On the football field, Minneapolis North linebacker Jamire Jackson patterns his voracious, hard-hitting style after future NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis.
He grew up a Baltimore fan because the Ravens were favorites of Jackson’s father, Tony. Father and son bonded over athletics, whether watching on television or on the many afternoons and evenings Tony paced the sidelines while Jamire played.
Montia Jackson, also a fixture at Polars football games, sometimes catches her son scanning the sidelines and knows who he’s longing to see. Tony Jackson died unexpectedly in January 2014, the winter of Jamire’s freshman year at North, from pneumonia contracted after surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids.
Tony’s death wounded Jamire at his core. He struggled to get out of bed. His grades slipped. Anger overwhelmed him at times.
“He felt he was being penalized by losing someone close to him,” said Polars coach Charles Adams, one of a few people with whom Jackson initially shared his grief.
Letting in those who could help took time. Jackson worked with a mentorship organization called Minneapolis Young Life. His mother put him in therapy. And Jackson matured, learning to not let grief and anger overwhelm his life.
Jackson is honoring his father’s memory and himself this season as a senior captain. A Star Tribune All-Metro First Team selection, he led Minneapolis North to a second consecutive Prep Bowl appearance. The Polars face Rushford-Peterson for the Class 1A title at 10 a.m. Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I deal with it better now,” said Jackson, whose right arm has a tattoo sleeve paying tribute to his father. “Coach Adams told me he was proud of me for not letting a harsh situation turn me out.”
‘I need your help’
Jackson’s parents divorced when he was 6 years old but father and son remained close. They spent most weekends together, watching Lewis and the Ravens and LeBron James and the Miami Heat. As a 6-5 junior forward, Jackson helped the Polars win the Class 1A basketball state championship last winter.
“He wasn’t the athletic type but we loved watching sports together,” Jackson said. “He’d quiz me on what was happening in the game, what the different penalties were.”
Tony Jackson never sat down during his son’s football games, roaming the sideline to catch every bit of action and then relaying the positives and negatives of his son’s play. Jackson continued to seek his father’s support the past three seasons. On his cellphone he keeps a picture of his parents, smiling together at Tony’s high school reunion.
“Before games I look at that picture and I’ll say, ‘I need your help to get me through,’ ” Jackson said.
“I love that about him,” said Montia, who wears her son’s letterman jacket to games. “I told him, ‘You’re dad is definitely with you every game.’ ”
Tony Jackson died a week before he would have turned 50 and mid-January remains tough for Jamire. But things are better now than the raw, emotional weeks after his father’s death, when Jamire labored to get out of bed and often arrived late to school. He shut out the world and internalized his pain. Former teammate Isaiah Matthews, who Jackson loves like a brother, said his friend hardened.
“He’s not really a people person or a jokester anyway, but it got worse,” Matthews said.
Montia Jackson said her son “spazzed out” at a teacher who meant well by telling Jamire’s class that his father died and he needed space.
Jackson, who joined Minneapolis Young Life before his father’s death, spent more time with mentors.
“Quite a few of our kids deal with the loss of a parent or someone close,” said Hope Smith, Minneapolis Young Life director. “We put them with people who will listen or share or just let the kids vent.”
Smith approached the young man about giving video testimony of his story. A week or so later, he agreed. Smith said the seven-minute video shot this fall was culled from three hours of interviews in which she learned a great deal about the previously guarded Jackson.
“I saw a strength in him as we talked about how he wants to be a different man so that he can help others,” Smith said. “I had never heard him articulate it that way.”
‘A wonderful journey’
Channeling anger into sports, particularly football where Jackson plays linebacker and offensive tackle, served him well. A fearsome tackler, Jackson often drives ball carriers back while bringing them down. But the aggression boiled over in the season opener at rival Minneapolis Washburn.
Jackson saw a Millers’ player hit teammate Azerick Rodgers away from a play and rushed to his defense. He tossed aside the player in Rodgers’ face and a brawl ensued. Jackson got ejected. He looks down and shakes his head at the mention of the incident.
“I lost my temper and I was very disappointed in myself,” he said. “I knew my dad would be disappointed.”
Adams said: “He was saying to me, ‘What are people going to think? Can I still go to college?’ It hurt my heart because that situation is not who he is.”
Jackson, who has served on the principal’s council at North and reads books to middle school students in the community, hopes to play football at North Dakota State University. He needs to improve his ACT score and gets his next chance in December.
Though he lost his biggest supporter, Jackson hasn’t lost his way. Moreover, he found support and the strength to trust others. For that, Montia Jackson is thankful.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” she said. “All I want is for him is to be the best he can be.”