The Walk On: One Navy SEAL’s Journey To The Field

The road to success is never an easy one. It takes hard work, grit and determination. Three things that former Navy SEAL Damian Jackson understands more than most.

His transformation from Special Operator to football player is improbable by any standard. He spent five years as a Navy SEAL before joining the prestigious University of Nebraska Football team— having never stepped onto a football field.

Damian was born in Las Vegas, Nevada—son to a hard-working mother and brother to a Navy Sailor. Though they endured financial struggles, his mother devoted herself to her sons, working two jobs to support both boys as they grew up. Over-active and sometimes a challenge to handle, Damian was a bit of a self-described “trouble child.” Compared to his brother, he was the handful of the family.

Faces of the Fleet | 10: The Walk-On

Some people train their entire lives to play Division 1 college football. Others, like former SEAL Damian Jackson, have what it takes to walk on.

Posted by America's Navy on Thursday, January 24, 2019

“I was quiet, kept to myself, did what I was supposed to  do, but I didn’t do anything other than that. I wouldn’t help anybody out. I would just leave, and people started to see that as me being selfish.”

At school, he often found it hard to retain interest in a subject and focus his attention. This continued until he participated in a high school exchange program that took him to France. Seemingly unprompted, his mother needed time to contemplate Damian’s proposal to study abroad. After some deliberation, she graciously agreed to let her son join the program if he paid for it himself.

Damian picked up two jobs, much like his hard-working mother. He worked both as a paperboy selling newspapers roadside and in a skate shop packaging and shipping out orders. After earning half the necessary funds, his mother willingly gave her official approval and Damian made his way to France.

Learning about more than just the language, lifestyle and culture of France, Damian returned home a changed man. He worked diligently at his academics so he could create an opportunity for higher education. He always knew he wanted to go to college and finally, after several years of mediocre grades, Damian forged a clear path. However, due to the financial demands of college, Damian could not afford to go to a four-year university. It was time to re-examine his options.

 

By the time Damian graduated high school his brother had already joined the U.S. Navy. He was happy to share the many benefits of joining, such as the chance to see the world, get on-the-job training and receive the G.I. Bill—the program that could help his younger brother one day pursue a higher education.

After talking to a Navy recruiter and completing the necessary tests and paperwork, Damian went to Boot Camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, where his path took an unexpected turn. During a Boot Camp class, he watched a short video that depicted the work of Navy SEALs. The instructors gauged the class’ interest in pursuing a career in Special Operations. While a few individuals raised their hands, Damian was the only person from his division to show up for preliminary testing the next morning. There, he powered through a series of rigorous push-up, pull-up and swimming tests. Doing enough to impress his superiors, Damian made the cut and shipped out to BUDs after graduation.

“BUDs is basically a gut check for anybody that wants to go there, and they’ll find who belongs and who doesn’t belong in the SEALs. It’s an environment that you’re definitely not used to.”

BUDs stands for Basic Underwater Demolition School. It’s the six month training program all SEAL recruits must endure to reach the infamous Spec Ops teams. Notoriously difficult, BUDs is the Navy’s way of weeding out the mentally weak and creating SEALs who always put the team first. Damian thrived in the physicality of the training—attacking one challenge after another on the beaches of San Diego. From running, to swimming, to late-night obstacle courses, every part of the school is designed to be difficult.

During the last phase of BUDs, Damian had a wake up call he would never forget. Shy and quiet by nature, Damian’s aloofness had permeated among his peers in the SEAL program. He followed orders and did what he was told, but never stopped to help the rest of the division. He would be the first to get in in line for lunch, but also the first to disappear after finishing assigned work. During a peer review, his classmates said it appeared he cared more about his own needs, than those of others. He realized that if he was going to make it as a SEAL, he would have to change his attitude.

After realizing his faults, he was overcome by a desire to be respected by his team. Damian worked towards improving his image; going out of his way to help his peers and prioritizing the happiness and well-being of those who he would one day rely on. By the time he finished BUDs, Damian had risen from the lowest ranked recruit, to the highest. This experience was crucial in forming Damian’s character and setting him on the path toward becoming who he truly wanted to be—a team player.

Once Damian graduated from BUDs, he officially became a SEAL. He went on two deployments, serving as the main Breacher for his platoon. Breachers specialize in obstacle removal—from breaking down doors, to collapsing walls to blasting through sheet rock, they allow SEAL teams to conduct missions unimpeded by physical barriers.

During his first deployment, Damian experienced what he called “man camp.”

“I call it a man camp because you’re just there working out, having fun with your brothers and then if something happens you take care of it, come back, talk about it, have a good dinner and then just repeat.”

While on deployment, Damian quickly became acquainted with the people and culture of the countries he visited. Soon, he wanted to learn more about their lives.  While his team was fighting the enemy, he learned that the vast majority of people were innocent civilians who were good-natured, welcoming and respectful. Their attitudes contradicted expectation. Though surrounded by unmanaged waste with little to eat and a severe lack of water, the people of the countries he visited seemed determined to carry on living as happily as they could.

“It just made me realize like, ‘Wow, I have it made for me back in the States. I don’t live this life and I’m grateful for that.’ But there are people struggling out there like that, that’s their everyday life.”

After doing a second tour overseas and training with the military personnel of various countries, Damian began looking towards the future.

Though he enjoyed his time in the SEALs, he never forgot his original reason for joining the Navy. He began looking at potential colleges, searching for the right place to attend. Over the past few years, Damian had also developed a new ambition—to become a professional football player. And the best way to do that, was to enter the highly-competitive realm of Division 1 college football. He had played sports since he was young—pitching for his high school baseball team and playing soccer while abroad in France. But with his impressive 6’2”, 270-pound frame, Damian was built to do something more.

At twenty four years old, Damian left his SEAL career behind and went to play college football. To most, it seemed like a pipe dream. 

At first, things didn’t go smoothly. He wrote letter after letter to the top twenty five teams in the country, but most of the programs considered his lack of previous football experience a red flag that immediately disqualified him. Determined, Damian continued contacting schools and finally spoke with someone willing to listen. A coach at the University of Nebraska – Mike Riley –  finally agreed to meet with Damian. He acknowledged that Damian’s lack of experience was certainly a barrier, but he did what every other coach wouldn’t—he gave him a chance.

With limited knowledge of the game was about to enter, Damian researched the different positions on the field. Given his massively athletic physique, he decided to go after the role of Linebacker. After all, breaking through barriers was his specialty. The tryouts consisted of position drills and footwork tests to see if he had potential. The coaches were stunned at how well he could move given his large frame. They also saw a mental resilience they believed could be a huge asset to the team.

Damian made the cut, becoming one of the few veterans who would walk on to a Division 1 team. He Redshirted as a Freshman and switched his position to Defensive End. Today, he continues to use the values he developed as a SEAL to drive himself forward day after day. Most importantly, he’s taken his team’s attitude and fitness  to new heights, especially in the weight room. He’s helped his teammates realize a new tolerance for challenges, attacking workouts with more intensity than ever before.

While Division 1 football life has become routine for Damian, his coaches continue to marvel at what he’s accomplished.

“For him to have never played before and decide that the University of Nebraska’s the place that he wanted to try and walk-on, that was really ambitious. If he didn’t have the type of drive that he has, you probably would say, “Okay this guy’s never gonna make it”, but he just has that internal burning desire to be successful, whatever he picks up, so it’s taken a lot of hard work for him to kinda understand and learn the game, learn the speed of the game and how fast it goes. I think if you go out to different levels of football and different levels of college football it just gets faster and faster, and this is about as high as you can go, so for him to do it, and do it at a high speed, at a high level is pretty impressive.” Michael Dawson, Defensive Line Coach at the University of Nebraska

While not yet a regular starter, Damian has already achieved some unforgettable things.  During the Veterans Day game, he carried the American flag out onto the field. It’s a reminder of just how inspirational Damian is to his teammates. He’s set a new bar for every Cornhusker, whether it’s mental or physical.

Having learned to put his team and teammates before himself through his experiences in the Navy, Damian’s devotion to those around him is apparent to players and coaches alike. More resilient than most, Damian powers through any workout thrown his way, gritting his teeth and flexing his muscles to prove nothing will prevent him from achieving his goals. While still new to the team, Damian pushes himself during his practices, running ahead of fastest teammates and lifting more than those bigger than himself.

“We use technology here to kind of see where their upper limits are in every different category. To see a guy like Damian break through the ceiling of every single one of those is definitely inspiring.” Zach Duval, Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Nebraska

Zach Duval, Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Huskers, notes that Damian is a model athlete. Though coming from the Navy SEALs, often considered the best of the best, Damian presents himself as fully self-confident while avoiding the pitfalls of arrogance. He goes out of his way to show up to unrequired 6 A.M. accountability sessions, stays after games to sign autographs for fans, and shares his story with fellow Nebraskans.

One day, Damian still hopes to play in the NFL. He faces doubters every day who think his dream is farfetched, but he pursues despite their criticism. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about Damian, it’s that he refuses to give up.

WHAT IS A NAVY SEAL? 

The Navy’s Sea, Air and Land Forces – commonly known as SEALs – are expertly trained to deliver highly specialized, intensely challenging warfare capabilities that are beyond the means of standard military forces. Their missions include: direct action warfare; special reconnaissance; counterterrorism; and foreign internal defense. When there’s nowhere else to turn, Navy SEALs achieve the impossible through critical thinking, sheer willpower and absolute dedication to their training, their missions and their fellow Special Operations team members.

Established by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, the Navy SEALs are a nimble, elite maritime military force suited for all aspects of unconventional warfare. In this role, you will provide immediate military options amidst crises around the world.

Your duties as a SEAL may include, but are not limited to:

  • Conducting insertions and extractions by sea, air or land to accomplish covert, Special Warfare/Special Operations missions
  • Capturing high-value enemy personnel and terrorists around the world
  • Collecting information and intelligence through special reconnaissance missions
  • Carrying out small-unit, direct-action missions against military targets
  • Performing underwater reconnaissance and the demolition of natural or man-made obstacles prior to amphibious landings

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