The fall, and rise, of Eagles’ DeSean Jackson

On The NFL

DeSean Jackson’s remarkable ability to get behind players -- defensive backs, particularly -- has propelled the Philadelphia receiver to the Pro Bowl in only his second season.

But Jackson has never been behind players quite the way he was on draft day in 2008, when he not only tumbled out of the first round, but saw six receivers selected in front of him in the second.

It was a humbling, albeit brief, experience for the former California star who now chops defenders down to size on a weekly basis.

“It was an unfortunate situation, man,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “I was just blessed to come to the city that I did and add a little West Coast spark to Philadelphia.”

So far, it’s been more jolt than spark. Jackson last week became the first player in NFL history to make it to the Pro Bowl at two positions: receiver and returner.

He leads the NFL in yards per catch (18.7) and punt-return average (16.0) and has scored eight touchdowns of 50-plus yards, tying him with Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch (1951) and Devin Hester (2007) for most in a season. The playoff-bound Eagles finish the regular season today at Dallas with the NFC East title going to the winner.

There are a number of reasons why Jackson slipped out of the first round, where some draftniks thought he might be taken, and tumbled all the way to the No. 49 spot. First, his size is an issue; he was listed at 6 feet, 172 pounds in college, but at the scouting combine turned out to be 5-10, 169.

What’s more, he had a reputation for being a selfish teammate who could be difficult to deal with and played by his own set of rules. Although that wouldn’t make him unique among NFL players, those are red flags teams don’t like to see.

Jackson, who left school a year early, disputes that he was anything but a team player, and the ensuing tension apparently is one of the reasons that during TV introductions he says he’s from Long Beach Poly High, rather than Cal.

“I have a lot of love for the Golden Bears,” Jackson said recently. “I was upset and disappointed with the rumors that came out when it came time for me to enter the draft. There were a lot of negative things said about me that hurt me, that I wasn’t a team player and I didn’t work hard.

“I’m not pointing fingers at anyone in particular, but I know it had to come from Cal somewhere. It really hurt my feelings. It’s no disrespect to Cal. I just feel coming from Long Beach Poly was a huge step for me to make it to the NFL.”

The Eagles certainly didn’t ignore what they were hearing, but they also did their own homework on him and decided Jackson would be a good fit with them. Coach Andy Reid said Cal Coach Jeff Tedford “shot me straight about the kid.”

Said Reid: “I thought he’d go in the first round. He was clearly the best player on our board when we picked him.”

Some people thought Jackson was destined for the pros all along. His No. 1 supporter was his father, Bill Jackson, who would bend every ear he could about the athletic prowess of his sons, particularly DeSean.

The elder Jackson, himself once an outstanding athlete, grew up in Pittsburgh, where he worked in steel mills and later operated trolley cars.

He eventually moved to Southern California and settled in Hollywood, driving bus tours to Beverly Hills, the beach, stars’ homes and the like. In May, he died of pancreatic cancer.

“If you didn’t believe in DeSean, you’d wind up believing in him after you sat down with my dad for five or 10 minutes,” said DeSean’s older brother, Byron, a former San Jose State receiver who twice made it to training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs.

“My dad would say, ‘My boy’s going to go in the first round! He’s going to be the first pick!’ It was like, ‘Come on, Dad. Let’s be realistic.’ But he believed, man. He believed.”

Bill Jackson missed the mark on the first-pick prediction, but his words after the draft were prophetic.

“DeSean has the heart and determination to play in the NFL,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. “They can look at his size, but if they don’t draft him, they’re going to have to play against him.

“No matter what round he goes, the teams that don’t take him will have to play against him.”

Less than two years later, not one NFL team would dispute that keeping Jackson contained is a major concern. He’s a highlight clip waiting to happen -- and his family has plenty of those.

After his football career ended, Byron Jackson began working in film and TV production. For years, he’s been documenting the life and athletic feats of his younger brother, hundreds of hours of footage he’s now cataloging for a documentary that looks behind the scenes of a rising NFL star.

Even as a child, DeSean was an athletic freak. Byron remembers tossing Nerf footballs high into the sky and paying his 4-year-old brother for every one he could catch. Later, when DeSean was in his early teens, his brother had a friend -- a former high school quarterback -- rocket passes at him from 10 feet away.

“DeSean’s hands were like a vacuum cleaner -- shooop, shooop, shooop,” Byron said.

The sports world doesn’t have to wait for the movie. Those hands are on display every Sunday, and all those teams that missed on Jackson in the draft are missing him again.

And now, he’s on his way to the Pro Bowl, which this year will be played Jan. 31, the Sunday before the Super Bowl.

Bill Jackson would have been the first to give that date the thumbs up.

After all, it was his birthday.