Marlin Jackson never had to fight for attention as a kid mostly because he never had the chance. His mother was declared missing in action for most of his life, and he never knew his father.
Instead, Marlin’s competitive fire stems from him wanting to prove those people wrong who said he still couldn’t make something special of his life.
And everyone can see his motto -“Against All Odds” – inscribed as a tattoo on his right bicep, with its meaning reaching far into his heart.
Marlin remembers the tragic way his half-brother Marko’s football career ended. Marlin idolized Marko. Marko was the one that ignited Marlin’s love for football and gave him a role model he deeply needed.
But Marko’s bright football career was cut short his junior year when he was a victim of a random stabbing. Marko stood near a corner store on campus when he suffered near-fatal wounds to his chest and neck. He survived, and now works at a juvenile detention center in New Jersey, but his football career was never the same. Police are still searching for the perpetrators.
Marlin searched for a true “home” his entire childhood. He bounced around from three houses before moving in with his high school coach his senior year. He started with his mother, then moved in with his aunt and then a family friend.
“It was definitely a different lifestyle from others his age,” said James Wildman, Jackson’s coach at Sharon (Pa.) High. “He spent most of his time in the basement eating TV dinners.”
Marlin showed up in Wildman’s living room soon after he found out about Marko’s stabbing. That’s when the Wildman’s made a family decision to allow Jackson to live with them.
“It was something we had to think about,” Wildman said. “I just turned 55 in July and retired after teaching and coaching for 33 years. When you get to this age, life is supposed to be easier. We knew it would be like starting over.”
Jackson got a chance to start over too. But Wildman and his wife, Karen, were surprised when they found out his 18th birthday party was the first time he ever blew out candles on a cake.
At the end of the year, they asked Jackson what he wanted for Christmas. A CD player? New clothes?
“He said he wanted some deodorant and some socks,” James said. “Kind of things most teenagers grow up with.”
Karen remembers asking Jackson, “Why aren’t you bad? Why don’t you get in trouble?”
He said: “I have goals and I want to achieve them. I want something more for my life.”
Opposing coaches certainly don’t want any more of Jackson. Instead, they avoid his side of the field like the plague. Last year as a true freshman, Jackson emerged as Michigan’s best cover corner, often getting assignments of covering the top wideouts.
Even they were impressed by Jackson’s toughness, technique and trash talk.
Michigan State junior receiver Charles Rogers, whom many label as a Heisman Trophy candidate this year, calls Jackson the toughest one-on-one defender he’s faced.
“He just uses his size well and you can’t shake him,” said Rogers of the 6-foot-1, 189-pound Jackson. “It’s always going to be a battle when we play.”
Washington’s star wideout Reggie Williams, who was shut down by Jackson for most of Michigan’s dramatic victory last Saturday, feels the same way.
“He’s just a great cover corner,” Williams said. “We had some battles.”
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr compares him to former Wolverine Charles Woodson, now a perennial Pro Bowler in the NFL. Carr said both have that certain competitive fire that leads to greatness.
“I thought he’d wear down last year, but he never did,” Carr said.
Jackson nabbed three interceptions last season, which led the Wolverines. Michigan safeties Charles Drake and Cato June said having Jackson at corner makes their job easier..
He’s the “best kept secret in the Big Ten,” said Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards.
But Jackson is no secret to quarterback John Navarre, who notices the corner’s improvement from last season.
“He had raw talent last year,” Navarre said. “The difference this year, you can totally tell, as a quarterback, is he’s starting to get that veteran mode. He knows what he’s doing. He’s starting to disguise things. He’ll try to play games with you, to get you to throw the ball into coverage.”
Jackson hears the hype, then ignores it like the snooze button.
He wants more than flattering comparisons or hype. He has goals to be All-Big Ten and All-America, and wants to lead Michigan to a national title.
And he has all the talent to do it.
Jackson said he had always wanted to go to Penn State when he was younger. The school was close to the Wildmans, complete with plenty of tradition and a legendary coach in Joe Paterno. Plus, one of Jackson’s best friends, Terrance Phillips, was planning on playing wide receiver for the Nittany Lions.
Sounds like a done deal, right? Wrong.
Teryl Austin, Michigan’s secondary coach, was Wildman’s quarterback at Sharon High nearly 20 years ago. Austin recruited Jackson heavily, and Wildman advised Jackson that being the first Sharon native to go to Michigan and making a name for himself was worth more than rooming with his best friend. And despite Paterno’s last-ditch efforts, Jackson was Michigan bound.
“Paterno used to visit Marlin’s school during his senior year, trying to convince him to change his mind,” Wildman said. “But Marlin was comfortable with his decision.”
Joked Jackson: “Nobody goes to Penn State anymore.”
Jackson wasn’t too comfortable after playing a game of pick-up basketball at the CCRB last February with some of his teammates – and it cost him the entire spring practice.
While going for a dunk, Jackson was undercut by a defender and fell like a sack of bricks.
And what did he do next?
“I tried to find my tooth,” Jackson said. “I chipped nearly half of it off and also tore a ligament in my wrist.”
As expected, Jackson said Carr was “very upset.” While Jackson insists he’s recovered and ready to go this season, he knows the Wolverines aren’t usually allowed to participate in basketball because of the possibility of injury.
But the competitive Jackson said while he’ll give up basketball most of the time, he has to have his fix.
“Maybe I’ll just shoot around, play some H-O-R-S-E or something,” Jackson said.
Even when participating in friendly games on dates, Jackson said he’s playing for keeps. He remembers a time when he took a girl miniature golfing and actually lost.
“I didn’t talk to her much of the rest of the night,” Jackson said.
The Wildmans say they speak to Marlin on the telephone sometimes three days a week. Karen said they either discuss football, life, or the care packages they send to Marlin every once and a while.
“Karen talks to him like a spoiled kid – I talk to him as a coach,” James said.
The Wildmans may have spoiled Jackson with packages of Chips Ahoy ! Chewy Chocolate Chip cookies or Chilly Willy fruit juice, but James said he treated Jackson harder than his two kids. His daughter Lisa is a 32-year old fourth grade teacher and his 30-year old son Brian works in investment banking.
But Karen fondly recalls a special Mother’s Day when Marlin gave her a picture frame, saying it was a gift that meant more than anyone could imagine.
Marlin’s biological mother is slowly getting back into his life now, but he considers Karen a mother figure as well. Karen said many people don’t understand the relationship, especially other fans in Michigan Stadium last year. She said when she proudly proclaimed “That’s my son” after Marlin made a big play last year, she received several weird glances from others – especially after looking at the color of her skin and her short blonde hair.
“They thought I was crazy,” said Karen.
James said Marlin had the uncanny ability to play nearly every position in high school, and that he never wanted to come out.
“The only time he came off the field was during extra points, because he sure can’t kick,” James said.
James said Marlin’s only drawback could be his competitiveness, as sometimes he’s too hard on himself.
“He’s an innate competitor,” James said. “Some people compare him to Charles Woodson, and while it’s flattering, he said he wants to be known as the first Marlin Jackson.”
If No. 3 turns Michigan into a No.1 team before his career ends, he may shed that particular shadow.