Wrote this feature on ULM linebacker Cardia Jackson in 2009 for a magazine promoting Sun Belt Conference football. Apparently there wasn't much of a market for a Sun Belt football magazine and I was never paid for it -- guess I can do with it what I please now. Although I'd known Cardia since his high school days, I discovered a lot about him during this interview. Fast forward a couple of years and Jackson was on the Green Bay Packers roster when they won the Super Bowl, earning him a ring and a trip to the White House. He went back to training camp with the team in 2011.
There on the porch, under his mother’s loving watch, Cardia Jackson kept his own eyes focused on the older children in the yard as they played. Sometimes his instincts would kick in, and before his mother knew it, young Cardia would blast through the screen in an effort to join the boys with the football.
“He kept the screen punched out,” said Carlette Boldes, whose son is now a dominant senior linebacker at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “When he was a child, not even one, he’d see the big boys playing ball in the yard. We had a screened-in porch and he’d act like he was running after the ball. He always wanted to be with the big boys.”
Two decades later, Jackson’s priorities are the same. Mom and football are his passions.
To some extent, Jackson is following that vital arc of growth and maturation. Since finishing a decorated prep career at Wossman High School, he has continued his development as a football player at the university in his hometown of Monroe, La.
Jackson collected a whopping 127 tackles as a junior – the highest total at ULM since NFL safety Chris Harris made the same number in 2002 -- and ranked eighth nationally with 10.6 stops per game. A first-team All-Sun Belt Conference pick, Jackson added two interceptions, four sacks and eight tackles for losses during the campaign. He enjoyed monster individual games with 17 tackles (14 solo) at Tulane and 18 at Ole Miss.
“Cardia is a leader in the locker room and the weight room,” ULM linebacker Theo Smith III said. “He gets us hyped up before a game, and keeps us focused.”
“He kept us laughing,” said Demetrice Hopkins a longtime friend and high school teammate at Wossman. “But he gets serious too. He’s an all-around guy and a complete leader, on and off the field.”
Yet unlike your average student-athlete, Jackson still lives at home with his mother and younger sister. The product of a single-parent upbringing, Jackson made the decision to sign with nearby ULM four years ago to be near his mom. Her health problems, primarily diabetes, weighed heavily on his mind.
“My mother was strong at that time, but I knew that everything wasn’t going right,” Jackson said. “You can tell.”
At Wossman, Jackson was twice named all-state and finished as his school’s career leading tackler. The local newspaper honored Jackson after his senior campaign as the top defensive player in northeastern Louisiana. Schools like LSU and Auburn showed recruiting interest then, and he originally gave a verbal commitment to Louisiana Tech, which is just 30 minutes away in Ruston. But for a young man without a car and his priorities in order, even that was too far away.
“That’s what really made me change my mind,” Jackson said. “I thought about my little sister as the only other person at the house. I’m the father figure at the house. With me not having transportation from Louisiana Tech, if something happened, I didn’t know how I would get home. I made the choice to go to ULM, which is really right up the street. I could basically run there if I had to.”
His first two years at ULM, Jackson lived on campus. Now he’s back under the same roof, sleeping most nights in the same room that he lived in growing up.
“He stuck with them,” said Hopkins, who has known Jackson since sixth grade. “He could have gone anywhere, but he chose to be close to his family. That’s all he has.
“He stepped up and took responsibility. He became a man early. He had that before he got to college. The bond they’ve got is strong. He didn’t want to break that.”
Jackson admits he couldn’t concentrate on his responsibilities if he was depending on someone else to oversee his mother.
“Anytime you’re dealing with diabetes and all that, it’s pretty serious,” he said. “You could lose your life over that.”
At home, with family, Jackson is a gentle caregiver. He offers counsel to his sister and helps his mother take her medication.
“I’m there for her,” Jackson said. “My sister is the only other one there, a teen-ager, at 13. She doesn’t know what to do. I have to help her with her medicine, shoot insulin in her arm.”
Said Boldes: “He helps me with his sister and picks up my prescriptions. He makes sure I take my medication.”
On the football field, he’s a rugged beast who punishes the opposition. The game is his outlet.
“He’s a playmaker,” his teammate Smith said. “I think that’s what sets him apart from your average linebacker and will give him a chance to play at the next level.”
At Wossman, he once made 26 tackles in a single game. He wasn’t far off that pace last year when he had 17 tackles – 14 solo – at Tulane and another 18 at Ole Miss.
“It’s like this,” Jackson said. “I take all my problems that I have at home and take it out on the field and leave it on the field. Once I get off the field, I try to let the situation motivate me to keep going. It weighs on me sometimes. But I try to look at everything bad in my life and think that everything happens for a reason.”
Hopkins recognized early on how Jackson channeled his emotions into football.
“He takes out his frustrations on the field,” Hopkins said. “It helps him and motivates him to keep going. He’s kept a strong mind. He’s consistent, and that hasn’t changed.”
Jackson’s father Billy Cage had a short career playing football at ULM back in the day but he wasn’t around during Jackson’s formative years. Since entering college, Jackson said that he has developed a man-to-man relationship with Cage.
“It all starts at the household,” Jackson said. “My mother was a single parent, and some guys in the neighborhood don’t have a father figure to look up to – not even a bigger uncle or cousin to tell them right from wrong. All they have is their mother there. They’re males, so maybe she feels like she just has to let them go and see what’s happening in life on their own. That’s not the way it goes. That’s why they choose the path they do. They don’t have that father figure.”
Jackson chose to handle that role for his family.
“He’s real muscular and manly around the house,” Boldes said. “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s such a good leader in football. He’s a person who takes charge at home too.”
Jackson has a short list of people in his life who served as role models and mentors.
Growing up, he saw both sides of the coin. There were Wossman products like Pat Williams and Bradie James, who have parlayed their ability into careers in the NFL. Too many others squandered their gifts.
“The person who keeps me going is my mother,” Jackson said. “There are people around the neighborhood, some of the older guys who had the opportunity to play college ball and messed up and did something stupid. They keep me going too. Anytime I see them, hanging around the little corner store, they motivate me to keep going and pushing. You can’t let the struggle bring you down.”
Jackson averted tragedy in the summer leading into his freshman season at ULM. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Jackson was shot in the leg while out one night with friends. Miraculously, he suffered only a flesh wound and entered the program on schedule.
“I worry about him at school and on the field too,” Boldes said. “I’m concerned about him getting hurt. But he always tells me it will be OK.”
Even today, Jackson knows there are familiar faces that he must keep at arm’s length. They don’t always share his passion to succeed in life.
“I stay in a rough part of the neighborhood on the Southside,” Jackson said. “There are plenty of guys that I went to school with, played ball with, who are still in the neighborhood. They don’t want to do anything else but hang around the neighborhood. I visit with them. I communicate with them. But at the same time, I have to separate from them. When they want to go do something sometimes, I have to say no. With what I have at stake, I have to separate myself from the guys and be smart about my situation.”
Jackson wants to carry on the legacy of his hometown role models – James and Williams. He too wants to provide a positive influence on the youngsters from his community.
“I had a couple of guys ahead of me that I could look up to and follow their foot paths,” Jackson said. “I had Bradie James and Pat Williams. I looked up to those guys. They still come back to Monroe. I still holler at Pat Williams every now and then and he tells me what I have to do and what I have to continue to do to make it to the next level.
“I feel like if those two guys can do it, coming from the same area that I did, why can’t I? But you have to get your books first, then football second.”
This is the legacy that he’s carrying on too.
“I was at the rec playing basketball talking to some guys,” Jackson said. “I talked to them about their life and the direction that they’re going. I was telling them, ‘Everybody knows that you’re not scared. Everybody knows that you’re not a punk. But you’ve got to be smart about what you’re going through. You’ve got to walk away from it.’ If somebody pulls out a gun, do you want to fight them? Just walk away. ”
While Jackson is a known commodity to the ULM football family, he’s still something of a mystery to first-year defensive coordinator Troy Reffett.
Since joining the ULM staff from New Mexico, Reffett hasn’t seen Jackson on the field. A shoulder injury kept the star linebacker sidelined during spring drills, leaving his new coach waiting for a first-hand look.
Still, the tape doesn’t lie. Reffett expects a lot from Jackson as a potential playmaker in his 3-3-5 defensive scheme.
“I think he has a chance to be a great fit,” Reffett said. “I’ve watched him on film last year and he’s a big, physical player who runs well and has a good feel for it. Playing inside linebacker is inside linebacker. With what we plan on doing, it will give him an opportunity to make a lot of plays and do things to help this football team.”
Coaching changes have been part college experience for Jackson. Although head coach Charlie Weatherbie has been there for the duration, Jackson has played for four defensive coordinators and four linebacker coaches.
“It’s been kind of good for me in a way,” he said. “All of my linebacker coaches had different styles. You learn more, from the old guy to the new guy. Basically, you’ve just got to make plays. That’s what it all comes down to.”
During skull sessions with his 6-foot-2, 240-pound bruiser, Reffett found Jackson refreshingly knowledgeable about the game.
“He’s studious,” Reffett said. “He went through every meeting in spring ball. He was out at every single practice standing close to me. He had his script with him all during every practice. There are times, during the course of practice that he’s back in the back, actually on air going through the play. I think he understands what we’re trying to do. He can articulate and communicate the scheme and the calls and what he’s supposed to do within those. It’s just a matter of him actually physically going out there and doing it now. That’s where you hope that senior with his experience and ability, it will just flow naturally for him. It’s not uncommon during spring ball to limit the reps of some of your best players anyway. He didn’t get any. But we think he’ll get adjusted quickly and fit right in.”
With a college career unfinished, Jackson isn’t particularly reflective. ULM finished 4-8 in 2008 and hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1993.
His highlights are more personal, as he thinks back to teammates and memorable victories.
“I played with Kevin Payne, who is with the Bears right now,” Jackson said. “I’ll never forget the first game as a freshman, the first game he ever saw me play in. He said, ‘Man, continue to do what you’re doing and you’ll make it.’ He saw the drive that I have and the emotions, my feelings for the game. I’ll never forget it.”
Payne, who worked out with Jackson over the summer, recalled the promise he saw in the linebacker four years ago when they were college teammates.
“I knew when I first met Cardia as a freshman that he was special,” said Payne, who is entering his third year in the NFL this season with the Bears. “You couldn’t tell he was a freshman. He fit in well with the team.”
As a sophomore in 2007, Jackson was part of ULM’s milestone 21-14 victory at Alabama. The Warhawks finished that season 6-6, their best record since moving up to Division I-A in 1994.
“It was a big win,” Jackson said. “That was a good feeling after the game, to beat an SEC school. We went in as the underdogs. It was big for me. The coach was Nick Saban, who was LSU. I was recruited by his coaching staff and we had to prove a point.”
The off season has been one of change for ULM football. Weatherbie is in the final year of his contract and a number of assistants left the program. With so many new faces on the coaching staff, Jackson acknowledges both uncertainty and hope that he can finish his college tour on a positive note.
“I believe the defense now will add up my stats,” Jackson said. "We have more blitzes. With everybody roaming around, you never know who is coming. It’s going to benefit me. It’s going to be real fun. Everybody is up and moving around. You’re not being still, waiting on the offense to attack you. You attack the offense.”
Like the kid on the porch, Jackson kept his eye on the ball.
Coming up through the ranks at Wossman, Jackson aspired to become a great college football player, and he has remained on that path. All-conference honors and recognition followed the local acclaim he enjoyed as a prep star.
“It’s a feeling that you can’t explain when you’re out there on the field,” Jackson said. “When you it on, nobody can make you turn it off.”
When his senior year concludes, Jackson wants to play professionally.
“He’s a great athlete,” Payne said. “As he tries to go to the next level, he’s got all the potential and skills that scouts are looking for. I worked out with him in Monroe this summer, and he’s got great hips and feet. He looks like a prototype to play in the NFL. The best thing for him to do is stay focused and do the things that got him to where he is now.”
For Jackson, that source is motivation is the woman who now shares his dreams.
“I am very proud of him,” Boldes said. “I’m exceptionally proud that he went to ULM to stay close to home. It helped me a lot. I dream of him playing in the NFL too.”