last week, a guy who admitted that he listens more now that he's older. A guy with wisdom, even.

"When I saw that, I was like, 'Wow.' In a way, I kind of felt like a proud dad," Munnerlyn said. "You could definitely see growth in him, stuff he was doing, developing, becoming a leader.

"Now, it's night and day. He started off young, and talented, and confident. Then he produced. Now he shows he can lead. I could see him being a leader one day, but a captain? That's night and day. I could see him being a leader, but that's another level."

And it was absolutely a process.

Jackson has maintained that the "All or Nothing" portrayal might not have been fair, that editing an entire season's worth of footage into a handful of dramatic moments made it look worse than it actually was. But he also doesn't shrink from it.

Jackson freely admitted that without being that guy, he might have never gotten to be this guy.

"All the things that happened to me my rookie year, or things I said or whatever-whatever, it put me in position for where I am now," he said. "It leaves room for growth. Who wants to be a young guy who has everything figured out? I don't think any young guy wants to be. That's from the greats to the not-so-greats. I don't think anyone wants to come in and just have everything figured out. You want to leave room for growth, and you want to leave room to mature.

"That was one thing that happened for me. I was blessed to get this coaching staff going into my third year, and that's what they were all about. They were all about flushing the past and rebuilding and starting from now. That's one thing coach (Matt Rhule) preached as soon as he got here. 'We're going from now, we're not going to judge anybody based on what they did in the past. We only know you from coaching you.' It's just maturity man, and growing in the game."

Jackson said that between struggling on the field his second year, and losing a trusted coach in Rivera, and all his OGs leaving along the way, he was ready for the change that Rhule and a new staff offered.

"Year two told me, when I got done with that year, I flushed everything," Jackson said. "I lost Coach Rivera, one of my favorite guys, and I came into year three with a whole new attitude. That is the reason why we get the Donte Jackson we get now."

Of course, there's a little more to it than that. Jackson still had to deal with a painful toe problem in his third season, but he became a different player. And as his new bosses saw, a different person.

"It's great to coach him," Panthers defensive pass game coordinator Jason Simmons said of the Jackson he inherited last year. "I think the biggest thing, the hardest thing, is to not judge someone based on what you heard prior. Give them an opportunity to show you who they are. He was open to let us coach him, and we were open to giving him a brand new start.

"And he's been great. As coaches, we can't take credit for just the maturity. It's his family life, his kid, his girl; that's what he's about. That will mature any man."

And it has matured Jackson.

Donte Jackson

These days, he's spending more time studying football than ever. He's still one of the fastest players on the roster, but he's supplemented his physical gifts with actually learning the lessons Adams and Munnerlyn and so many others taught him.

And he's learning to balance it with Peppa Pig.

Playing professional football is a time-consuming job. There's always more film to watch. So when Dad comes home on a Wednesday or a Thursday, Demi knows that after a quick scooter ride out front, Dad has to watch his screen full of football plays for an hour or so, while she will dial-up Bluey or the Puppy Dog Pals.

"She knows on Wednesdays I'm going to be watching film," Jackson said, having learned to compartmentalize football time to make sure there's still dad time. The Saints' third-down package is important, but so is getting outside to play, and watching cartoons with his baby girl.

"That's one of my favorites, just chilling, watching TV, watching what she wants to watch on her little iPad," Jackson said, his face breaking into a broad grin. "Just making sure that she knows no matter what, dad's going to be there.

"Most definitely it's a challenge. But I love it. I don't take it for granted. I think she's a huge reason I am who I am now."

Donte Jackson

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