Tarvaris Jackson overcomes nerves, shines in NFL debut
By Josh Moon, Montgomery Advertiser
As the pregame fireworks exploded and the familiar Monday Night Football theme music blared overhead, Tarvaris Jackson found himself surrounded by some of the biggest stars in the National Football League.
For a few seconds, the former Alabama State quarterback was a bit awestruck by the scene at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Shortly thereafter, it all began to sink in as he contemplated where he was, what he was doing and who he was doing it with.
"I was just standing there in that tunnel and I was like, 'My God, this is Fred Smoot next to me,'" said Jackson in reference to the Vikings' sixth-year defensive back out of Mississippi State, and a new NFL teammate.
"'These are all the guys I've been watching play on TV for years. I'm about to play on Monday Night Football,'" Jackson recalled, still somewhat in disbelief. "It was ... I can't even describe the feeling."
Jackson quickly snapped out of it and focused on the reality of starting his new job as a rookie NFL quarterback as the Vikings hosted the Oakland Raiders in a preseason game in front of a nationwide television audience.
The former Sidney Lanier star didn't suffer from stage fright. Jackson completed 7 of 13 passes for 60 yards and ran for 36 more. There were a couple of dropped passes in those totals, including one that was a sure touchdown, and one nasty blow to the head that sent Jackson to the sidelines for a while.
"I think I played pretty well," said Jackson, who was selected by Minnesota in the second round of this year's NFL draft. "You know, one thing I've learned in my years playing is that it's never as bad as you think or as good as you think. I'm sure when I watch the tape I'll find quite a few things I did wrong."
But the numbers only tell part of the story. The reception Jackson received from the hometown Minnesota fans was the biggest surprise. After several months of debate among the Vikings' faithful as to whether or not the team made a sound decision in selecting Jackson so high in the draft, it appears as though the fans are now firmly behind Jackson.
When he entered the game late in the second quarter Monday night, he did so to a standing ovation. Each time he broke free for a run, there were loud cheers. When he walked off the field before halftime, the fans were standing again.
"That was a little surprising," Jackson said. "I guess, maybe, they've seen me at practice and they know I'm working my tail off for this.. Maybe they like that."
It wasn't just the fans in Minnesota who were behind him, either. At ASU, where Jackson led the Hornets to a SWAC title and two Eastern Division championships, a scheduled practice for Monday evening was mysteriously cancelled and all squad meetings were wrapped up just prior to the MNF kickoff.
Only a coincidence, head coach Charlie Coe said. But when asked about Jackson's performance Tuesday, it was more than obvious what channel Coe's television had been tuned to the night before.
"I thought he played well," Coe said. "He handled himself well and did some good things. Not a bad first outing at all. Needs to learn to slide, though."
That's not exactly the first time Jackson received that advice. Vikings veteran starting quarterback Brad Johnson, Minnesota head coach Brad Childress, and several other teammates and coaches have been preaching that same line to Jackson since the day he entered training camp.
The problem is, Jackson's not a slider. Never has been.
"I'm not going to go out there and be stupid," Jackson said. "But I told coach in practice the other day, I've got good legs and I can use them. I told him, 'I ain't trying to be a running back out here, but I ain't no punk, either.'
"I want to do what they tell me and I've been really trying, but I completely screwed up that first slide. Went down too soon and didn't get the first down. After that, I decided to do what came natural."
Meanwhile, the NFL introduced Jackson to what comes naturally to a QB who breaks the line of scrimmage and tries to fight for extra yardage. Jackson took a hard forearm to the head from a Oakland defender as he fell forward and had his head bounce off the turf.
"He learned a couple of lessons," coach Brad Childress told the St. Paul Pioneer Press after the game. "No. 1, that AstroTurf is hard."
Those lessons are just the latest entries on an ever-growing list that started the day Jackson was drafted. He's struggled slightly in some areas, like learning how to temper his expectations for himself. In other areas, particularly handling his newfound fame and fortune (Jackson signed a four-year, $4 million deal with Minnesota), he's done exceptionally well.
"I've just got to learn to be patient with myself. That's something I've always struggled with," he said. "The money â€” that's not a big deal to me because I'm just really letting that take a backseat to football. I've gotten some advice from some of my teammates and from (ASU QB coach Reggie Barlow). That's helped. Everything I do, I'm asking questions because I want to make sure I do it right."
In the end, though, all the ups and down, triumphs and achievements have one thing in common: Jackson loves it all, calling it a dream world.
"I'm getting set to buy my first house, should close on it in a couple of days. I'm playing on Monday Night Football. I'm playing football for a living," he said. "At this point, it's almost like it's a big joke and any minute somebody's going to come along and take it away. It just doesn't seem real. Just sitting here thinking about all of it now, I just can't even believe that all of this is happening to me."