Vincent Jackson's death confounds those who knew him, saw him thrive after football
For many professional athletes, retirement is a daunting moment – a push into a new, unfamiliar phase of life, and confusion about what might or should come next.
But for Vincent Jackson, there never appeared to be any questions about what his post-football life would bring.
As his 12-year career in the NFL neared its end in 2016, Jackson shifted his focus to the real estate company he founded midway through his career. He owned several restaurants and worked to restore a historic event venue. He went back to school and earned his business degree. He helped run the charitable foundation that bears his name. And he spent time with his wife, Lindsey, and their four children.
"He wasn’t sad when he retired," longtime business partner Adam Itzkowitz told USA TODAY Sports. "He just kind of wanted to move on and explore other things."
For some who knew Jackson, the sheer breadth of his post-football passions is part of what made this week's news all the more difficult to comprehend.
The former San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver was found dead in a Florida hotel room Monday morning, more than a month after he first checked in there and days after his family reported him as missing. He was just 38 years old.
The sheriff's and medical examiner's offices in Hillsborough County, Florida are still investigating Jackson's death, but family members have told investigators that they believe chronic alcoholism and the lingering effects of concussions might have played a role, according to a statement released by the sheriff's office Wednesday.
"The exact cause and manner of Mr. Jackson's death will not be certain until his autopsy, among other reports, is complete," the sheriff's office said, adding that process could take several weeks.
'THIS HURTS SO BAD':Vincent Jackson's death stuns former Bucs teammate
Football fans might remember Jackson for his accomplishments on the field, where he was a tall, physical receiver with 57 career touchdown catches. But those who knew him recall his infectious personality and penchant for charity. In his five years with the Buccaneers, he was the team's nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award four times.
"If that’s not an indication of what kind of man he was, then I don’t know what is," former teammate Gerald McCoy told USA TODAY Sports.
Jackson's death hit particularly hard in Tampa, where he had become a well-known business leader and philanthropist. He was named an honorary deputy by the local sheriff's office, and an honorary commander by a local Air Force base. The South Tampa Chamber of Commerce named him "Citizen of the Year" in 2017.
"Vincent casted a bigger shadow after his career than he did during his career, when it comes to our community," said Mario Frias, another former business partner. "He was a great businessman. He was a great citizen of our community. And more importantly, he was a humble and giving soul. You don’t come across people like that."
From 'model kid' to entrepreneur
Jackson was born in Fort Polk, Louisiana, home to a military installation of the same name. His parents, Terence and Sherry, both served in the U.S. Army; According to the website for Jackson's foundation, they actually met at boot camp.
The Jacksons moved several times in Vincent's childhood before settling in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he lettered in both football and basketball at Widefield High School. His position coach on the football team, Fred Marjerrison, said Jackson also excelled academically, graduating with a grade-point average north of 4.0.
"A model kid," Marjerrison said. "I don’t know how else to explain him."
More success followed in college and the NFL. Jackson had a record-setting football career at the University of Northern Colorado, and also led the basketball team in scoring during his sophomore year. After being picked in the second round of the 2005 NFL draft, he went on to reach three Pro Bowls with the Chargers and Buccaneers and amass more than 9,000 receiving yards over 12 seasons.
Along the way, he also started thinking about what he would do after his career ended – and started laying the groundwork for post-football life. Jackson first opened a restaurant on the beach in San Diego called "Dirty Birds," which specializes in wings, then added several other restaurants or franchises to his portfolio in subsequent years.
Itzkowitz said he met Jackson through mutual friends when the wide receiver was at the end of his career with the Buccaneers. An attorney by trade, Itzkowitz had spent some time in the restaurant industry, and Jackson had a concept for a new restaurant in mind. The result of their partnership – Cask Social Kitchen – opened in south Tampa in 2015.
"He didn’t want the place to be known for him. ... He didn’t want it to be ‘The Vincent Jackson Sports Bar’ kind of thing," Itzkowitz explained. "In fact, I had to kind of battle with him to get him to do anything so we could have some exposure with him. He was always reluctant to do that, because he wanted the business to speak for itself."
Jackson's restaurant investments were just part of his post-NFL plan. He briefly operated a handful of Orangetheory Fitness studios. He went back to school and finished his college coursework, graduating with a bachelor's degree in business management from the University of South Florida. And he enjoyed just being a dad.
"I’ve got four young kids, and it’s a joy," Jackson told South Tampa Magazine in a December 2019 article. "They put gas in my tank. That’s first and foremost for me."
Jackson's primary business venture was a real estate and development company called CTV Capital, which he founded during his playing career, in 2012. Based in Tampa, the company was designed to serve as a sort of one-stop shop for real estate projects, with branches in construction, insurance, property management and so on.
Jackson that he fell in love with the real estate and development business in particular because of its human element, the ability to help inject life into a community with a renovation or a project.
"I love the philanthropic part of it," Jackson told South Tampa Magazine. "I really look at it as, yes, we’re a for-profit business, but you can impact neighborhoods. This is part of improving communities."
Jackson also devoted a significant chunk of his time to The Jackson In Action 83 Foundation, a nonprofit he founded shortly after signing with the Buccaneers as a free agent in 2012. The organization aims to provide emotional and educational support for the children of military members, like Jackson was himself.
MacDill Air Force Base, which is located in Tampa, said in a statement Wednesday that Jackson regularly read to children at an elementary school on the base and donated care packages to those in need.
"His mission was to help military parents continue to raise their children and maintain close bonds, even when separated by thousands of miles," the military installation said in a statement. "His dedication to the service of others and altruistic nature are what Team MacDill strives for."
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Itzkowitz recalled a conversation he had with Jackson before he retired, asking him what he wanted to do with his life after leaving the NFL.
Jackson said he didn't want to be a broadcaster, or a coach. He didn't want to be known as just a football player, centering the rest of the life around the sport he had played for so long. He wanted to pursue other passions.
"He had a lot of things going, a lot of irons in the fire," Itzkowitz said. "I never suspected that there was any type of issue with him, post-football career, with losing a sense of purpose. In fact, it was the opposite."
More recently, Jackson was part of a development group that was working to restore the Manhattan Casino, a historic concert venue and event hall. Frias, one of his partners on the project, said he was struck by the relentlessly positive attitude that the former NFL wide receiver brought to their efforts.
"His positive attitude was always, 'We’ll figure it out. Let’s put our heads together and we’ll figure (it) out,' " Frias said. "His positivity was absolutely infectious. ... He definitely was not a doom-and-gloom guy. He wasn’t."
Frias said he was on a Zoom call with Jackson less than two weeks ago. They spoke on the phone last Thursday, about their efforts to reopen the casino hall amid COVID-19 next month. "He was excited about it," Frias said.
Authorities have yet to determine the cause and manner of Jackson's death. But according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the 38-year-old had been staying at a Homewood Suites on the outskirts of Tampa for more than a month. His family reported him as missing last week before officers located him at the hotel Friday, assessed his well-being and canceled the missing person report.
Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a local radio interview Wednesday that some of Jackson's relatives have told investigators they suspected chronic alcoholism might have contributed to his death. Jackson was arrested twice for driving under the influence during his NFL career, in 2006 and 2009. The NFL suspended him for three games in 2010 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Jackson's family has requested privacy but said in a statement Tuesday that his death has left "a hole in our hearts that can never be filled." A family spokesperson said funeral arrangements have not been finalized.
"In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the (Jackson in Action 83) foundation," the family said in its statement. "Your support will allow for Vincent's commitment to military families to continue in a meaningful way, which truly honors a life that meant so much to so many."
As authorities continue to investigate Jackson's death, those who knew him are still trying to process it.
McCoy recalls Jackson reaching out to him late last year about an idea that he thought might help others, a Zoom call for current and former players with tips about financial management. Frias remembers a man whose personality was so larger than life that "he could’ve been a brick mason and I don’t think it would’ve changed who he was." Itzkowitz said Jackson was "always upbeat" and "always looking ahead."
"I don’t recall a time he ever turned down an autograph. I don’t recall a time he ever turned down a picture. I don’t recall a time he ever turned down just a conversation with people when they came up," Itzkowitz said.
"I honestly never heard him complain. He understood the position that he was in. I think he felt blessed with where he was at."
Contributing: Jarrett Bell and Brent Schrotenboer
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.