Ex-Navy SEAL makes big impression on Buffalo football team
AMHERST, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo defensive end Damian Jackson has no expectation of growing emotional as he prepares for the final game of his college career next week.
At 30, and having had a healthy share of real-life experiences during two tours of duty with the Navy SEALs, Jackson isn’t built that way. Unlike many of his younger teammates, Jackson is independent, unsentimental and self-aware enough to appreciate where football fits into his world.
“I’m a terrible person to ask because, quite frankly, I don’t care,” Jackson said with a chuckle, looking ahead to the Bulls (6-6) facing Georgia Southern (6-6) in the Camellia Bowl on Tuesday.
“It’s not like, `Oh, I’m nervous,′ or I’ve got to ball out or I got to do this or do that. I’m just going to be the same person I was,” he added. “There’s no butterflies or anything going in, or regret of, ‘I can’t believe this is my last game.’ It’s just one more game, keep going and then on to the next step.”
Jackson never played organized football until walking on at Nebraska in 2017. He eventually decided on football as a career path after finishing his service with the SEALs by joking that, at 6-foot-2 and 263 pounds, he was “too big and fat” to pursue baseball or soccer.
He got a chance to start and play in a defensive role after transferring to Buffalo in June as a graduate senior. But Jackson is grounded enough to know his best chance at an NFL career is on special teams, and specifically long-snapping.
While he’s never snapped in a college game, Jackson spends time before and after practice honing his craft, and plans to return to Nebraska to work with the Cornhuskers staff before attending Buffalo’s pre-draft pro day.
With his muscular arms, long hair and unruly beard, Jackson has already attracted the attention of Buffalo alum and former NFL assistant coach Jim McNally, who works as a consultant for the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I’m going to the wall for this kid,” McNally said. “A lot of NFL scouts say, `Well, he’s too old.′ I say, a 30-year-old SEAL is in better shape than an 18-year-old human.”
In taking Jackson under his wing, McNally envisions how much the prospect will wow scouts with his athletic ability based on his military training alone.
“OK, he never played football but you can imagine the heart he’s got,” McNally said.
For someone best considered an introvert — “Honestly, I don’t really like talking to people” — Jackson has made a big impression in Buffalo.
“You wish you could have a guy like Damian Jackson with you forever,” coach Maurice Linguist said.
“You probably don’t have the vocabulary and the words to express really how much of a great example he is to what it should look like, and who you should be,” he added. “He’s got the great balance of humility and confidence because he prepares and trains the right way. He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever been around and one of the most selfless.”
In 12 games with Buffalo, Jackson has been in on 22 tackles, recovered a fumble and enjoyed his first college career sack in a 30-27 overtime loss to Kent State lats month.
Linguist smiled in recalling the sack, which helped limit Kent State to a field goal.
“He made that sack exactly in the manner of who he is. It was an effort sack,” Linguist said. “He didn’t come off the ball and beat the guy clean. He out-strengthened the guy who was trying to block him.”
Defensive captain James Patterson said it is not unusual to see Jackson cleaning up the locker room after practice. As for his sack, it wasn’t until three days later when, at the prodding of Jackson’s teammates, they learned it was the first of his career.
Patterson appreciates how Jackson quietly leads by example.
“That’s the guy I want to be,” Patterson said. “He’s structured and so good every day that he doesn’t even know I look at his habits and really copy off him as well.”
This is where Jackson does care about football, the camaraderie he’s developed with teammates over the years, and how it ties in with his past. His SEALs’ role was lead breacher, specializing in explosives and obstruction removal.
“Obviously, the military changed me in how I probably perceive things,” said Jackson, who is from Las Vegas and followed his older brother in joining the Navy. “I think if I came here right after high school it would be a little bit different. … I think I’d be a little bit more selfish and kind of more about me.”
He appeared in just a handful of games at Nebraska and transferred to Buffalo for an opportunity to determine whether he was good enough to take on a larger role.
Jackson assessed his final college season this way: “I know how good I am, and I know how bad I am. I’m not a superstar. And, hopefully, I’m not at the bottom of the barrel.”
Whether that’s good enough to attract NFL interest, he’s not sure. Nor is he concerned.
“Once I see something that I want, I try to get it. If it doesn’t work out, (forget) it and go to the next one,” Jackson said, apologizing for using a profanity. “I just wanted to go play football in college. So I tried it, and here I am.”
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