ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Dane Jackson pays little heed to questions of what challenges he faces in preparing to replace Tre’Davious White in the Buffalo Bills secondary.
The second-year cornerback need only point to his left arm, where the initials D, D, D, R are tattooed in honor of four late childhood friends. He does it to show the emotional pain he’s overcome in having gained this opportunity, knowing he could have wound up like them had Jackson chose a different path, and how important it is to not let them down in memory.
For Jackson to fail on Monday night, when the Bills (7-4) host the New England Patriots (8-4) with first place in the AFC East on the line, would also personally represent him failing De’Von and Diondre Dozier, Domanek Cabbagestalk and Ricky Giles, who were among his biggest football backers growing up in Pittsburgh's Greenway projects.
The Dozier brothers and Cabbagestalk were shot and killed, and Giles died in a car crash while being chased by police over a four-year period spanning Jackson’s senior year in high school to his junior year at Pitt.
“I faced a lot of adversity, so this is nothing different. You have to be strong-minded and deal with anything that comes your way,” he said.
“I lost four of my closest friends back to back to back to back. At some point, some people may want to give up,” he added. “But that just made me push harder, and made me want to see myself succeed more. So I just use that as fuel to the fire.”
The fire Jackson steps into is replacing White, Buffalo’s top defensive player who will miss the remainder of the season after tearing a ligament in his left knee during a 31-6 win at New Orleans on Thanksgiving. White is a five-year starter and a key fixture in a Bills secondary which ranks second in the league, behind New England, with 16 interceptions.
White’s injury also comes at a crossroad in the Bills’ season, with the team slipping in the AFC standings by going 3-3 in its past six outings.
Jackson is a 2020 seventh-round draft pick, who has played just 128 of Buffalo’s 705 defensive snaps this year, and will make his third career start after filling in for Josh Norman and Levi Wallace last season.
As much as coordinator Leslie Frazier can’t quantify how big of a loss White represents, he has confidence in Jackson.
“Things don’t get too big for him,” Frazier said. “We saw it in his rookie year when he had to step in and play in some tough situations at times, and even the game on Thursday night. He has real good poise and a good feel for the game.”
Jackson made a splash in his starting debut last year by intercepting Sam Darnold at the Buffalo 36 in the final minute of the second quarter. The turnover led to Buffalo hitting a field goal to cut the New York Jets’ lead to 10-6 in the Bills’ eventual 18-10 victory. He also had a career-best eight tackles and recovered a fumble in his second start, a 32-30 loss at Arizona.
“He knows the system. He trusts the guys around him. We tell him all the time, he’s not out there alone,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “He ain’t gotta do nothing other than be Dane Jackson.”
Jackson hasn’t changed much regarding his routine except for exchanging notes with White on what each sees from New England on game film. He also takes in stride a missed opportunity this summer, when he failed to beat Wallace for the starting job.
“Probably the biggest thing I learned was there’s just more work to be done. Maybe I wasn’t ready for that position,” he said. “When that happened, I worked on those areas so that I made sure that it won’t happen again.”
Jackson’s path to the pros wasn’t easy.
Once Cornell High School dropped football following his freshman year, an agreement was reached allowing him to play at Quaker Valley across the Ohio River, five miles away. That's where Jackson became a two-sport star in basketball and football, and attracted Pitt’s attention in 2013, when he played quarterback and led the school to its first playoff berth in 14 years.
For Jackson, football represented a ticket out of the projects, and he wondered how things could have been different had his late friends stuck with sports.
“They told me every time, like, `Bro, I’m so happy you’re still playing football,′ and `We wish we could have done it,‘” Jackson said.
“I can’t have that same regret. I don’t want to say, `I wish I could. I wish I could.’ I want to be living in the moment,” he added. “If I would’ve let that drag me down, then it’s like I’m another statistic.”
Jackson credits his mother, Joy Faulkner, for the support and strength she instilled in him. And he keeps his late friends ever-present in his mind, which is where they’ll be before Jackson takes the field on Monday.
“When I say my pre-game prayer and everything,” Jackson said, “I make sure to talk to them and ask that they watch over me.”
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John Wawrow, The Associated Press