LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This isn’t the column I was going to write. I had it all figured out. The truth was clear: Louisville and its struggling football program needed this Lamar Jackson celebration more than Lamar Jackson needed it.
Jackson is among the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s on the way to being the greatest rushing quarterback in NFL history, and he’s improving as a passer.
Louisville has struggled from the moment he stepped off campus. It has failed, in many ways, to capitalize on his Heisman trophy, on credibility that came from the Heisman, from its place in the Heisman House.
This is why you don’t write columns until you see what happens.
To watch Lamar Jackson from the minute he walked into Cardinal Stadium until he handed the microphone back to athletics director Vince Tyra after addressing the crowd, you could tell that he was moved and appreciative over what was being done. You could tell he was glad to see people.
It might not’ve surprised you to see him embrace current Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham warmly – during the game on the sidelines, no less. Or guys like Eric Wood or Michael Bush. But Lamar saw longtime Louisville athletic director Kenny Klein and went to him to hug him. Same for football SID Rocco Gasparro.
He kept going over to a group of kids hanging over the wall behind the Louisville bench. Grabbing hands and talking to them, waving and smiling for photos.
He enjoyed the video tributes from old friends and teammates, and ordinary Louisville fans who submitted video messages to be played on the giant screens.
His mother, Felica Jones, watched it all, obviously with pride, and some emotion. I never would’ve thought that the most popular picture I snapped, or posted on social media all day, was a picture of her, watching the video screen, the Heisman trophy beside her.
I think what resonated is that people were not only proud for her, but proud like her. They knew how she must feel, not just at the novelty of having his college number retired, but at things everyone was saying about him.
“Thank you for always believing in yourself,” Harry Douglass said. “I think it’s important that we send a message out to these young kids to believe in yourself even when no one else does. You believed that you were a quarterback. I want to say thank you for being a role model for so many kids who look up to you.”
That’s the kind of thing she probably hoped people would say when she was playing football with him in the backyard. Lamar said she could pick out the Bible verse he would have tattooed on his arm. She picked out Mark 6:4. The verse? “Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.’”
Translation: You might be a big shot everywhere else, but at home you’re just Lamar.
Lamar has just been himself, no matter what he has done, or where he has been, including to the NFL, through an MVP season.
He was the same guy on Saturday, cutting up with teammates on the sideline, hugging everyone in sight, including U of L president Neeli Bendapudi.
When the time came, Louisville athletics director Vince Tyra handed Jackson the microphone. They thought he might speak for a minute or so. He talked for more than three (with the halftime clock ticking down). He avoided a 15-yard penalty for pushing too long. But for a guy who spoke only 5 1/2 minutes in his Heisman acceptance speech, it was significant.
Tyra said he had told Jackson, “Just ignore the feedback from the speakers and reflect.”
Of what Jackson just said, Tyra said, “It was awesome.” Jackson’s remarks, in full:
“Damn. Excuse my language kids. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he began. “Man, um, I really didn’t prepare a speech for this moment. Ever since I stepped on the field, in Atlanta, 2015, we was playing Auburn, first play of the game, my very first play, we tried to make something happen, the play didn’t go as planned. I threw an interception. First play of the game. I knew a lot of fans were probably like, ‘Man, who is this kid. Just got out here, going against Auburn.’ But you guys never booed me. You never booed me, man, to go from that to winning the Music City Bowl game, then you know, coming home with the Heisman in 2016, then 2017 getting our payback to the Wildcats down there in Lexington. Yeah. So many memories. Beating Florida State. The leap at Syracuse. I’ve got a lot of memories with you guys. You’ve been with me every step of the way. A lot of you guys came out when I played at Cincinnati in 2019. It felt like a homecoming there.
“There’s so much I could say about you guys. I just appreciate you. You’ve been there every step of the way. Through my NFL journey, still doing that right now, a lot of you may know. You’ve been with me every step, and I just can’t thank you guys enough. I wouldn’t want to go to any other school. You guys are amazing. You’re the best fans in the nation. And this. Dang. Now I’m up here forever, with a lot of greats. I can’t thank you guys enough. I want to thank Mr. Vince here. He’s been following me ever since I left college. He’s been with me every step of the way, been a great guy and a great AD, wants to see guys win, and that’s what you need. Need guys from south Florida, more guys from south Florida to come here. We’ve got to turn it up, because we need a national championship. We need one of those. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it happen. You know, but we’re going to have something else to happen. We’re going to have some guys come in and make it happen in the near future, hopefully. But I just want to thank you all, Card Nation, I wouldn’t be anything without you guys. I love you all, thank you.”
Tyra pulled out every stop he could think of. He named a campus lane “Lamar Jackson Way.” He presented Jackson with a special bottle of Woodford Reserve, etched on the front with “LAMAR JACKSON, FOREVER A CARD, NOV. 13, 2021.” On the back was Louisville’s Old English “L” and the number 8.
But in the end, I watched Jackson looking out into the crowd, people he knew, friends, and people he would never meet, but who came to celebrate him, and I could tell that he was touched by what he saw.
He came to the sidelines to speak for a moment with reporters, and said, “I just want to thank my teammates.”
Another Jackson staple.
And then he was gone. Down the end zone, a wave to the fans, up the tunnel, and back home.
Later, Jones told Tyra, “It felt just like home.”
That, he said, was the goal.
“I went ahead and retired him now so he could celebrate it with people that were here when he was here,” Tyra said. “I know that’s counterintuitive — which is typical for me — but it worked perfectly. Felicia and he said they loved seeing everyone there that was there when he played and it just felt like home, to quote her. They are watching all the different film cuts we did this week. We sent them everything today and Felicia said they sat down tonight to watch it all.”
Sure, the game gave Louisville football a shot in the arm. How could it not? But the team beating Syracuse 41-3 didn’t hurt, either.
After the game, Cunningham came to his news conference in a Lamar Jackson jersey.
“We talk maybe two or three times a week,” Cunningham said. “We all are in a group chat of Louisville former players and we just send videos in there. It’s a big brother, little brother relationship. He got my back and I got his back through whatever. He’s always on my side, I’m always on his side, trying to keep me up when I’m down. And it’s good to have a player like that, a brother like that in your life who is already in the league. He knows the ins and outs of the game and I’m just listening to him just taking everything in.”
Louisville linebacker Dorian Jones came in a few minutes later with another perspective.
“During his senior year of high school at Boynton Beach High, my older brother, Elijah Jones, went there and I was the water boy for all those games,” he said. “So seeing that No. 8 being retired) I was thinking, ‘Man, I saw all this happening a while ago.’ But it was nice to see.”
Jones said watching Jackson in high school was, “The same as watching him now. It was exactly the same. He was doing everything exactly the same, making people look crazy, and scoring touchdowns left and right. It was awesome.”
After watching him for a while on Saturday, it would appear that through everything, Jackson is the same. And that’s comforting.
It’s also comforting that Louisville held up its end of the bargain on Saturday.
“I’ll never forget it,” Tyra said.
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