A strange thing happened after Calvin Jackson Jr. dedicated his final season at Washington State to the memory of his father.
Calvin Jackson Sr., a former Miami Dolphins defensive back, died unexpectedly at age 48 of an undisclosed illness on March 15, 2021. And in his son’s final season, Jackson avoided injury for the first time in years, achieved across-the-board career-highs of 66 catches for 987 yards and seven touchdowns, and landed on the NFL radar, eventually inking an undrafted free-agent deal with the Jets this May.
“After the last game, I sat on the field and I was like, ‘Dang, this really just happened because of him,’ ” Jackson told The Post. “Going into games knowing he was watching and I have his support always uplifted me and made me want to play even harder.”
It seemed Jackson Sr.’s guidance to a familiar destination was only just beginning. The Dolphins — who remained the family’s favorite team after Jackson Sr.’s career ended in 1999 — held a private workout for the younger Jackson before the April draft and invited him to rookie minicamp for a tryout after he went unselected.
Jackson was training for his one shot when an AFC East rival stepped in. The Jets also invited Jackson to try out — their minicamp was held one weekend earlier — and signed him to a contract before he could leave the building.
“When the Dolphins first called, I was like, ‘This is probably meant to be,’ ” Jackson said. “That’s where my dad played and it would’ve been great to be close to home, but I’m happy to be here. I’m going to make the most of a great opportunity.”
So far, so good. The 5-foot-9, 193-pound slot receiver rotated with the second-team offense during OTAs and caught punts with a broom waving in his face to create distraction at rookie minicamp.
“Not getting a call on draft day lowered me down a little bit,” Jackson said, “but I used that as fuel to the fire.”
Jackson moved in with his father at 12 and the years that followed were an education in football.
A photo of the elder Jackson decking rookie Peyton Manning — the first of 303 sacks in the Hall of Fame quarterback’s career — hung in the living room. His dad hung onto the footballs from all five of his interceptions, and Jackson can visualize framing his first NFL touchdown catch. They put their heads together to list season goals at each training camp.
The father and son also watched old game tapes together — plenty of Jets-Dolphins battles included — and “Pops” liked to joke that, “If I was in my prime, I’d lock you down one-on-one.”
“He was a fan, but he was my biggest hater as well,” Jackson said. “He used to speak to me before and after every game to make sure I had my head on straight. If I had a decent game, he was like, ‘Yeah, you did well, but you didn’t do this or that.’ He would say, ‘You are this far away from this goal. Now you have to do this to get there.’ The support that he had for me paid dividends. I cherish those moments when I look back.”
When Jackson joined the Jets, he found an unlikely connection to special teams coordinator Brant Boyer, who was part of the same Dolphins rookie class as Jackson’s dad in 1994.
“I’ll tell you what: When you are old is when you played with his dad,” Boyer quipped. “He’s a heck of a kid, and he’s done a really good job. His dad worked his butt off and was an awesome teammate.”
The Jacksons play different positions … on different sides of the ball … but they share two important skills: Quickness in-and-out of breaks and something harder to quantify.
“We play bigger than we are,” Jackson said. “I’m not the tallest, I’m not the fastest, but any 50/50 ball I believe in myself that I’ll go up and get it no matter who is on me because I play bigger than I am, just like my dad. I play with a lot of heart, and I believe he did, too.”
His dad went from undrafted to a 57-game starter. The Jets hope to have uncovered the same hidden gem.
“I’m going to make sure I’m staying in the playbook and doing everything perfect to the T on special teams,” Jackson said. “I feel like I’m doing a good job right now, but I need to kick it up a notch come next week [team minicamp] and training camp. I’m going to put my head down and go after it.”
Jackson last heard his father’s voice two days before tragedy struck. They traded texts a day later and it took a while to accept reality. He never got to ask if it would be OK to cross rivalry lines, but he already knows the answer.
“I know he’s smiling right now from ear to ear,” Jackson said, “and joking around with his boys about it.”