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How Johnny Jackson became the biggest export of Nick Saban’s process at Alabama

JDPI's Johnny Jackson with Alabama strength and conditioning coaches Scott Cochran and Terry Jones during the Tide's 2017 Pro Day: Photo via Jackson

He was not recruited by Nick Saban. He did not play a single down of football at the University of Alabama. Not once did he lift weights or run 110s in the name of Crimson Tide football. If one was to ask today’s generation of fans about him, they would have no recollection of who he is but all in all, he’s unarguably the biggest reason why Saban’s process exists and remains dominant.

On Feb. 1, five days before Super Bowl 51, Sports Illustrated was in Northport, Ala. More times than not, renowned publications like this are usually seen in marquee areas. ESPN, SEC Network and NFL Network find ways to campout in Tuscaloosa on a regular basis, whether it’s to chat with Saban, interview players or even take cameo shots of all the championship harware inside the Mal Moore Athletic Facility. When the SEC on CBS team – Verne Lunquist, Gary Danielson and Allie LaForce – convenes on “Title town” during Saturdays in the fall, the popular and warming Rama Jama’s (known for its pancakes and burgers) is the typical hot spot.

Athletes inside JDPI weight lifting during the shooting of NFL’s Undrafted in 2015: Photo via Jackson

But in the buildup to one of the greatest venues in athletics, members of Sports Illustrated were inside a storefront gym to watch players that have neither an NFL Draft grade nor notoriety to their name give everything in trying to make a roster. To every foot hitting the floor, every bead of sweat and every hand on a weight, there is a purpose. And usually, the one who stands behind the purpose is the individual that’s reminding you of how important it is to value what you do.

For Jackson-Duffy Performance Institute or JDPI, Johnny Jackson is that man.

Jenny Vrentas and the Sports Illustrated crew at JDPI in Northport for an interview: Photo via Johnny Jackson’s Instagram

“The thing with Sports Illustrated is that they heard about us training Malcolm Butler,” Jackson said. “Jenny Vrentas felt like our spot was her favorite gym. What we do here is give people an opportunity. I never thought that we would have SI here. The good Lord has really blessed us.”

Before JDPI – Jackson’s role at UA

Before mapping out JDPI in 2012, Jackson’s focus was on something bigger: helping Alabama football win its first national championship since 1992. As an exercise science major at UA, he took strongly to weight lifting, running, eating regiments and most importantly, building character. Carrying the same passion for small details, Jackson joined Nick Saban’s coaching staff in 2008 as a strength and conditioning intern under Scott Cochran and Rocky Colburn.

While the voice behind the Tide’s All-American studs kept Jackson in the loop about the program, the confident intern made sure the reps in both lifting and running were not cheated.

During Saban’s newest installation of toughness, the fourth quarter program, Alabama found the players it needed to change the atmosphere of the institution. After going undefeated in the 2008 regular season, losses to Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game and Utah in the 2009 Allstate BCS Sugar Bowl left a sour taste in the mouth of a team who thought it had arrived.

Prior to last summer, I never visited JDPI. Upon entering the building in May of 2016, I saw frequent reminders of what it takes to be great. There wasn’t an inch of wall space that did not have a quote on it, and these quotes came from influential people, including Gandhi, Lou Holtz, Saban and Jackson’s flamboyant mentor, Cochran.

“It is all about mindset,” Jackson said as he sat in his office.

“The Florida loss was tough and even though we could have won the game, I thought the best thing to happen was losing that game because it added fuel to the fire. The team was able to taste a little bit of the cake and then it was pulled from them. When those guys got a little taste of it and they started taking on the mindset that the coaches had, it was a beautiful work of art.”

When the players returned in the spring of 2009, a switch was flipped.

Weights were being lifted with more urgency, the proper diet was being utilized, and 300-plus pounders like Marcell Dareus and Terrence Cody refused to quit on running 110s. The combination all three under Jackson led to the Tide having its second straight undefeated regular season, and this time, Alabama took out both the Gators and Texas to win a BCS national title.

Within the story of the Tide’s first national championship in the Saban era, were a few personal achievements from some of the players. As a result of successfully running 110s, Dareus recorded an interception versus the Longhorns, made a defender miss with a pirouette, and returned the pick for a 28-yard touchdown.

Alabama - Texas 2009 - Dareus Interception Return

Cody, despite tipping 400 pounds, pushed the pile, got his hands in position, and block two Daniel Lincoln field goals to preserve a 12-10 win for Alabama over Tennessee. Both guys were a product of “BuiltByBama,” but more importantly, the duo listened to Jackson and his teaching paved success for both men.

Terrence Cody Block, End of Game, and Rammer Jammer

“Everybody likes to hate on Alabama, but they are winning,” Jackson said. “Instead of hating, try to find out what they do and see if you can do it better. For them, it’s about championships.”

JDPI and the NFL – Jackson loves underdogs

“We get a lot of guys that don’t have NFL Draft grades.”- Johnny Jackson

Not every player will get a shoe contract. Not every player will have his/her face on the cover of a magazine. Not every player will sign a lucrative deal with guaranteed funds. Not every player will be granted a dream in the National Football League. But, it doesn’t stop him from trying.

“What makes this place special are the guys in it,” Jackson said. “Sports Illustrated wanted me to talk about the Alabama guys and even though we get some, we mostly get D2’s and small I-AA guys.”

My stomach turns in knots upon watching film of Super Bowl 49 to start 2015.

And not to disrespect Tom Brady, I love his game – it’s just that hearing my dad go ‘why couldn’t they just give the ball to Marshawn Lynch,’ followed by utter confusion gets me every time.

The final play of an epic showdown was bittersweet, and though it took a Super Bowl ring away from Russell Wilson, it opened the nation’s eyes to the biggest success story of JDPI, Patriots’ cornerback Malcolm Butler.

Before getting the Chevrolet Colorado truck from Brady, the crucial interception and 15 tackles, Butler was an undrafted rookie free agent from Mississippi in 2014. He did not attend a power five conference school or any Division I program. Instead, Butler enrolled at a small D2 school that’s 65 miles west of my hometown, the University of West Alabama in Livingston. He was one of those names that did not receive a draft grade, even after earning Beyond Sports Network All-American honors for his performance with the Tigers in 2013.

“We took a chance on Malcolm when nobody else did,” Jackson said.

“And we are grateful for that. He made that play and before he did, I told my wife that Malcolm is about to intercept this ball. I had no idea that they were going to throw the ball, but he intercepted that ball and has been with us ever since. He comes back every summer and trains with us.”

New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler signs his jersey for Johnny Jackson and JDPI: Photo courtesy of Jackson’s Facebook page

Regardless of the influx of social media, television contracts and a multitude of prime time game slots to cover, there is a still a percentage of athletes that won’t be seen on a national stage. For those guys, Jackson dives into why it behooves you to not get satisfied and stay focused.

“When I get my guys in here, the first thing I talk with them about is that you have one chance to do what you are doing: seize the moment,” he said. “A lot of people want that instant gratification or instant success, and sometimes it stems mostly from social media.”

Just like LeBron James in the NBA playoff season, Jackson informs all youth and other clients to not be involved on social media while work is in session. Everything has a purpose and like most ambitions, it begins in the mind.

“A bench press is more than a bench press,” Jackson said, “A run is more than a run. When you are lifting, your focus has to be on outlasting your opponent. There are 53 spots on an NFL roster and the top dog is always going to be that one percent. Your focus must be on becoming the best.”

Along with Butler, Jackson has groomed three more names that look to be impact players at the professional level. The Jacksonville Jaguars may not know the physical specimen its getting in running back Tim Cook; nevertheless, it has one of the strongest individuals mentally.

A native of Pine Bluff, Ark., Cook enrolled at Oregon State University in 2015 as a transfer from Eastern Arizona Community College. After suffering a season-ending injury in July, he would have one year of eligibility left. Cook saw action in just three games in 2016, scratching out one start against Idaho State.

While injuries kept him from enjoying collegiate ball, he managed to earn his degree in sociology and surrendered his attention to JDPI to restore his athletic career. Cook was signed to the Jaguars on April 29.

Born in Croatia, Anas Hasic was a refugee.

He found comfort in football upon moving to the United States, as he played for North Canyon High School in Phoenix, Ariz. Upon holding every receiving record and being a solid defender, Hasic played his freshman and sophomore seasons (2012, 2013) at Scottsdale Community College and then transferred to North Carolina Central University in 2014. Following his output of 36 receptions for 530 yards in 11 games, Hasic would leave again to both Arizona State University and University of West Florida. He attended school at ASU, but didn’t play football.

Unlike Cook, the Croatian came from the other side of the world but he ended up in the same place. Taking cues from Jackson, Hasic would find a family, a brother, a mentor and a friend in the former Tide football intern and the rest of the people inside JDPI. He gave his all in every workout, and it led to him being signed to the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent.

University of West Florida alumnus and former refugee Anas Hasic signed to Kansas City as a undrafted free agent: Photo via Jackson

Hasic would later be cut, however, Jackson said another team is about to sign him.

“Sports Illustrated is actually going to do a story on Hasic,” he said.

Chester Rogers shares the same story as Malcolm Butler.

Hailing from Huntsville, Ala., Rogers took his talents to the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) of Grambling State University. He was not selected through seven rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft, and much like the other two, Rogers bought into the grind of Jackson and JDPI. A couple of days after the draft, Rogers got a call from Indianapolis and was signed. He finished the 2016 season with 19 catches for 273 receiving yards through 14 games with the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts WR Chester Rogers, who trained with Jackson at JDPI. Photo via Rogers’ Twitter account

Others names that include Glenn Coffee (Alabama), Malcolm Johnson (Mississippi State), Ed Stinson (Alabama), Zamir Carlis (Stillman), Jonathan Dorsey (Alabama A&M), Gabriel Mass (Lane College) and Verlan Hunter (Grambling State) have also inked NFL contracts after going undrafted but made it in, because of training with Jackson.

Running back Glenn Coffee autographs his San Francisco 49ers jersey for JDPI: Photo via Jackson’s Instagram

“A lot of the people that come from SI, ESPN and other networks enter our gym and find guys that they’ve never heard of before,” Jackson said. “I believe the Lord just wants me to inspire both men and women to never give up. All of these guys bring a special energy and mindset to the gym.”

New wave at JDPI – Positive showing on today’s youth

“In this society, hard work is a lost art.”- Johnny Jackson

Oh, technology.

It’s made our lives easier, more entertaining and cost efficient, but it has taken away the ability for one-on-one communication, being social with friends and having a firm work ethic.

“People are so entitled now,” Jackson said. “It’s gotten to a point now where a coach may be trying to help his player and the player talks back to the coach, thinking that he knows more.”

JDPI helping today’s youth be more focused, responsible and healthy: Photo via Jackson’s Instagram

Now, does Jackson fully hate social media?

Of course not. He appreciates the love of fans supporting JDPI on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc… he just doesn’t want today’s youth to be so focused on it that they forget what’s important.

“We’ve got to get our kids back to loving sports,” he said. “We need to get them to value hard work and becoming good citizens and good people.”

Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough spending time with the youth of JDPI: Photo courtesy of Jackson’s Instagram

The importance of Jackson in Tide football

“If you would’ve told me that I would be on a coaching staff with Nick Saban and Scott Cochran, and then be able to do what I’m doing now, I would have said ‘Nah’.”- Johnny Jackson

Coach Saban is the five-star general, CEO and muscle behind what appears to be the never-ending brand of Alabama football. Yet, with all the accolades, he would not be where he is without a devoted supporting cast.

Johnny Jackson with new Alabama athletic director, Greg Byrne. Photo via Jackson

For the last man on the totem pole, Jackson turned a mere internship into shaping the next generation of both college and professional athletes.

“When I was at Alabama, I learned how a team is supposed to be ran,” Jackson said. “I admired Saban’s system because he was so organized. He had everything in place and the assistants knew how to follow because things were in order. I admired the passion Scott Cochran had every day.”

Jackson said the difference between other program and the Crimson Tide is attitude.

“The system that UA does, everyone else does,” he said. “It’s different at Alabama because Saban runs it with a championship attitude. These guys are in for the fourth quarter. Just like Saban runs a tight ship, Cochran runs a tight ship and I’m trying to create the same thing here at JDPI.”

Johnny Jackson with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during Alabama’s 2017 Pro Day. Photo via Jackson’s Instagram

Since assisting the Tide to the ’09 BCS title, Jackson’s been training quite a few of Alabama’s current players – including Bo Scarbrough, Lester Cotton and four-star, Brian Robinson. He’s even had the chance to work with Alabama softball graduate and Tuscaloosa native, Chandler Dare. With Jackson’s help, Dare was a huge component behind the Tide making the Women’s College World Series in three (2014-16) of her four years.

Jackson trains a young Bo Scarbrough after he receives his All-American Game uniform: Photo via Jackson’s Instagram

Jackson works with Alabama offensive lineman Lester Cotton inside JDPI: Photo via Jackson’s Instagram

The Full Picture

In taking an intern position at Alabama nearly a decade ago, Jackson has not only elevated his own name but much like his former boss, he’s helped groom men out of boys, aided collegiate athletes to pursue NFL dreams and built relationships with those who trusted him with their athletic careers.

“It’s not even about me. It’s about these guys,” Jackson said. “You love to see them come into the gym and hate to see them leave. We teach our guys to not quit. We don’t let them quit.”

To pair alongside Sports Illustrated, both ESPN and NFL Network have toured JDPI to interview the talent inside and also view the man behind the vision. JDPI would even be featured on NFL’s Undrafted in 2015.

Upon asking him of his mindset since these events, Jackson keeps it humble as always. “Can’t get too comfortable,” he said smiling.

NFL Network presents NFL Undrafted, which was shot at JDPI in 2015: Photo courtesy of Jackson

“It was only a matter of time before we blew up,” he said. “Now we have to keep moving.”

Stephen M. Smith is a managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

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Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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