Sidesteps, leaps and 100-yard toss: Legend of Ravens' Lamar Jackson rooted in South Florida

BALTIMORE -- The pocket was collapsing around Lamar Jackson, forcing him to juke a defender to get to the outside. Then, while on the run, Jackson launched a 40-yard pass downfield for a touchdown.

“Oh my God!” a woman cried out from the crowd as Jackson’s pass soared in the air.

This wasn’t a highlight from Jackson’s MVP season with the Baltimore Ravens in 2019, or a recent clip from one of his incredible comebacks. This was an 11-year-old Jackson at a youth-league championship game called The Ultimate Bowl in 2008, and the play can still be viewed in grainy footage on YouTube.

That type of reaction has long been the soundtrack of Jackson’s football life. When the Ravens play at the Miami Dolphins on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network/Fox), Jackson will be returning to the area where he first wowed everyone with his ability to run around tacklers and throw the ball farther than anyone else.

From Pompano Beach to Northwest Broward County to Boynton Beach, coaches, players and fans who watched him during those early years in Florida remember witnessing a special athlete.

"You can go back and see tape where he would do certain things as a youth, and then of course, everybody would say: 'He won’t be able to do that on the next level,'" said Van Warren, who has been one of Jackson's most influential coaches since childhood. "Then when he got to [Boynton Beach] High School, he wowed everybody. Then, well, ‘He did it in high school but he won’t be able to do it in college.’ He ended up winning the Heisman Trophy.

“I’m not really surprised when I see him on TV.”

Jackson was named MVP his first season of playing football at the age of 7 and won the award for every youth football team onward. From ages 8 to 13, he would regularly score five to six touchdowns per game -- the box scores would get printed in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In two years at Boynton Beach, Jackson won 22 of 24 games and scored 80 touchdowns. He produced more than 5,000 yards of offense along with countless leaps, sidesteps, broken tackles and stiff-arms.

A group of about 30 people who watched Jackson in high school is making the short trip south to attend Thursday’s game at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. They expect Jackson’s mother, Felicia Jones, and brother, Jamar, to stop by their tailgate and share stories of what Jackson did before he took the NCAA and NFL by storm.

"We don’t see him as Lamar Jackson football star,” said Lyndon Clemons, an assistant principal in Palm Beach County. "He’s Lamar. He’s a regular kid.”

'Let's go to work'

Warren was Jackson’s first quarterback coach. He met him on a football field when Jackson was 8 after hearing all the buzz about him beating older kids in street football.

Warren’s challenge to Jackson: If you want to play quarterback, you have to throw the football 20 yards.

“He threw me a dime,” Warren said. "I was like, ‘OK, let’s go to work.’”

Over several years, Jackson and Warren met at a local park every Sunday to work on quarterback mechanics, focusing on everything from footwork to holding the ball correctly. There would be times when they would spend nearly a half-hour on three-step drops.

On one particular Sunday morning, a teenage Jackson got a chance to go to a Dolphins game, and he asked his mother if he could attend. The answer was no. He had committed to training on Sundays, and it was too late to break that obligation.

“He’s the hardest working kid I’ve ever been around,” Warren said. "He’s the one who finished all of the training.”

'He would fake you out of your shoes'

Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary and Jackson grew up 10 minutes from each other. The only time they collided in youth football was at the age of 9 in an 80-pound league.

Singletary got the better of Jackson early, running him over for a touchdown. Jackson, who was playing cornerback for the first time, later acknowledged he was upset about the missed tackle.

On the next play, Jackson responded with a touchdown run of his own.

"A lot of people don’t know that just because Lamar plays quarterback, they might not think he’s physical,” Singletary said. "But he had a few runs where he dropped his shoulder on a linebacker. It was serious. He can do it all. He definitely retaliated.”

With the score tied at 14, Jackson won the game with a late touchdown run.

"Nothing has changed,” Singletary said. "He would fake you out of your shoes. He might have jumped over you. Whatever it took to win, he did it all.”

'The whole crowd went: ‘Woooo!’

Ed “Bubba” Jones, who coached Jackson at age 11, took as much pleasure in watching Jackson play defense as quarterback. Lining up at safety, Jackson hit a running back so hard that his helmet flew off.

“The whole crowd went: ‘Woooo!’” Jones said.

Jackson’s Northwest Broward Raiders lost to the powerhouse Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes 12-0 in that game, but the teams met again that season in the Super Bowl. It was a huge challenge for the Raiders to knock off the South Florida Youth Football League's two-time defending champions, who had won 40-plus straight games.

Before 5,000 fans, Jackson fumbled near the goal line on the opening drive but bounced back to throw two touchdowns in a 14-6 triumph.

"If I had the film of that game, you would be like: he looks the same as he does now,” Jones said.

As champions, the players got to choose their reward: a Super Bowl ring or a trip to Disney World? They went for the ring.

'I couldn’t believe it'

Bill Tome was a resource police officer at Boynton Beach High when a student ran up to him to say the team got a great transfer quarterback.

Tome hopped into his golf cart to race over to the football field where he got a glimpse of a 16-year-old Jackson throwing the ball.

“You’re pretty good,” Tome told Jackson before delivering a playful jab. “But you’re not that good.”

When Jackson asked why, Tome explained, “Because you didn’t play for my Bulldogs.”

Tome had been the director of the Boynton Beach Bulldogs, one of the top youth football programs in the area.

“You’re right, sir,” Jackson said to Tome. “I beat your Bulldogs in the playoffs when I was 11.”

Tome checked it out by calling the head coach of the Bulldogs, who informed him that Jackson ran in two touchdowns to lead the Raiders to a 12-6 victory over the Bulldogs in the 2008 playoffs.

"He did his usual zigzag all over the place. You know, Lamar Jackson style,” Tome said. "I didn’t know who he was, and then I see him five years later and I couldn’t believe it."

'Get your popcorn ready'

Clemons, an assistant principal at Boynton Beach High at the time, was in the stadium press box after a flag football game when he heard Jackson yell, “Watch this.”

Jackson threw the ball 100 yards -- from one end of the field to the other. The video of the high-arcing toss, which includes a woman saying, “Oh my gosh, Lamar," has generated nearly 165,000 views since 2015, as well as plenty of skeptics.

“People see that video a lot of times, and they’re like, ‘That’s made up,’” Clemons said. “I’m like listen, at the school I was in, that was not made up. We didn’t doctor any videos. The kid really did that.”

Another video that went viral was of a spring game against Village Academy in May 2014. A scrambling Jackson ran down the right sideline before abruptly pulling up at the 1-yard line to let the defender fly past him. He then walked into the end zone and threw his hands up. Highlight packages of this play have totaled more than four million views.

"When you watch him and you watch others, you never know what you’re going to get next or how he’s going to do something fantastic," said Clemons, who was on the field for that memorable play. "So get your popcorn ready, because he’s going to put on a show for you."

'Stay tuned'

Jackson has never lost touch with his roots, even though he’s become one of the biggest stars in the sport. He still has his championship ring from when he won the Super Bowl at 11. On his social media, he’ll post team photos from his youth football days -- circling himself with a laughing emoji underneath -- as well as videos where he repeatedly fakes out defenders.

Jackson also remembers many of the youth football highlights that never made YouTube. Asked about the time one of his teammates nearly lost his pants running for a touchdown, Jackson acted as if he were back at the fields in Pompano Beach.

Going step by step in precise detail, Jackson recalled a game when he was 12 years old and his team trailed with one minute left in the fourth quarter. He recited the playcall that “Coach Peanut” [Warren] had given him during the timeout, imitating the exact instructions from him. Jackson then reenacted the play, rolling out to his right and motioning the throw to the opposite side to a teammate named Jet.

And, yes, Jet did have to hold up his pants as he ran into the end zone.

“Those days mean a lot to me,” Jackson said. "I always reminisce about stuff like that. You can only be a kid once.”

That’s what makes this South Florida homecoming as special for those who watched him as it is for Jackson. For just the second time in Jackson's NFL career, fans will get to watch him again in-person at a stadium that sits 25 miles from where all of those legendary stories began.

"The world is amazed by what they're seeing now,” Warren said. "But I still say, stay tuned."