He was out to dinner with his mother and older brother, this not long after he'd arrived home from being deployed in Yemen, when Damian Jackson said something no one at the table saw coming.

He was going to play college football. He was going to play college football despite the fact he'd never worn a football helmet before. Never played a game in high school. Never played a game in Pop Warner. Never even attended a football game.

Really? That can't be. …

A walk-on Husker few yet know is a Husker, fresh to Lincoln after spending four years as a member of the Navy SEALs, Jackson smiles at the person giving him a surprised expression across the table. "There's a lot of weird things about me, like, 'Why am I playing football?' But it's definitely the sport I want to play."

"Never" is a weighty word, but not always associated with a wall that can't be knocked down. At least not as Damian Jackson approaches matters. You should know this about him right out of the starting blocks: He's taken out some walls already in his life.

He is the kid who told his mother and brother he wanted to be a foreign-exchange student in France as a high school sophomore. "Why not Australia?" his brother, Adam, asked. Then he wouldn't have to deal with such a language barrier.

No, no, no. He'd already decided on France. His mother, Bridgette Saenz, understood. That's how Damian ticks. "He wants the challenge."

A few years later, he joined the Navy at age 18. He wanted to find a way to pay for school. There were no immediate plans of being part of the venerable SEALs.

Then one day everyone in his boot camp was pulled aside and shown a SEAL SWCC video (a special boat team of the SEALs) of guys running and gunning and skydiving. "Who wants to do this? Raise your hand."

You bet he did. The first test was to do six pull-ups. He knocked them out. So did about 20 other interested guys. If they wanted more, a lot more, they were to come back at 4 the next morning.

Jackson was one of three who showed. He wasn't a swimmer, but he'd swim the 1,000 meters in the required time, run a mile-and-a-half in the required time, do the 60 to 70 push-ups and sit-ups required in a minute, and meet the necessary amount of pull-ups.

This was just a first test. He'd go to a camp to train for another. Score excellent marks there and he'd sign a contract to train to be with the SEALs. He'd end up scoring in the top 10 percentile when his training was complete.

So several years later, as Jackson shared with his family his next big plan, his mother did not react as most would to someone suggesting he wanted to play college football with no previous experience.

She knew her boy.

"When he was accepted into training, people would ask, 'Well, did he grow up shooting? Did he grow up hunting? Was he on the swim team?' And all of these answers were no," she said.

He didn't shoot a gun until he was in SEALs training. He didn't swim until a couple of months before he left for the Navy, teaching himself with some instructions from an older gentleman at a gym in his mom's residing town of Las Vegas.

Yet he picked it all up quick enough to receive his SEAL Trident pin at the age of 19, the youngest in his class. At that ceremony, one of Jackson's training instructors approached his mom.

"Is that your son?"


He began to talk about a hand-to-hand combat drill Jackson had gone through in training.

"I have never seen someone during that training pick up another man and thrown him as your son did," he told her.

"Is that a good thing?"

"That's an awesome thing."

So when Damian told them football was next, his mother and brother did not doubt.

"This is kind of the same thing," Saenz said. "No, he didn't grow up playing football, but he's an extreme athlete and has extreme mental clarity, too. When he wants to do something, he's going to find a way and how to do it. And do it well."

But where might he go? The dentist had an idea.


His last year as a Husker was the first year of Devaney.

Gary Toogood played both ways as a Nebraska letterwinner from 1960-62. He was a right guard on offense, a linebacker on defense. In years after, he was also a common handball opponent of Tom Osborne.

He'd keep the Huskers close to his heart even after he moved to Reno, Nevada, and set up a dental practice there. It was because of this that he would one day meet Damian Jackson.

One of the dental hygienists at the place was Jackson's mom. Naturally, her son came up on occasion. Toogood even met him several years back when he worked on his teeth.

He saw a young man who was in incredible physical shape, standing 6-foot-1 and 250 pounds, with the kind of presence that makes men and women pay notice when he walks into a room. The more he heard about Jackson, the more he thought about how he'd make a great prospect for Nebraska football.

He'd heard how Jackson had never had a drop of alcohol and how well he'd eat to build his body right. Soda pop? Hasn't even had that since his first year of high school.

When Jackson left for his first deployment in Yemen, he told his mom matter-of-factly, "When I come back, I'm going to be huge."

Six months later, he returned. Huge.

Think of all the training and the high stakes Jackson has already dealt with as a SEAL, Toogood said. "If you can get a kid that big and that fast, I mean, I think I could make him a hell of a football player."

Toogood is also a Husker football season-tickets holder and tries to make it back for two or three games a year. So he asked Jackson and his mom if they would like to come to Lincoln for the Nebraska game against Michigan State in 2015.

Yeah, that game. The game where Nebraska knocked off the undefeated Spartans 39-38 with two touchdowns in the final two minutes. That was the first and only football game Jackson had ever seen in person.

Toogood got him more than just seats in the stadium. He helped him meet Mike Riley. Nebraska's coach noted that he had coached a young man at Oregon State who left the program with hopes of being a SEAL. Jackson told Riley he had hopes of playing football. Riley seemed interested.

Jackson also understood how it might sound to a coach. "That's kind of the big thing that scares everyone away: I had no football experience," he said. "The only thing that had weight was being a SEAL. It still didn't hold too much weight."

Still, Riley told him he could try out in an attempt to make the team if he were a student. Jackson liked the people, the football environment and the coach. Nebraska had moved to the top of his list as a potential school where he might prove himself.

"I'm the kind of person that gets a wild idea and then I kind of go for it," Jackson said. "I put 100 percent of my energy into it."

So did his mom. She called around to different schools where a football opportunity might be attached. "She was more fired up to do this than I was," Jackson joked.

He applied to a collection of schools, gaining acceptance to most. But no one offered guarantees regarding football. He'd played baseball and soccer growing up in Corona, California, and then Las Vegas. He didn't have football film to show them.

Of another concern, his acceptance letter from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln did not come as quickly as some others.

Funny the timing on some things. On Nov. 16, 2016, Jackson's very last day of service in the Navy, he also had to have his tonsils taken out.

When he and his mother returned home from the hospital, one more acceptance letter had come. It was from his No. 1. It was from Nebraska.

"He wanted to scream and yell, he was so excited, but he just had his tonsils removed," Saenz said.

That's OK, Mom told him. "I'll scream and yell for you."


He moved. He tried out. He waited.

Having started his college life this semester, the 24-year-old freshman is majoring in computer science. Turns out Jackson is a gamer. He likes coding. "I know a lot about computers. I'm on it all day," he said. He'd like to do something in Silicon Valley after football is over.

But first, his football life needed a starting point. That was no lock.

"It's not like he just went there and they said, 'Oh, you're on the team,'" Saenz said.

Jackson was one of about 35 students to attend a Husker football tryout this spring. There are some dreamers in that group, no question. But it is a chance. Matt O'Hanlon once made the team after a tryout like this and later became a Blackshirt.

Jackson was tested on his 40 and other agility drills. It was just one morning of tests. Not like back when he was in SEAL training and went through Hell Week on about four hours of sleep.

His mom remembers him calling with a raspy voice she could barely understand after that week, saying he'd made it. When she drove to see him, his hands were double the size of what they were normally from all the pressure put on them through push-ups and other exercises.

Of the more than 200 men in his SEAL qualification training session, only 40-some received that trident pin for graduating. Of those 40-some, he was one of only four who made it through without having any training hiccups that required him to "roll back" and do a test again.

Jackson doesn't share this info. Proud people close to him do.

"I don't really tell too many people," Jackson said of his time as a SEAL. "I just let it be, and if they know, they know."

And for as well as he tested as a SEAL, and as much as he hoped to make the Nebraska team, he didn't know for sure what would happen.

Guys on his SEALs team had said they thought he'd make a pretty good football player. That's no small thing given how competitive it is in that environment.

While the stakes were higher when he was with the SEALs, he sees similarities in how those in the Husker football program attack things.

"Both places, there's kind of that thing where everyone wants to be the alpha male in a sense," Jackson said. "They want to be the strongest in the gym. So everyone's working their butt off. … There's no slacking."

Jackson had to wait through some anxious days to find out if he could be part of that Husker environment.

"I thought I had a better chance than most people because of my size, speed and athleticism, but there's definitely some uncertainty because I've never done this," he said.

He didn't hear anything for a week or so. He even received an initial email that said, sorry, the roster is full.

His mother suggested he reach out. "Be that gnat that won't go away. Ask them for that one chance to show them," Saenz told him.

Jackson sent an email to Husker staffers. He explained why he chose to come to Nebraska and how he'd do anything to show them how much he wants to be part of the team.

He received a call asking him to come to the football offices. Good? Bad?


"You have this time to prove that we need you," Jackson was told.

A chance is all he wanted. He'd start from the bottom but he is a Husker linebacker.

"Most people are surprised, especially players on the team, when I tell them practice this spring was the first time I put a helmet on."


His new teammates are curious about his time as a SEAL. They ask questions. He asks them questions, too.

"Learning the game, especially the playbook, is something I've never seen before," he said. "It's going to take a little bit."

He joined the team halfway through spring practices. Some teammates pointed out in the locker room a picture of Jackson in uniform and beard had appeared on social media.

Welcome to Nebraska football.

He got another taste of it in the Red-White Spring Game. Jackson played about eight snaps. He helped assist on one tackle.

"I thought I was going to freak out, but it was just nice," he said. "Cool and collected."

He doesn't get nervous about much anymore. Not after his time with the SEALs.

Those memories are the sticking kind. Good ones. Really tough ones, too. As he tackles this Husker experience, he'll especially think of Charles Keating IV.

Charles was one of his close friends within the SEALs. He was killed in Iraq a year ago when his base was attacked. Most days, Jackson wears a T-shirt with the initials and Roman numerals of "CKIV." There is also a bone frog emblem on it that represents the SEALs.

He'd never had a tattoo, but last year had the bone frog emblem inked on his left rib cage as further remembrance of his friend.

When he first told his mother he was going to get a tattoo without the full explanation, she said, "You're so beautiful. Why would you want a tattoo?" He didn't wish to talk about it then.

When he showed it to her a week later, it was understood. It wasn't about him.

"He's the kind of person that carries me through a lot of this. I always think of him," Jackson said. "Things that happen to me, pain or anything, doesn't really compare to losing a friend."

It is further motivation for someone who has clearly never had it in short supply.

As a member of the SEALs, Jackson explains that his responsibility was as a breacher. He handled explosives. If there was a barricade, he had to figure a way through it or around it.

There is no bragging about it. It's simply said as an explanation of what he did. His description of that job, though, stuck out as he comes to his next challenge.

"I'm the person blowing the door up."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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