SAN ANTONIO -- DeSean Jackson took home Most Valuable Player honors at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl Saturday, but MVP might as well have stood for Most Vindicated Performer.
That's because the speedy 6-0, 170-pound wideout from Long Beach, Calif., rebounded from one of the most eye-popping gaffes in recent sports history that no doubt will be replayed thousands of times on highlight shows -- probably long after his promising athletic career is completed.
Jackson's Leon Lett moment happened in the first half after he hauled in a Jim Barnes throw down the left sideline. Jackson shook off a tackler and appeared to have a clear path to coast the final 20 yards into the end zone.
Trouble was Jackson, who already had one long touchdown called back in the game for an ineligible man downfield, got a little caught up in the moment. OK, a lot caught up in the moment.
At the 10 he started to rev up his speed a little and then -- whoosh! -- he took flight from just inside the 6-yard line, vaulting his body into air, somersaulting his way towards paydirt. It was a spectacular sight, Jackson's body flipping head-over-heels, he even switched the ball from right hand to left hand.
There was only one problem: he miscalculated and came up six inches short and braced himself with his left hand, the one cupping the ball, which popped out on impact. He was ruled down at the one, but flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and his West team got the ball at the 16.
"Oh my God, I wanted to kill him," says Jackson's father Bill, who was still laughing as he clutched the MVP trophy. "I wish I would've been down on the sidelines, I would've beaten him up."
The younger Jackson, who says he's deciding between USC, Cal and LSU, and baseball too, had told some of his buddies during the week that he was going to do something special, but said afterwards he didn't plan that move, it just popped into his head.
"I was like, 'Man I'm gonna do the Reggie Bush,'" Jackson said, referring to the USC tailback who has made soaring into the end zone one of his trademarks. "But I just didn't make it. I guess I should've taken off from the 5. Actually, it was something I shouldn't have done."
Truth be told, Jackson's goof, while laughable, doesn't deserve to be lumped in with other memorable feats of premature jubilation (re: Bill Gramatica tearing ligaments when jumping up to celebrate his field goal or Gus Frerotte whooping it up after a touchdown by head-butting a wall, knocking himself loopy). This was, after all, a high school all-star game.
"You're supposed to try and have fun in all-star games, right?" said West tight end Martellus Bennett. "He was just trying to shine."
Even though Jackson's teammates razzed him, the West coaches weren't very amused. They benched him for a couple of series. His brother Byron, a former NFL player who was Jeff Garcia's receiver at San Jose State, hustled down to the sideline to give him a pep talk to put the play behind him. So did Herman Boone, the coaching legend from "Remember the Titans" fame.
Jackson promptly responded by snatching a jump-ball away from a DB. Later in the second half, Jackson, a top baseball prospect, who says he can heave a football 70 yards, showed off his throwing arm. He had taken a pitch from WR Slick Shelley on an end around, and then fired a strike deep downfield, connecting with QB Ryan Perrilloux, for a touchdown.
In addition to his TD pass, Jackson caught seven passes for 141 yards. The MVP trophy more than made up for the embarrassing highlight moment, he says. Of course, he knows that play will probably be a small part of his legacy, which considering the way he followed up, it's probably not such a bad thing.
"Yeah, and if that's what it is, I'll have to deal with it," he said.
Few players sport a richer pedigree than Derek Nicholson. A 6-0, 230-pound linebacker from Winston-Salem, N.C., Nicholson is the kid brother of Florida State star LB A.J. Nicholson and the son of former UNC standout Darrell Nicholson. On Saturday, despite having his team blown out, the younger Nicholson showed he could be every bit as good as his big brother or the old man. Nicholson was all over the field, slipping blocks and knifing through gaps.
"I proved I am the best linebacker in the country," he said.
Although don't expect Nicholson to start surfing the Web to see if he raised his stock. "I really try to stay off that stuff because it can blow your head up or it can really piss you off."
Fred Rouse, a dynamic WR from Tallahassee, has long been expected to end up as a Seminole. However, all week Rouse has played to the spotlight and after one play even threw a Hook 'em sign, which got the Texas fans pretty excited. But as one player joked afterwards, that was "just Fred messin' with people's minds."
Jason Gwaltney, perhaps the most celebrated football recruit out of Long Island since Jim Brown, and a guy we're told will pick USC over West Virginia, didn't get too much chance to show his skills as a ball carrier. But the rock-solid 6-0, 220-pounder was one of the most physically impressive players on the field, blasting people on kick coverage and once absolutely destroying 322-pound DT Jerrell Powe in pass protection.
Biggest winner this weekend down in San Antonio? Try West QB Mark Sanchez. The Orange County native who is headed to USC, was very pleased by Matt Leinart's decision to return to Troy for one more year. Not only does that give Sanchez, a guy who is about as impressive as any player down here, a great person to learn from (the two QBs have already developed a good friendship), but it also gives him an additional year to grasp the USC system for when the job comes open.
The "Army Game" seems like a great place to recruit, and with an amazing display of high-tech military hardware and history, it is a pretty awe-inspiring scene, but beneath the surface the real recruiting game was taking place this week on the sidelines and in hotel elevators and lobbies.
Players do all they can to try and sway their pals, but one thing we noticed were the number of parents who were doing their part to recruit other parents.
"One guy kept telling me about Kirk Ferentz so much I thought he was on the Iowa staff," said one parent. "He was a nice guy, but he just wouldn't let up about how they get the most out of their players as opposed to, say, Mack Brown."
Speaking of Brown and his Longhorns, they are going to be getting a devastating force in DT Roy Miller, a 6-2, 300-pounder from Killeen, Texas -- the same town that gave Oklahoma Tommie Harris, who has served as Miller's mentor. The young DT has tremendous strength (claiming a 450-pound bench), but what really impressed us was his ability to track down ball carriers and beat some highly touted O-linemen with his agility.
This wasn't the best showcase for basketball/football star Greg Paulus. The QB from Syracuse heading to Duke to play point guard struggled. While he didn't have the arm of the other QBs in the game, Paulus did show good feet and leadership. But some of his receivers were very down on his quarterbacking skills, saying he's making the right choice by picking basketball.
If you watched the game and wondered why would one of these guys announce he wants to play at Baylor, as Southern California wideout David Gettis did, don't think it was just about football. The 6-4, 190-pounder is a gifted receiver prospect, but a big factor is the Bears' outstanding track program, the one that produced the great Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner. Gettis is a two-time state champ in the 400 meters.
Patrick Turner, a smooth 6-5, 210-pound receiver from Nashville, was the player that had everyone talking this week in practice. But he was really not a big factor Saturday and some of the credit should go to Derek Pegues, a surprisingly physical 5-10 corner from Mississippi, who did a terrific job battling the big receiver on the line. Turner managed just two catches for six yards and both of those came on quick screens.
Don't be surprised if DeSean Jackson ends up bypassing football for baseball. "He's motivated by money," says his brother Byron. "He's always been like that. He loves football though."
Of course, after the show he put on Saturday in the AlamoDome, Jackson surely will have some leverage.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.