May 10, 2023

“You just ask him, and he’ll line up and do it. He’s a tough dude. He’s mature.”


Let’s get to the nuts and bolts first — the simple basics about Damian Jackson, a defensive lineman/long-snapper trying to earn his keep with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

He’s 30 and he came north to Winnipeg after a college career that saw him play for both the University of Buffalo (2022) and the University of Nebraska (2017-21) – his days with the Cornhuskers beginning as a walk-on who had never played football.

And before that?

He was a member of the Navy SEALs for four years, with tours in Yemen and Southeast Asia. That journey – from a kid who played baseball and soccer growing up in Las Vegas, to serving with the U.S. Navy to a walk-on at Nebraska to Buffalo to Winnipeg – well, ‘unconventional’ doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

“Yeah, it’s a little different,” began Jackson with a grin in a chat with after the first day of Blue Bombers rookie camp on Wednesday.

“After my Pro Day (this spring) and not getting picked up after the NFL Draft, I thought I was done with football. I was working a little bit of construction to get some money back and I get a call from my agent saying, ‘Do you want to go?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’

“This is kind of a milestone. I never played football before getting to college and so just to be here is a great step in the right direction. It’s awesome. So, if I can get here and stay here and be the long snapper in a game and get some snaps in a game at D-end… that’d be pretty sick.”

The Navy SEALs are a legendary special operations force often deployed to conduct special missions including information gathering and the capture of high-value enemy personnel.

Hollywood has made movies about the SEALs, and their notoriously difficult training regimen sees roughly 200 out of every 1,000 entrants succeed.

Jackson had played baseball and soccer growing up, but without any scholarship offers in those sports followed his older brother into the military straight out of Shadow Ridge High School in Las Vegas.

“It helped me a lot for sure,” he explained. “Everybody comes from a different background, but if you’re like me – and I don’t know if I can cuss – but I was a s—thead. Bad grades, thinking about only yourself and stuff like that. You learn pretty quick (in the SEALs) the world doesn’t work like that and you get your ass kicked for doing that.

“Going from an 18-year-old that was quiet and just doing things for himself to being forced to do things for your team and making that part of the doctrine for your life, that definitely helped me.”

Jackson was a ‘Lead Breacher’ with his SEALs platoon, specializing in obstruction removal and explosives. In short, he was the man responsible for knocking down a door or wall or blowing off a door. He’s not particularly talkative about his days in the military saying, “My story is kinda out there now. Some people ask me about it. I won’t bring it up myself. I just stick to the football. But my story is out there and so I do get asked about it.”

The worst moments?

“On my first deployment I lost a buddy,” he said. “And I’ve known some other guys (who have lost their lives), too.”

Jackson left the SEALs after his second tour, wanting to pursue his dream of playing a sport in college. Being in the military transformed his body – he’s now 6-2 and a chiselled 263 pounds – and after writing a letter to every Division-1 school in the U.S., Nebraska offered him an opportunity.

“I enjoyed watching football, so I just went for it,” Jackson said. “Honestly, it just came down to this: what sport did my body type fit? There’s no other reason for it than that. I was just like, ‘Football seems right. Let’s try it.’ There was no real rhyme or reason.”

Jackson earned his spot at an open tryout, then open to anyone attending Nebraska. He made the team as a middle linebacker and was switched to defensive line/outside linebacker.

His story – his commitment to team after serving his country – made him somewhat of a legend in Lincoln. He was a four-time Academic All-Big Ten, and a three-time nominee for the Armed Forces Merit Award – presented annually to honour an ‘individual and/or a group with a military background and/or involvement that has an impact within the realm of college football – winning the award in 2021.

The Walk-On: Damian Jackson

It was during his days at Nebraska assistant coach told him the fastest way to get on the field was to become a long snapper – a skill learned on his own though hours and hours of repetition after practices. He served as the back-up long-snapper with the Huskers and while he didn’t handle those chores last season at Buffalo, he did make nine starts for the Bulls at defensive end while continue to practise his specialist craft.

Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea has always been one to salute the military. His father served with the Royal Air Force as a navigator-bombardier during World War II and emigrated to Canada afterwards.

Asked after Wednesday’s first day of rookie camp if he had ever coached a Navy SEAL, he said:

“I don’t know that many people have. You know how I feel about the military. You serve like that, you put a lot of your life on the line. There’s a part of that that says he’s going to touch some guys differently in this locker room, as guys start to talk to him and get to know him and as he feels comfortable chatting with guys, they’ll recognize his maturity. It’s going to be good for a lot of guys. Absolutely.

“There’s not anything that guy wouldn’t do,” he added. “You just ask him, and he’ll line up and do it. He’s a tough dude. He’s mature. He’s got a calmness about him where he’s not going to flinch. His film shows he’s a good long snapper and we wanted to bring one in. We’ve got this many specialists in camp, you need more snappers, too, or poor Mike Benson would get worn out. This is a good opportunity. We like his versatility.”

Worth pointing out here is how the Navy SEALs motto mirrors so much of what football teams ask of their players, too.

‘I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission.’

Jackson is 30, but still ‘raw’ by football terms. There’s a window open for him with the Blue Bombers for a few more days at the least, possibly longer if he can find a way to stick with the squad.

Yet, no matter how this turns out, he has the maturity to handle anything. After all, he’s been places and he’s lost some friends. And with that comes a perspective and appreciation for the simple things, like opportunity or finding joy in putting two feet on the ground when he wakes up in the morning.

“I don’t really think about whether this will work out or not,” he said. “But if it happens, it happens. My life is full of failures, too, and you just learn to go from one to the other. I just keep working and working and working and hopefully life will turn out.

“What I’ve been through does help in being able to adapt to whatever happens. It’s about trying your hardest and if it doesn’t work out there’s no reason to beat yourself up — especially since four days ago I thought I was done playing football.”