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Jackson's best gift is promise he kept

Much to his mother's delight, Bucs safety Dexter Jackson finishes his degree.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Dexter Jackson and his mother, Lulu, have had plenty of hurdles to clear. The most pressing was Lulu's fight against kidney failure.
TAMPA -- When Lula Jackson gets her new home in the small town of Quincy, just outside Tallahassee, it's not only going to be comfortable, it's going to have an unforgettable garden.

She wants flowers. Lots of flowers. Roses and azaleas. Some chrysanthemums, too.

"I like being out there among the flowers," Lula said. "I can't do much of it now, but I still like to."

That opportunity was something her son, Bucs starting safety Dexter Jackson, promised a long time ago. And lately, he has been keeping his promises.

In late April, while his teammates were busy running drills at One Buc Place during mandatory minicamp, Jackson was making the most important walk of his young life.

Under the tear-filled gaze of Lula -- three years removed from kidney failure that could have claimed her life -- Dexter Jackson sauntered across the stage at Florida State University's graduation, received a diploma for a degree in family and child science, and delivered on a pledge he made to her years ago.

"I finally did it," Jackson said. "I came to college to get this piece of paper and to fulfill the promise to my mom. I can't explain how it felt. It was like a tingling going through my whole body. I looked down at her and she had tears in her eyes. I didn't cry. ... but I was close."

Sitting on the back porch of the Bucs' training facility, Jackson reflected on the trying and triumphant moments of the past 10 years and specifically on the decision he made to leave school without his degree. He said he has no regrets but understands you should finish what you start.

On July 20, 1990, eight days from Jackson's 13th birthday, his father, Wilber "Red" Jackson, died of a heart attack at 38. He was buried on Dexter's birthday. "I guess that's why they say 13 is an unlucky number," Jackson said.

But two years later, as time was healing that wound, Jackson was faced with another barrier. His mother's kidneys began failing.

While blossoming as a quarterback at Shanks High and carving his way to a full ride at FSU, Jackson watched the health of his mother, a former nursing assistant at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, steadily decline.

By the time he entered FSU, things were desperate and Lula needed a dialysis machine three times a day.

"It bothered me a lot at first," Jackson said. "When I first came to FSU, I was trying to go to school and make the transition from quarterback to defensive back. But I'm saying to myself, "How can I get this off my mind? How can I not worry about it?' She kept telling me don't worry about it, things will be all right. But, I'm her son. I couldn't help but worry. I used to drive back and forth to be there when she needed me."

While moving up the depth chart to become a starter his junior season, Jackson saw his mother miss an opportunity to get a kidney because of an infection. Then on Nov. 26, 1998, at the end of his senior season, a kidney became available and Lula had successful surgery.

The day Jackson brought his mother home from the hospital, Kansas State and UCLA each lost, ensuring the Seminoles would play for a national title. Suddenly, good fortune was visiting the Jacksons.

"We had waited for seven years, so I was happy," he said. "It seemed like everything had just fallen into place. Mom's transplant was successful, the teams that we needed to lose lost and we were going to play for a national championship."

But there would be one more family crisis. After FSU's loss to Tennessee, Jackson decided not to return to school, despite needing just 12 credits to graduate. "I wasn't (happy) at all," Lula said. "I kept telling him, "Someday the cheering will stop and you'll need something else. Something they can't take from you.' "

Determined to make the best of the opportunity, Jackson moved to a training facility in Denver to prepare for the draft. The Bucs took him in the fourth round.

"I know how much she was disappointed," he said. "But she understood what I was trying to do."

But the unfinished job at FSU still lingered and Lula routinely reminded him. Jackson said the Bucs' deep run into the playoffs his rookie season kept him from enrolling in spring courses.

But he got a chance in January, and threw himself into school work.

"I knew what I wanted to do, had my mind-set," he said. "All the guys that came in with me were gone and I really didn't have anyone to chill with, so I was there for school."

When former starter Damien Robinson signed with the Jets, the job became Jackson's. So he felt it was important to attend the Bucs' first minicamp But the graduation ceremony fell in the middle of the three-day camp. The team believed the opportunity to walk was a little more important.

"It's a special situation," coach Tony Dungy said. "He went back and finished and did things the way you hope things get done. That time can only happen once in a young man's life and considering everything about his mom, it was obvious that the ceremony was very, very important in his life. It was a no-brainer for us."

That same day, at a U.S. Air Force base in Germany, Dexter's older sister, Toni McRae, graduated with an engineering degree.

Lula, retired and content with her new kidney, said it was hard to contain herself.

"I think, I hope, I was the proudest mother in Tallahassee that day," she said. "Watching him graduate was something I really wanted. I felt so blessed."

Lula said her son promised many years ago he would one day take care of her. At the time, she said, she paid little attention. Now she is beginning to realize he is intent on keeping his word.

Jackson said he is pleased he was able to give his mother that moment of pride, but pointed out his work is only beginning. As a starter with the potential to sign a new, more lucrative contract in the near future, Jackson has plans for Lula.

He wants to build her a house on a generous piece of land in Quincy, where she wants to spend the rest of her life. He wants to fill the garden with flowers, whatever flowers she wants. To help her with the workload he plans to hire a gardener.

The plan, Jackson said, a mere token of his appreciation.

"She brought me into the world, she clothed me and she loved me (through all the times)," he said. "I can't ever repay enough of that. Not ever!"

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