By Tony Phifer, Sportswriter, Fort Collins
When Vincent Jackson walked onto the field for his first football practice time as a freshman at Widerfield High School, there were no immediate signs indicating future stardom. Jackson, after all, was skinny and, 5-feet-9, anything but intimidating.
But after a few practices, assistant coach Fred Marjerrison saw something special in the young wide receiver.
“I told the guys on our coaching staff that Vincent had better skills right now than the guys I played in college,” said the former Colorado Mesa University player. “He was one of those guys who just had ‘it’ – something special.”
It would be four years before the talent in Jackson truly began to blossom. Lightly recruited as a senior – the only Division I offer for the scholarly Jackson came from Columbia University – his life changed when coaches from University of Colorado decided to check him out playing basketball.
“Vincent threw down a dunk that everyone was talking about,” said Paul MacRenato, Widefield’s head football coach. “UNC decided to offer him a scholarship after that, and the rest is history.”
Jackson went on to establish himself as one of UNC’s greatest athletes, excelling in both football and basketball for the Bears. His impact on the football field was immediate as he returned a punt for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball as a freshman, earing All-American honors as a punt returner.
He was equally impressive on the basketball court, leading the Bears in scoring as a freshman and sophomore, even earning all-conference honors, before opting to focus on football. That turned into a life-altering decision.
Jackson was a force at receiver and as a returner for the Bears, setting school records for receiving yards (3,548), yards per catch (20.1), receiving touchdowns (37), total touchdowns (39), all-purpose yards (5,810), 100-yard receiving games (14) and 200-yard receiving games (5). He capped his UNC career with a brilliant senior campaign that included 80 catches for 1,382 yards and 11 touchdowns, earning first-team Division II All-American honors from the Associated Press.
The skill and athleticism displayed at UNC convinced the San Diego Chargers to take him in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Jackson remains the highest draft pick in UNC history.
Over the course of the next 12 NFL seasons – seven with the Chargers, five with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Jackson would put together a remarkable career that included three Pro Bowls, 540 catches, 9080 yards and 57 touchdowns passes. He was best known for his big-play ability, averaging 16.8 yards per catch while displaying an uncanny ability to catch 50-50 balls.
Jackson was at his best in 2012 with Tampa Bay, establishing career bests with 72 catches for 1,384 yards. He also set Buccaneer records for longest play (95) and most receiving yards (216) in a game against New Orleans.
Throughout his time in the NFL, Jackson was a tireless advocate for the less-fortunate in the communities he held dear. He supported his alma mater and numerous charities, but was particularly focused on helping families – a passion instilled in him by his parents, who both served in the Armed Forces. Working with his wife, Lyndsey, he set up “Jackson in Action,” a foundation providing educational, emotional and physical support for children of military families. That work continues.
Jackson died unexpectantly in 2021 in Florida. He was just 38.