As friends celebrate Vincent Jackson's life, they struggle with the uncertainty around his death

Former wide receiver Vincent Jackson spent 12 seasons in the NFL, including five with Tampa Bay. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

TAMPA, Fla. -- The headlines seemed to have it all wrong.

"Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers star Vincent Jackson, 38, found dead in a hotel room."

It couldn't possibly be. How could it?

Not the man who seemed to be acing every aspect of life since retirement in 2016 after 12 NFL seasons with his wife of 10 years, Lindsey, and four children.

Not the man who went back to finish his college degree in 2016 and had accumulated an impressive real estate portfolio, opened five restaurants and written three children's books. Not the man whose Jackson in Action 83 Foundation served more than 12,000 active military members and their families at MacDill Air Force Base, along with reservists and retired service members.

So many questions have yet to be answered since Jackson's body was discovered on Feb. 15. He had not been living with his family at the time of his death but had been staying at a Homewood Suites in Brandon, Florida, for more than a month. Shocked former teammates and coaches are trying to process it. Many are struggling with the idea Jackson died alone because he spent much of his life helping others.

The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner does not suspect foul play. There were no signs of trauma to his body. They said it could take several weeks or months before they know the cause of death.

"He was a god damn amazing leader," former Bucs teammate Russell Shepard said of the former wide receiver. "He was the most influential player I've ever come across in my career."

'You're with me, you'll be fine'

Former Chargers fullback Jacob Hester received an unexpected welcome the first time he walked into San Diego's locker room as a rookie third-round draft pick out of LSU in 2008, and Jackson flashed that disarming smile.

"My Bayou brother!" Jackson exclaimed.

"And I'm like, 'Wait a minute, you played at like a Northern Colorado?'" Hester said, completely caught off guard. "‘What do you mean Bayou brother? Like you got Louisiana ties?'"

"He was like, 'Man, I grew up in Leesville, Louisiana, stationed at Fort Polk. I've got deep Louisiana ties,'" Hester said.

"So he would call me his Bayou brother, and I call him my 'Wampus Cat brother,' because the Leesville [High School] Wampus Cats," Hester said.

When players attended a golf tournament at Torrey Pines in San Diego and Hester was feeling uneasy about being the only rookie there, Jackson, who was entering his fourth season, told him, "No, dude, come on. You're with me, you'll be fine."

"That meant so much to me to just, welcome me to the team, and he was really a mentor to me," Hester said. "For one of the main guys on the team to do that for me, it was always something that I was grateful for."

Jackson finished his career with 540 catches and 9,080 yards. Even after he surpassed 1,000 yards for the first time in 2008 and made the Pro Bowl, Jackson continued to stay late, catching extra passes on the Jugs machine and flipping tires during summer workouts.

"He was always the guy that was trying to get other teammates to stay and do more," Hester said. "I remember any time somebody would try to leave like right after we got done, he'd be like, 'Hey, what's the rush, you don't want to get better today?'"

‘Don't just cage yourself'

It was the same thing in Tampa Bay. Shepard remembers when he first got to the Bucs in 2013 and Jackson took every rep, even with the scout team.

"Seeing him work and shut up, and everybody else was just bitching and complaining because [then-coach] Greg [Schiano] had his iPad running like crazy," Shepard said. "It was a hell of a first impression watching this multimillionaire go out there and grind like he was still trying to make the team."

Shepard credits Jackson for shaping their practice habits.

"Mike Evans did not like to practice when he first got into the league," Shepard said of the No. 7 overall pick in 2014. "Now he works his ass off. The only reason he's like that today is because of Vincent Jackson. He watched V-Jax take rep after rep after rep."

Jackson knew how to have fun, too. One of Shepard's fondest memories was when Jackson invited the wide receivers to his newly remodeled South Tampa home for dinner and they were eating in the backyard. Jackson suddenly disappeared.

"He comes back a couple of minutes later -- he's on top of the god damn pool house roof and he jumps off the roof into the pool," Shepard said, laughing. "And this is like in the middle of the season. And we're like, 'V-Jax, are you crazy?'"

When the Bucs were preparing to play the Minnesota Vikings during the 2015 preseason, Jackson bought a baby-sized Adrian Peterson jersey and signed Peterson's name on it, gifting it to Shepard, who idolized Peterson, telling him it was for his son, before confessing it was a prank.

"V-Jax and all the guys got tired of me talking about him," Shepard said of Peterson. "[Jackson] was so serious all the time, but he was a big jokester, man."

But Jackson's greatest impact on Shepard was helping him prepare for life after football. Jackson started his own real estate investment company, CTV Capital, in 2012 before earning his bachelor's degree at the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business in 2016.

Shepard bounced ideas off Jackson, which led to him founding his own waste management company in Houston, Shep Boys Waste Management.

"I don't think I'll ever come across a person like I've met with him," Shepard said of Jackson. "That's how much of an impact he made on my life, as far as being more than an athlete. He was a walking example every day for us in that locker room that, ‘Look, don't just cage yourself.' He encouraged us to be entrepreneurs, he encouraged us to be active in our foundations, being a pro's pro. That's where I got that term."

'He is who we thought he was'

Several of Jackson's close friends, former teammates and foundation members have struggled with news reports about Jackson following his death, particularly a statement Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister made on a local radio morning show, saying Jackson had "chronic alcoholism."

Jackson pleaded guilty twice to drunken driving in 2006 and 2009. Hester said Jackson grew from those incidents.

"I truly felt like that was the moment where [he said], 'This has gotta stop, this is enough, let's move on from it,'" Hester said of Jackson's second DUI.

But Jackson's family told the sheriff's office it believed he was suffering from alcoholism and the effects of multiple concussions at the time of his death.

Toxicology and autopsy reports on Jackson have not yet been released.

"There cannot be a rush to judgment in determining cause and manner of death," Michelle Van Dyke, a spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner, said in an email.

The Jackson family donated Vincent's brain to Boston University's CTE Center in an effort to learn more from his death.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease that can be caused by repeated head trauma, including trauma from sports such as football and boxing. It can be diagnosed only posthumously and in a special autopsy that examines specific portions of the brain.

But Andre Kirwan, Jackson's friend of several years who also was a business associate, believes whatever the cause of death, it shouldn't change people's perception of Jackson and the way he lived his life.

"For me the overarching message for me -- and so everybody else that loved him and knew him dearly -- is he is who we thought he was," Kirwan said, who described Jackson as honorable and dependable.

"When you talked to him, one of the most endearing qualities [about] him was how he made you feel like the focus of every conversation – undivided attention, no matter what was going on around you. You could tell not only was he hearing you -- he was listening, and offering advice, offering guidance, offering assistance, how can he help? How can he get involved? What can he do to leave [the situation] better than when he found it?”

Jackson had an enormous heart and did extraordinary things, especially through his foundation, which has awarded $34,500 in scholarships to children of active duty and retired veterans, along with veterans looking to continue their education.

Air Force Sgt. Russell Fenimore and his wife, Tiffany, found support from Jackson through reading his first children's book -- "Danny Dogtags: Dealing with Deployment" -- to their four sons, Riley, Cooper, Harrison and Murphy.

They had to sit the boys down to break the news of Jackson's death.

"They're all distraught and heartbroken," Fenimore said. "It's hard because everything on this base [MacDill] represents [Jackson], from baseball fields and the football fields to the walk to school every day -- it's the same route they did on the parade. They definitely know it ... they miss him.

"I've been around the world seven times. He's the first person, let alone NFL superstar, to actually care about the children in the community behind the military. To me, that was something special, something unique."

Kirwan added, "It wasn't lip service -- it was passion. His life was a passion project to being the change."

Shepard last spoke to Jackson a month before his death. Shepard's daughter Ramsey got into his phone and inadvertently left Jackson an Instagram voice message. Shepard apologized. Jackson responded. Shepard still has the message saved.

"He told me, 'I'm proud of you.'"

"I owe him my life," Shepard said. "I owe him everything because it's one thing to show me how to be a great football player. It's another thing to show me how to be a great businessman and a father and a husband. The things he showed me will last me the rest of my f---ing life, so I owe him everything."