I can still remember the day, roughly 3 years ago, when a little-known quarterback from Boynton Beach (Florida) committed to play football at my hometown school — the University of Louisville.
“You gotta watch this dude play. He looks like a faster Teddy Bridgewater.”
My friend told me the day of his commitment.
Curious about the future of the football program I had grown up idolizing — and later went on to coach at briefly — I googled highlights of this young Lamar Jackson kid.
Immediately upon turning on the highlight reel, I watched as Lamar took the first snap, sprinted out wide, and took the ball 80 yards to the house himself.
And with every long range bomb, ankle breaking cut, and jaw dropping hurdle — I started to see what I hadn’t expected:
I saw the ghost of my favorite athlete growing up: Michael Vick.
Now, character and past aside, Vick was a generational talent. One that was easy to fall in love with.
Ask any boy coming to age in the early 2000’s about their opinion of Michael Vick and watch as they gush on and on about how amazing he was.
The speed, the athleticism, the creativity, and the cannon for an arm.
No one had ever played the game like Michael Vick did.
And while maybe it didn’t translate into Super Bowls — there is a very real reason that the phrase “the Mike Vick experience” is a coined term.
Unfortunately, as he flamed out of the league late in his career, I was faced with the possibility I’d never see another athlete like him.
The game of football was seemingly moving on past dual-threat quarterbacks, and there was the fact that Mike’s combination of arm strength and speed may very well be an outlier that doesn’t come again for a very long time.
Flash forward a few years later, and here I was, watching a fairly unheard of athlete, getting the same itch of excitement that Vick had left me with as a kid.
I tried not to get too far ahead of myself.
Lamar was only 17 years old, extremely undeveloped as a player, and may not translate to the next level as I’d hope.
No one else had come along and picked up the torch Michael Vick had left behind.
So, why should I expect this under-recruited player to come along and do things only one man had managed before?
But as months went on, and Lamar Jackson arrived on campus, the stories that came to follow did nothing to assist in smothering my excitement.
First was the fuzzy home-video of Lamar Jackson throwing a football nearly 100 yards on his high school football field.
Was it actually him?
Was that field really 100 yards?
Was it really an undesired video?
I don’t know.
Then, a few weeks later, another video started spreading.
This one was of Lamar, randomly running into NBA point guard Rajon Rondo on the streets of Louisville, challenging him to a race, and leaving him in the dust.
This video was real.
But, other than it being a cool story, did it mean much?
Was Rondo just a washed-up NBA player who didn’t possess the blazing speed he once had?
I don’t know.
Oh, and you might recognize this little video that managed to go viral.
These stories didn’t stop.
And neither did the hype.
Rumblings from the football program started coming to the surface and the media pushed them every time they did.
“We’ve got something special.”
“He could be an all-American at 2 or 3 different positions.”
“He’s got the best arm talent we’ve ever seen here.”
Here I was, trying my best not to get my hopes up for this 17 year old kid, and I quickly realized I was fighting a losing battle.
Eventually, the time came for Lamar’s first real college football game.
It was a neutral site showdown against a highly ranked Auburn team — the perfect chance for Lamar to show how for real he was.
Oh the first play of the game Lamar, initially lined up as a tailback, motioned the fill-in QB out wide, and took a direct snap.
Sprinting right and looking downfield Lamar shot the ball out of his hands, giving us the first look at that cannon of his.
And we all watched as that pass sailed into the middle of nowhere and was promptly picked off.
“Maybe he’s actually NOT the player he was (unfortunately) hyped up to be.” I thought to myself.
That thought didn’t last long.
Lamar Jackson went on to finish that game strong. Making cut after cut and wiggle after wiggle that seemed straight out of a video game.
Louisville went on to barely lose that game against the highly ranked Auburn Tigers
But it was that exact game that left many of us with glimpses of what was to come: “Oh shit, this kid might be for real.”
Lamar’s freshman season was an up and down one. At times he proved that he was, in fact, a very raw athlete that needed much development.
But he never let his head hang low.
At least, not for long.
Because before you knew it, he’d always come right back and manage to do something on the field that we’ve never seen before.
The ratio of raw ignorance and natural brilliance became stronger and stronger as the year progressed.
And as Lamar entered his sophomore season, the question was no longer if he was special — the question was would he improve and capitalize on his gifts.
Oh, and here’s a quick spoiler:
Lamar Jackson’s sophomore season popped off with a bang and hardly ever slowed down.
There were the 8 first-half touchdowns in the season’s opening game.
The 5 touchdown performance against Syracuse (+ THE Heisman hurdle).
The absolute thrashing he put on Florida State.
And the gutsy performance against the eventual national champions – the Clemson Tigers.
The laser-like touchdown passes and electric runs no longer caught us by surprise. Instead, we only wondered how Lamar would go on to surprise us next.
His play even left my childhood idol, Michael Vick, repeatedly gushing about Lamar on Twitter.
That magical season ended with Lamar winning each and every award and winding up at the top of every All-America listing.
And I can still very vividly remember Lamar, decked out in his fire truck red Macy’s suit, becoming the youngest Heisman Trophy winner in history.
This same kid, at the mind-boggling age of 19 years old, not only came along and picked up the torch Michael Vick left behind — he had managed to craft the beginning of his own legacy.
Lamar did not go on to win a second consecutive Heisman trophy as a junior. But he never slowed down either. And his meteoric rise only continued.
The formerly undeveloped athlete began to grow into a full-fledged quarterback.
He was a leader both on and off the field. Regularly coming to the aid and defense of his teammates on Saturdays — while showing up randomly to help out at local elementary schools during the week.
His accuracy continued to improve in the passing game. And his turnovers ended up at a career low despite a lesser talented team surrounding him.
Oh, and those highlight reel plays?
Well, they never stopped coming either.
This was a ride I’d like to say I never saw coming. But I did. And no matter how hard I initially tried to ignore it — Lamar Jackson came in and stole the spotlight and hearts of thousands.
Today though, we’re faced with a moment that came infinitely quicker than I anticipated.
Today Lamar Jackson steps onto the field for the final time as a college football athlete.
Once again, like so many Saturdays before, I feel the excitement building in my gut as I look forward to watching him put on another spectacle.
But I’m also facing a feeling of uncertainty. Not necessarily out of sadness or despair. But because of how good things have been and because of how much these past few years have meant to me as a fan.
So, for one final time, from the bottom of my heart, I have a few parting words for Lamar:
Thank you for the excitement and thank you for the surprise.
Thank you for doing it right and thank you for the ride.
And most importantly, thank you for making me remember what it felt like to be awe-struck 12 year old kid again.