TAMPA, Fla. – Vincent Jackson had a growing family, a flush bank account from his sterling 12-year NFL playing career, and a thriving portfolio of business investments to keep him busy. Intelligent, active, philanthropic and eager to please, he was popular in the Tampa Bay area, where he and his family moved when he joined the Buccaneers in 2012.
Jackson, it seemed, was an NFL role model, until he was Found dead and alone in a hotel room at the age of 38 In February, just days after his former team won the Super Bowl. Until then, Jackson had hidden his alcoholism and declining cognitive health from the public. However, those conditions had intensified during the pandemic, which had derailed his business and put him in isolation.
According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Jackson was found dead on February 15 at the Homewood Suite in Brandon, Fla., a few miles east of Tampa, where hotel staff members said he had been staying since January 11. A cause of death was not announced by the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Now the Jackson family has at least one clue to his demise: a diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Doctors at Boston University’s CTE Center determined that Jackson had a “mild” form of the disease, which is associated with repeated blows to the head. CTE has a range of symptoms, including memory loss, trouble managing daily chores, and mood swings, which Jackson’s wife Lindsay said they exhibited with increasing frequency throughout and after the 2016 NFL season, his final .
“His whole plan in the NFL was to set himself up not to have these struggles,” Lindsey Jackson said in an interview at her Tampa home. He had done everything to set up a handsome retirement from football, saying, “It’s not the end he wanted.”
The CTE diagnosis would provide only a partial coda for Lindsay Jackson and their four children. Though the family has been gripped by his absence in the 10 months since his death, many questions will never be answered. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, so Jackson is left to piece together what was going on in his brain during the last years of his life.
Jackson was a three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver and had six seasons receiving over 1,000 yards. Lindsay Jackson, who defended her image, said she was reluctant to speak about her struggles. But she agreed to the first interview since his death, she said, to help the families of other former players and seek treatment for the effects of CTE.
“I think the message is, if you play for a long time and you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s very likely that it’s the same,” she told her husband’s “man cave” this month, where five TVs, a wet bar and a Christmas tree decorated the room. “I didn’t know it; Vincent didn’t know it. We thought it was just shivering, and we’d love for people to realize that it’s much more than that.”
He said he discussed the dangers he sometimes presented, particularly after watching the 2015 film “Concussion” about Dr. Bennett Omalu, who first diagnosed CTE in former NFL players. Vincent Jackson had read the study which showed Football players at risk of severe cognitive decline Later in life was associated with the length of his career. He refused to allow his children to play football until they reached high school. (Two of Jackson’s children play flag football.)
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Lindsey Jackson said, “When I look at the different conversations, I think he probably knew something was going on without really articulating it.”
Vincent Jackson grew up in a military family and had a reputation for beating other players. Teammates nicknamed him Invincible, and he never took pride in making excuses or showing weakness. He brushed off concerns about a brain injury, saying he didn’t absorb as many helmet-to-helmet hits as he played wide receiver. He noted that he had never had a diagnosis error.
“I was lucky, trust me,” Jackson told Alumni Magazine from the University of Northern Colorado, his alma mater, in 2018.
Diagnosed concussions are not reliable indicators of CTE, according to doctors at Boston University’s CTE Center who analyzed Jackson’s brain; however, about 20 percent of people with CTE were never diagnosed.
A more direct juxtaposition is the thousands of smaller, suboptimal hits that Jackson would have absorbed in his two decades of practice and games. Players deal with these hits in any number of ways – painkillers, recreational or medical marijuana and other remedies. According to his widow, Vincent Jackson’s relief was alcoholism. Towards the end of his career, she said, he told her that his mind “feels strange” at times and that alcohol cleared him.
Ann Mackie, a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine who diagnosed Jackson’s CTE, described the damage to his brain in clinical terms. He said it had “mild frontal lobe atrophy” and “splitting in the inner membrane” that can result from the trauma of playing football. He had several lesions, mostly in the frontal cortex of his brain.
Mackie and Lindsay Jackson put that damage in everyday terms. She said that, by the start of her final year in the NFL, her husband began to forget the conversation. He showed signs of depression for about six months after leaving the league, and without the structure of the football season, he no longer had to rage over his drinking. By 2018, when he was 35, his attention span was short and he was finding it difficult to solve problems. He said that he had gone mad, he closed the blinds when he was at home.
Like many former professional athletes, Jackson endured emotional anguish every Sunday, leaving a life full of exhilarating highs and overcoming unresolved aspirations over time for a more sober existence.
While he made the playoffs four times with the San Diego Chargers, he never played in the Super Bowl, and the Buccaneers never made it postseason and had only one winning season during his five-season stint with Tampa Bay.
During his playing days, Jackson learned painfully that he was expendable. A giant image of him reaching for a catch on a banner outside Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers’ home, after his arrival in 2012. When injuries shortened his playing time, Banner was taken down, a gut punch for the player.
“It’s a business, and it hurts,” said Lindsay Jackson. “I think it’s hard to deal with someone.”
After his contract with the Buccaneers ended after the 2016 season, he found himself involved in his restaurants, real estate ventures and philanthropy, as he had planned. His Jackson in Action 83 Foundation, which provides emotional and educational support for children in military families. But like many players, he found it difficult to adapt to life without the camaraderie of the team.
Randy Grimes said, “You can set out to have another career and make money another way, but never quite match it.” Played nine pro seasons, all with the Buccaneers, left the NFL with an addiction to painkillers and now helps former athletes with substance abuse issues at Whitesands Treatment Center in the Tampa Bay area.
However, the pandemic drastically changed Jackson’s routine. He expressed displeasure over the layoffs of the employees. Business meetings were virtual, reducing networking, one of his favorite activities. For most of the day at home, there were fewer barriers to grabbing a drink.
The success of his former team, the Buccaneers, which won the Super Bowl the week before his death, was a source of both joy and regret. Lindsey Jackson said that the team’s championship reminded her of a losing season with the team.
When it became clear to his children, too, that he had no alcohol, he said, he moved to a hotel about 20 minutes away.
When Vincent Jackson stopped responding to family members, he asked law enforcement for help locating him on February 10. Two days later, sheriff’s officers found him at the hotel, and “after assessing Jackson’s well-being,” they dismissed the missing person’s case. Three days later, a housekeeper found Jackson dead in his room.
Lindsey Jackson has gone back to work as a first grade teacher, and her four children, ages 3 to 8, walk around the house. The family, including Lindsay’s two sisters and Vincent’s parents, have stepped in to help.
Ornaments hang from the Christmas tree in the Man Cave: ceramic discs with photographs of Lindsay, Vincent and their children along with small footballs and football helmets.