As a 19-year-old boy with a troubled background, DeSean Jackson came on a San Quentin tour and was shaken to his roots. Now he’s a famous 24-year-old pro football player aiming to help kids turn their lives around the way he did.
Five years ago he was a teen in the S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. group who met with San Quentin inmates and saw what wasted lives look like, and he wanted a different future.
At Jackson’s latest San Quentin visit, he was the focus of an interview arranged by Leila Steinberg, founder of AIMS, which works with prison inmates, LA juveniles/ gangs and a long-standing supporter of the San Quentin’s No More Tears and Real Choices programs. Moderator was Lonnie Morris of the San Quentin Television/Media Center, headed by Larry Schneider. The visitors also met with San Quentin’s acting warden, Mike Martel, who is an avid sports fan and supports their work.
Now a running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, Jackson said he reached out to Steinberg because she works with youth and juvenile halls. He said he wants to use his celebrity status to touch lives.
Steinberg met DeSean, then his older brother, former Kansas City Chief Byron Jackson, who helped train his younger brother. “We started making plans and the next thing I knew DeSean calls and says, ‘My boy Donovan Warren from the Pittsburgh Steelers wanted to come along and help,” Steinberg said.
The day before Steinberg took Warren and the Jackson brothers to McClymonds High School in Oakland.
Warren said: “I wanted to come and connect and ‘get on you guys level,’ and see what it’s about and I’m just happy to be here.”
Jackson commented: “I was born and raised in south-central L.A. and I overcame a lot of adversity in my life. Actually I saw two choices I could go over the hurdle or take the easy way and go under it. I did things like stealing and fighting as a kid; I’ve been shot at, and was a gang-banger. But from all of that I was able to see all the negative things and say I don’t want to do that, I want to do something positive. I wanted to be a person who did things for his family.”
DIED OF CANCER
Byron is a former NFL player and currently is a film documentarian. “I grew up in D.C.; my dad lived in L.A. He wanted to support me, because he didn’t have that support growing up. My dad grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, blue-collar family; he worked in steel mills and drove streetcars. He didn’t have the support to pursue sports, which he really loved. Our father died two years ago from pancreatic cancer,” he said.
“I went to Kansas City as a developmental player. After playing with Kansas City I got into TV and started working with DeSean and filming him. I was documenting everything he did, “my dad had big visions; he had a lot of dreams of his kids making it to the highest level. And actually being able to see that and capture it was amazing. We are putting together a documentary about this journey. It’s quite an amazing journey, it’s a journey filled with desire, it’s a journey filled with vision, it’s a journey filled with dreams…and then seeing DeSean as a little kid and training him when he was little. He had me, he had a team of people around him…they also added that needed support to DeSean,” Byron said.
He told his brother, “You’re going to affect way more people off the football field and inspire people, you’re going to have a voice to talk to people. My father actually got to see his dreams happen.”
Steinberg stated “One of the things with DeSean and why we started this journey together, why I wanted him to meet and connect with No More Tears and Real Choices is sometimes we wonder if we really make a difference or if it matters? So when we were in Oakland yesterday we were talking to the kids at McClymonds High School which has a 70 percent dropout rate which sadly, corresponds with the 70 percent recidivism rates in California prisons.
Visiting McClymonds High School, she asked the kids: “Did it make a difference that DeSean actually funded this trip for all of us to come and did it have an effect? The kids were like it truly makes a difference for them to know he was just like them. And that he was as small as he is; they couldn’t believe it and that DeSean is as fast as he is.”
Warren told the San Quentin group about a boy he knew in high school, a great football player being offered college scholarships. He was a gang member who was involved in a drive-by shooting and wound up in prison for 50 years to life for murder. His brother just got drafted by the Tennessee Titans.
“We’re dealing with a generation of babies that were born not wanted, many born addicted. So we’re in an unparalleled crisis,” Steinberg said.
THEY DON’T WORK
Steinberg said, “I believe that programs such as Scared Straight don’t work because kids don’t listen to Scared Straight, but when you have Real Choices or when you have a process where someone decides to make the choice, it’s really, really different than thinking you’re scaring someone into submission.”
Discussing his San Quentin visit as a teen, DeSean said, “I have come across a lot of intelligent people and… just because you’re in blue I don’t put you guys in a box, I’m not looking at you as criminals. You might be in prison, but I know there’s something unique about every one of you men in here. And that’s what I realize I didn’t come here five years ago and leave thinking, ‘Man, they were a bad group of guys.’ I was really impressed with the intelligence and how smart you guys were.”
He also said, “I think you really have to weigh your options. Do you want to be in jail or dead or do you want to be successful and be able to take care of your family? That’s something the kids have to ask themselves and when you talk to these kids, you have to weigh out their options to them. You have to let them know this is what you’re doing; this is where you’re going to end up.”
Regarding his main point to kids, DeSean said: “I just want kids to look at me and be able to see that I made it. The biggest thing that I do when I go to high schools and talk to kids (is) I want them to feel I was them; I was sitting in the same seats that they were sitting in, and I was able to make it…I want them to feel like it’s possible to make it.”
DeSean concluded: ‘I don’t feel I have anything to teach inmates, but I would love it if I could learn something and the one thing I could say is as long as you’re breathing, you still matter…your life is still valuable.”