POMPANO BEACH, Fla. -- Lamar Jackson never really liked football. Not as an 8-year-old, anyway.
Still, his mom signed him up to play. And when he immediately scored touchdowns and outran everybody on the field that first season, he changed his mind. He wanted to play football badly.
His mom, Felicia Jones, came up with a plan to maximize his obvious gifts: Jackson started working with a local trainer named Van "Peanut" Warren. During those workouts, Jones sat on a metal bench and quietly observed every single quarterback drill Warren did, taking mental notes the entire time.
She made Jackson do the same drills at home, but she also supplemented them with something else: tackling drills. Lamar and his little brother, Jamar, put on their equipment and went into the backyard. Mom put on equipment too. She had them run, and then she would tackle them.
Just to reiterate: Jackson was 8.
"People don't believe me," Jackson said in a recent interview. "She was an athlete. She used to play basketball. She saw what we were able to do, and she'd go back there and play football with us. She was just making us tougher because she's older, so she's bringing power that we're not used to feeling. We didn't take it like anything different."
Jones tackled him to the ground a few times, and she did not hesitate to talk just a little. "Not gonna lie, she did it," he says.
This went on until Jackson learned how to avoid his mom, and therefore elude tackles. Once he could move past her, she moved on to different workouts, relentlessly pushing her son so he could see the potential she saw. They went to the gym and lifted weights. They did squats. They worked on their core.
"It's all true," Warren said. "What's so remarkable about her is she took on the role of mother, father and coach before she actually knew what she was doing. At the age of 7 and 8, you're just being mom. She was the first one who was able to catch the ball with him. If they had a practice on tackling and mom's got to tackle, then mom's got to tackle. She knew with that gift, in order to be great, he had to put in the work."
What Felicia Jones has done with her son speaks for itself. Lamar Jackson remains the Heisman front-runner with 38 total touchdowns through eight games, on pace to set a new NCAA record.
If you're looking for a proud parent to wave at the camera and gush about her son's success, that's not Jones. She could provide the best insight into why she decided to be so involved with her son and how that influenced his career trajectory, but she remains a relative mystery. And that's how she wants it.
She has declined repeated requests for interviews. Even when Jackson was breaking out as a star in Boynton Beach, Florida, Jones never commented publicly. Jackson says his mom is a private person who just wants him to play football. Those who know her believe she would rather have the spotlight be on Jackson than herself.
But make no mistake. The driving force behind Lamar Jackson and his ascendant sophomore season is his mother.
"She's the one behind the scenes," Warren said.
Just because Jones has remained quiet doesn't mean you can't find Lamar Jackson's mysterious secret weapon.
On a recent Sunday, Warren gathers his young football players together before training begins to go over the plan for the day. Then, he excuses himself for a few moments and walks toward a wooden bench across from the field.
He points back toward the players as they begin their sprints.
"Do you see her?" he asks. "That's Lamar's mom. She runs the sprints."
From that distance, it's hard to see Jones as the players run past her. Warren explains that she still comes to train them every Sunday, even though Jackson is at Louisville now. This is her routine, but this is also her passion.
For 11 years, Jones has come to this park to watch fledgling football players work and train and push, all hoping for a scholarship one day. She started coming when Lamar was 8, and she kept coming when she moved 25 miles up the road to Boynton Beach, and she kept coming when she sent Lamar off.
After Lamar left, she told Warren she wanted to help him establish his own training academy with eight core values. "The Super 8" as they are called: God, prayer, faith, family, education, sacrifice, character, discipline.
Because, she told him, she wanted every boy who came to that park to one day earn a Division I scholarship.
So here they are, working with 15 players, most wearing red Super 8 T-shirts. Warren returns to work on quarterback drills, guiding players on their handoffs and dropbacks. Mastering the three-step drop and five-step drop are requirements. Warren points at one little boy and says, "That is how big Lamar was when I started working with him."
Jones retreats to a metal bench and watches, her face shielded by dark sunglasses and a Louisville cap. Her black Louisville T-shirt reads PUNISH. In the stands behind her, several people watch -- including the man who first introduced Warren to Jones and her boy. Jackson started training on this very field after his first coach, Reggie Crockett, pulled Warren aside and said, "You've got to get with L." Warren coaches the 12-year-old Pompano Cowboys, but he had developed a knack for helping quarterbacks.
The day after meeting with Crockett, Warren introduced himself to Jones and Jackson. Warren shook Jackson's hand, and then told him rather directly, "If you can't throw the ball 20 yards, you can't play quarterback." Warren walked 20 yards away and had Jackson throw him the ball.
Warren had one reaction: Let's get to work. He has developed such a close relationship with the family, he calls Jones, "Ma." Jackson calls him, "Coach Peanut."
Soon, the sunlight begins to fade and practice ends.
Warren and Jones address their students. Jones barely speaks above a whisper, but she is adamant about one thing: They all must be committed to excellence. That means showing up every week. That means showing up on time. That means accepting coaching. That means listening. That means showing good character. Would they all be committed?
"Yes ma'am," they say.
Jones walks back to the bench after quietly declining an interview request.
Jackson lost his father in a car accident when he was young, leaving Jones to fill all roles in the house, including trainer. Jones often took the boys to the beach to make the backyard workouts even harder. They ran in the sand with parachutes strapped to their backs. Jackson would get in the water and practice his dropbacks to gain leg strength. Then he would practice the dropback technique in the sand.
They did cone drills. They did drills with the medicine ball, in which Jones made Jackson twist from side to side for three minutes at a time. He would stand and throw the ball to her, and she would throw it back.
Every drill presented a new form of misery.
"I used to complain a lot," Jackson said. "There were days I was like, 'Mom, I don't want to go today.'"
Of all the workouts, Jackson had a special dislike for the heavy ball because it was so difficult to get through. He may have complained about these most of all. Yet those drills have had perhaps the biggest impact.
"His core is one of the things that is his strength," said Rick Swain, his former high school coach. "He's hard to bring down because he's got great balance and his core strength is so good. That might be the secret to his success."
It hardly mattered how much Jackson complained. He had no choice in the matter. Jones made him do the workouts, and she had no patience or tolerance for excuses. From age 8, that meant working out six days a week. Saturdays were his only day to rest.
"Lamar was this gift and you see talent like that a lot here in South Florida, but you don't see the work," Warren said. "That was the difference, seeing him put in the extra work. It was like, 'Yeah I can throw the football,' but being able to work on the craft, being able to throw that out ... he was a perfectionist. He wanted to get it right every single time."
Once Jackson reached high school, the workouts intensified. Soon, Boynton Beach teammates would join Jackson for Sunday workouts. High school teammate Trequan Smith attended his first workout with Jackson, which happened to be on the beach; Warren and Jones led the workouts. Jackson recalls teammates either throwing up or being unable to finish because they had never gone through such a challenging workout.
Then, like now, Smith recalls Jones running sprints.
"They were intense," Smith said. "My legs went numb. He does some extreme workouts. There's nothing easy that he does. The easy stuff, the fundamental stuff he's got that down pat so a lot of the stuff he works on is hard, like the stuff he has to do in games."
Jones still emphasized backyard work even as Jackson started making a name for himself in high school. One day, she decided to buy a 300-pound tire and a sledgehammer. The purpose was twofold. First, she wanted her boys to be able to flip the tire across the backyard. She also wanted them to use the sledgehammer to pound the tire over and over.
Keep in mind she had one thing she always told her boys: "I won't tell you to do something that I can't do."
"So that means she flipped the tire," Warren said.
Jackson often did the tire work after football practice. Or he would run suicides in the backyard. Or he did both, depending on the day. Sometimes, his extra workouts lasted for up to one hour. On Sundays, the workouts became harder, too. Jackson did ladder drills with a band around his ankles, helping his footwork and balance.
"I did it because I wanted to be great," Jackson said.
All that preparation showed once he started playing as a junior at Boynton Beach. Jones would sit in the stands wearing regular clothing, nothing that gave her away as Jackson's mom. She wore headphones and listened to gospel music as she watched, wanting to drown out the noise and simply focus on Jackson. She never clapped or offered words of encouragement.
Warren looked at her puzzled the first time he sat with her at a game. But Jones works best when she observes. She puts everything together in her head, making mental notes along the way. Then afterward, she tells Jackson exactly what needs to be done. She did it at his first session with Warren. She did it during his high school games.
She does it now, even though he's at Louisville as a top Heisman contender. After every game, Jones offers her critique and Jackson gets back to work, both on the field and off. His strides in the weight room cannot be overlooked, nor can the foundation his mom gave him.
Since Jackson arrived at Louisville in June 2015, he has made incredible strides in the weight room. Jackson has put on 13 pounds of lean muscle mass; reduced his body fat from 10.6 percent to 4.6 percent; increased his broad jump 17 inches; and can now squat 450 pounds. On a standard sit-and-reach test, he used to be able to touch his toes without bending his knees. Now, he can go 3.5 inches over his toes.
Jackson already came in with a strong base from all his high school workouts. He has made significantly more gains and has never shied away from his coaches' demands. Jackson routinely comes in at 6 a.m. and is one of the leaders in the weight room, garnering him even more respect from his teammates.
"Whatever his mother instilled in him in high school, he's carried over in college and he's taken it upon himself to mature, and he can flat out play the game," said Joe Miday, Louisville's head strength and conditioning coach.
As he matured, Jackson gained a new appreciation for all those drills he did with his brother and mother. To this day, he goes back to the park to work with Warren and help the young players whenever he goes home. His mom is never far behind. "That's my mom, and she wanted to see me be great," Jackson said. "She said, 'If you want to do this, you're going to be great at it.' That's what I want to be, too. We have the same mind set."