Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Former Navy SEAL Jackson Honored to be a Husker

By Brian Rosenthal

He’s 27 years old, has never played a down of football in his life, and had no prior connections to Nebraska, other than his mother’s employer, who played for the Huskers more than 50 years ago.

Yet Damian Jackson, his thick, full beard a clear indication he’s not an ordinary college freshman, is the first person Nebraska fans see emerge from the locker room, the American flag in hand as he leads the Tunnel Walk.

Nebraska players and coaches wouldn’t have it any other way, either.

Jackson, from Las Vegas, joined the team as a walk-on last spring after serving as a member of the Navy SEALs for four years.

“In the beginning of the year, everybody came up to me and wanted me to hold (the flag), so I felt extremely honored to hold it,” Jackson said. “It’s awesome to be out, being one of the first people out of the tunnel. I know a lot of kids dreams of it, and it’s a great experience for me, and happy I get to do it every time.”

That was especially true Saturday, when Nebraska honored veterans before its game against Northwestern, the closest home game to Veterans Day. Jackson remembers attending Nebraska's annual Veterans Day game two years ago, when the Huskers rallied for a victory over Michigan State.

“It’s great for all veterans. I know a lot of veterans come to the football games,” Jackson said. “It’s an honor for them to come here and be celebrated, just recognized for all the work they’ve done throughout their life, and it’s a great celebration for the military.”

Jackson joined the Navy in 2010 after graduating from Shadow Ridge High School in Las Vegas. After attending boot camp, he went through Basic Underwater Demolition school, or the initial school to try to be a Navy SEAL.

Jackson graduated and joined SEAL Team 1, and stayed there for four years. He did a deployment to Yemen, and then southeast Asia, and then traveled throughout Asia, helping other forces. He got out in 2016 and returned home.

So how did that route lead Jackson to Lincoln?

First off, Jackson never played football in school. He played baseball, hitting .316 his senior season of high school, and soccer. Being the type who enjoys the challenge of trying something new, Jackson had always wondered about football, and decided to give it a shot.

“Football seemed like the greatest fit for me,” he said, “so it was something that I set my mind to, and I just really wanted to do and see if I could do it.”

But where?

Bridgette Saenz, Jackson’s mother, worked for a dentist in Las Vegas who’d played college football. Gary Toogood, from Reno, Nevada, had transferred to Nebraska and played offensive guard for three seasons. His final season, 1962, marked the first under coach Bob Devaney.

“Once he found out I wanted to play college football, he kind of helped me out,” Jackson said, “and he wanted to show me Nebraska.”

Jackson eventually met Mike Riley two years ago, telling the first-year Nebraska coach then his desire to play football.

When Jackson got out of the Navy, with nowhere to really go, he decided to pack his bags and head to the one place he had actually spoken to somebody about playing football.

“And that was here,” Jackson said. “This was the only school I was able to talk to, so, I just did it.”

There’s more, of course.

Jackson, at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, couldn’t just come to Lincoln, grab some pads and start his career. He had to, you know, actually make the team, first, through a spring tryout.

The tests for speed and agility, he said, weren’t necessarily a cinch.

“I’ve never ran a test like that or anything before, so there was some doubt if I would make it or not, because I had no clue what to expect,” Jackson said. “So after the tryout was over, I was definitely a little worried, compared to the other people who were doing pretty well as well.”

Jackson didn’t care what positon, offense or defense. He just wanted a spot on the team – which, about two weeks later, he learned he had earned.

For now, Jackson, a computer science major, is doing mostly observing and learning, trying to figure out his best fit, his best role, before one day -- before he's 30? -- actually playing a down and fulfilling his dream.

“What a special person he is,” Riley said. “From the moment he started working out with our team, he set a high standard. Watching him work out is impressive. Watching him do what he does day-to-day is impressive. The discipline that he has in all the parts of being a teammate is impressive.

“I think it’s been good for our team to have him here. I’m hopeful as he goes forward that he can find a niche with our team where he can actually contribute on the field, and one thing I know is he will never stop working to find that niche.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

                                                                                                                                                                                     

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