Lamar Jackson begins walking away from his locker inside the Ravens locker room when I relay a message from a former Boynton Beach (Fla.) High School teammate he knows as KB.
“That’s my boy!” Jackson says with a smile that lights up the room.
I tell him that KB, or Kyron Brown, a cornerback recently activated from the Jets’ practice squad, raved about him a day earlier.
“Yeah, yeah, tell him I said what’s up,” Jackson says.
I tell him I will.
“Yes sir, appreciate that,” Jackson says.
Brown was a ninth-grader and Jackson was an eighth-grader when their friendship began.
“Everything you’re seeing now? I saw it in high school,” Brown says. “Just like a video game.”
Everything we’re seeing now prompted Ravens coach John Harbaugh to sit alongside Jackson during a blowout of the Bengals and tell him: “You changed the game, man. You know how many little kids in this country are gonna be wearing No. 8 playing quarterback for the next 20 years?”
Back in 2012, Robert Griffin III was hearing the same thing about his Redskins No. 10 jersey, before the injuries and misfortune derailed his star.
“I think every decade, every 4-5 years there’s a guy who changes the game,” RG3, now Jackson’s backup, says at his locker. “I think Lamar would say that before him it was myself. Before myself it was Michael Vick. Before Michael Vick it was Randall Cunningham. Before Randall Cunningham it was Warren Moon. So for today’s game in 2019 for what’s going on, yes, Lamar’s changing the game. But it’s Lamar, it’s Kyler Murray, it’s Deshaun Watson, it’s Russell Wilson continue to change the game.
“To say like you can’t do certain things in this league is an old way of thinking. If you have a Ferrari, you drive the Ferrari fast, you don’t drive it 20 miles an hour, right? And Lamar’s a Ferrari. You let him go out and do what he’s supposed to do. And if he needs a tuneup, guess what? You got another Ferrari in the garage, and that Ferrari’s ready to roll, and he’s hungry, so I think it’s been fun to watch, it’s been fun to be on this team.”
Jackson is fortunate RG3 has his back. I ask RG3 if he sees himself when he looks at Jackson.
“No, I see Lamar,” he says. “He’s his own man, he’s his own player. Part of the reason I wanted to mentor him is because I know what it’s like to be an African-American quarterback in this league, to have extreme success in this league, and to go through some trials and tribulations in this league. So I just want to be there for him as a sounding board, for him to be able to lean on me in certain situations and ask questions to help accelerate his growth. His growth has been phenomenal over the past year, and it’s been fun to watch and I’m excited for him.”
Jackson’s growth will be on display against Watson in a dream quarterback rematch Sunday. Their college duel on Oct. 1, 2016, was one for the ages: Watson (20-for-31, 306 yards, five TDs, three INTs passing, 14-for-91 rushing) led Clemson to a 42-36 victory over Louisville, which was led by Jackson (27-for-44, 295 yards, one TD, one INT passing, 31-for-162 rushing with two TDs).
“I would just say his rhythm and timing of knowing what we’re trying to do,” RG3 says. “I told everybody last year, ‘Once he gets more reps he’ll get more comfortable, he’ll be able to see things better and go out and be more effective.’ ”
Jackson and his mother were right all along for resisting skeptics who believed he should switch to wide receiver.
“He’s a crazy athlete that’s playing quarterback,” Brown said.
That crazy athleticism was evident when he lost a trio of Bengals with a spin move en route to a 47-yard TD run last week.
“His ability to make defenders miss, his elusiveness and his jukability is off the charts,” future Hall of Fame guard Marshal Yanda tells Serby Says. “When he gets in space, obviously these are the best football players in the world, and he makes them look very average, and that’s just being respectful ’cause some of those guys are hellacious football players. He’s got some touch on the ball now, too. He can be very accurate at times too throwing the ball.”
Jackson knows how to play the game. Teammates hail him as a fierce competitor who never rattles and can figure out on the fly how to get the job done on any given play.
“Honestly I just feel like there hasn’t been a quarterback that’s as athletic in a way as he is, but he balances it with his precision passing as well,” former Giants defensive back Bennett Jackson says. “I feel like he just does a great job of letting the game come to him. He doesn’t panic or come into the game saying, ‘I’m gonna do this.’ ”
Jackson has an athletic arrogance in that he knows he’s good. But doesn’t have to announce it.
“He leads by his play,” Yanda says. “There’s no better way to lead in the NFL [than] to put it on tape before you say a word.”
“What you see is what you get with Jackson. Even-keeled. Same chill guy every day. He’s a super humble dude,” Jackson says. “He’s never come in here acting like he’s The Man, when he is The Man. He’s a good teammate first before anything else and that’s why he’s got the support of all the guys that he does.”
Jackson’s drive is impossible to miss.
“Oh, I think he wants to be great,” Yanda says.
Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman can vouch for it.
“You wish everybody could watch Lamar and how he prepares every day,” Roman says. “You wish you could like make a little documentary of him preparing for a game, and kids could watch it and they could see how much work goes into it. It’s not just, ‘Hey let’s just show up and play football.’ ”
And yet those who know him best use the word “goofy” to describe him. “A jokester, man,” Brown says. “Real down-to-earth guy.”
Even high above the earth.
“On our away games, he’ll walk around the plane and just crack jokes, man,” offensive tackle Orlando Brown says. He chuckles at the recollection of the flight back from Cincinnati. “He was just making some jokes about what he was thinking during the run and kind of what he saw,” Brown says. Asked to elaborate, Brown smiles and says, “I don’t want to go into too much depth, just know it was really funny.”
Jackson is cool, calm and collected and mostly all business in the huddle.
“He’s a leader,” Orlando Brown says. “He’s very positive. Never is he really negative. And his energy is one thing that sticks out to me the most, is just how consistently level-headed he is, man, and we can all sense that and feel that.”
Former Colts GM Bill Polian recently had to eat crow for suggesting Jackson would be better served catching footballs rather than throwing or running with them.
“I think it’s big of him to come out and say he was wrong,” Griffin says. “As they’re starting to say, ‘Your apology should be as loud as your disrespect was.’ For the most part, people aren’t gonna do that. You can’t worry about that, but yeah, he’s proved a lot of people wrong. The key is he’s gotta continue to do it, and we’re gonna make sure that he knows that.”
KB never doubted that Jackson would succeed.
“I seen him hurdle a guy in high school,” Kyron Brown says. “There was a DB in the open field with him. I guess the DB tried diving for his legs, he jumped right over him. Amazing.”
His friend changed the game, man.