LINCOLN, Nebraska — At first glance, Damian Jackson is just another number. Another roster spot. Another Nebraska defensive lineman hoping to make an impression on a frigid, blustery morning in early April.
Inside the Cornhuskers' practice facility, however, the temperature is ideal. Jackson, wearing No. 38, roams the turf with his teammates, bobbing from drill to drill.
The soon-to-be-sophomore's movements are natural. From looking at him, you wouldn't know that he has only played football for one year.
Outside of the tousled brown beard that dangles below his chinstrap, you also wouldn't know he is 25 years old, seven years older than many of his teammates. He will celebrate his 26th birthday before next season begins.
You wouldn't know that before he became a Cornhusker, Jackson called Yemen and Southeast Asia home, if only for a while. He was there not as a student or a defensive end, but as a Navy SEAL.
It was there that he developed his impressive football physique. It was there that he became a master of explosives and an expert marksman. It was there that he jumped out of airplanes and submerged himself deep underwater. It was there that he lost friends he'll never forget.
His path to Lincoln began in Las Vegas, where he played soccer and baseball. He didn't much care for football back then. Even now, he only watches himself on tape or film when his coaches suggest he do so.
But that doesn't change Jackson's dream. He wants to play in the NFL. And he knows how, as a 25-year-old freshman who has yet to play a snap in a game, that might come across.
"I know it may sound crazy," he says. "But that's why I'm here. I gave up everything I had—a good-paying job, my house and my car—to come here. Once I have a goal in mind, I put everything toward it. I put all my resources into making it happen."
His older brother, Adam, had joined the Navy a year prior. And with his list of college options smaller than his liking and limited financial resources, Jackson joined the Navy right after he graduated in 2010 from Shadow Ridge High School in Las Vegas.
The idea was to earn enough money to eventually pay for college.
"I also think he wanted the hardest challenge he could find," Adam says. "And honestly, I think he wanted to separate himself from me because we're so competitive with everything we do."
In boot camp, Jackson found his pathway—through the SEALs. It began with a simple pull-up test. In a matter of months, he was swimming every day, running and lifting to prepare his body for BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL)—a grueling a six-month training period in California.
The stories of BUD/S are almost legendary, although Jackson refuses to dwell on this period. To him, it was as expected.
Like the time his body was so dehydrated and low on electrolytes that it locked up and he was unable to move. Or the day he passed out after scuba diving for too long. Or the thousands of bullets fired and the hundreds of times he jumped out of an airplane.
"It's a fun ride," he says with a smile. "Maybe I was just too dumb to quit."
"It's the hardest f--king thing you can possibly do, and he did it with the best attitude," his brother says. "Damian will go 10 times harder than your breaking point, and he has that mental attitude for everything."
Those who trained with him marveled at the way he used to handle assault drills—high-stress exercises in which live ammunition was used. They envied how calm he was, no matter the situation.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he's still an active SEAL, one of Jackson's closest friends still thinks about how easy he made such daunting tasks look.
"He's just a rare mix of innate talent combined with indomitable drive, and it kind of marries into this rare person," his friend says. "He's a one-in-a-100 million kind of guy and shined in every single dimension of this job."
In becoming a SEAL, Jackson's four-year commitment to the Navy was extended by two years. During this time, he was sent to Yemen and then to Southeast Asia on deployments.
The more he trained, the more his body changed. He left Las Vegas with the idea that he was going to get huge. In just a few years, he put on almost 60 pounds.
Because of his size, Jackson became a breacher. His job was to gain access to doorways and openings through whatever means necessary. And once again, Jackson summarizes his responsibilities as plainly as possible.
"I was the guy with all the explosives."
Mike Riley, former head coach at Nebraska, remembers the day he first met Jackson in his office. He remembers the young man, a Navy SEAL already in his early 20s, telling him that he hoped to play college football a few years later.
Riley was hopeful for the young man. But in truth, he had his doubts.
"It sounded great right in the moment," Riley recalls. "But you had a suspicion you might never hear about it again. What were the odds of this ever really coming to fruition?"
With two years remaining on his SEAL contract, Jackson had the sudden itch to play football. A broken collarbone meant his pitching days were done, and at 245 pounds he was too big to play soccer.
Encouraged by a fellow SEAL who played football at Stanford, a passion was born. Jackson began floating the idea to family and friends.
"Great," his mother, Bridgette Saenz, told him. "How are you going to do it? Tell me your plan. I know it's going to happen, but tell me how. And what can I do to help?"
He looked at the most recent Top 25 college football rankings, researched the proper contacts and began firing off emails. A handful of schools said they had no space, while some simply said no. But most said nothing at all. As Jackson attempted to find a home, he applied to more than a dozen universities as a student. He was accepted into almost all of them.
Jackson and his mother first visited Nebraska thanks largely to Gary Toogood, a former Nebraska player who owned the dental practice where his mother worked. They attended a game in 2015, where he met Riley for the first time.
Although no college football programs, Nebraska included, would commit to Jackson, he enrolled there anyway. At the time, it was a leap of faith. But it felt like his best and only chance.
"My plan was to go to school, and if I didn't get accepted to the football team, I was going to go somewhere else," Jackson says. "I was going to drop down to a junior college if I had to, but I wanted to see if I could make it at a Division I program first."
Two years after his initial visit to Nebraska, now enrolled as a student, Jackson ran into Riley while riding his skateboard. The coach remembered the SEAL and invited him to a tryout with other walk-ons. With limited knowledge of what he was getting into, Jackson researched what position he should play given his current body size. Linebacker sounded good.
The tryouts consisted of footwork and position drills to see what kind of athlete he was. The coaches were impressed with how well he could move at 250 pounds—impressed enough that they asked if he wanted to work out with the team last spring.
"We as a staff also wanted to give this specific individual a chance," Riley says. "Considering his past, what he's done for our country and what he represents, it was only right."
The learning curve was steep at first. Physically, Jackson fit in. But the terminology and strategy were more or less a new language.
Learning his first-ever playbook and the basic concepts took months. It's a process that is ongoing, although it gets easier each day.
"When I watch film, there are times I put my head down and wonder why I'm doing something a certain way," Jackson says, cracking a smile at his own expense. "Every rep I do, there's something I know I can fix."
Jackson eventually switched to defensive end, his current position, which simplified the playbook a great deal. At the team's first home game last fall against Arkansas State—the first football game of Jackson's life—he led Nebraska out of the tunnel carrying the American flag.
Hours after practice ends, Jackson sits down at a table inside Nebraska's athletic facility. His beard is now flying free, and his long hair is freshly washed. Instead of shoulder pads, he wears a gray shirt with short sleeves that can barely contain his arms.
His workouts at Nebraska are almost folklore. In fact, coaches had to curtail the time he spent inside the gym not long after he arrived. Fascinated with the prospects of working out with a Navy SEAL, players were anxious to train with Jackson. But they soon found they could not keep pace.
"My arms were about to fall off," defensive lineman Freedom Akinmoladun recalls of his first workout with Jackson. "I don't think he has fat on him. I don't know how he weighs as much as he does and still looks the way he does."
At 6'1" and 258 pounds, Jackson now has only 12 percent body fat—a figure closer to the team's wideouts and running backs.
Over the past year, Jackson and his teammates have grown close. He's bonded with fellow defensive linemen, who have slowly asked more about his travels and his experiences. As time progressed, they learned more about him and the places he's been.
"I was worried doing homework a couple of years ago," defensive lineman Peyton Newell says. "He was worried about whether he was going to get killed or not. We're so fortunate to have him in the defensive line room."
Although his routine is still just a year old, Jackson has taken to it. He practices, lifts and studies for school.
He doesn't drink. Doesn't smoke. He's not active on social media. He doesn't go to parties or bars. For the most part, he keeps to himself outside the football building.
His main source of technology comes from two places. As a computer science major, Jackson could see himself finding a profession in that field once he leaves Nebraska—with the idea that there could be a lucrative future ahead.
His other technology comes from video games, which he typically plays with his brother along with his teammates.
Perhaps fittingly, they rave about how good he is at shooting games such as Call of Duty and Fortnite.
"It's an honor just to play with him," Newell says. "He's unreal."
Surrounded by relics and trophies from past successes, new Nebraska coach Scott Frost sits down in a leather sofa outside his office and takes a swig from his protein shake.
Back in 1996 and 1997, Frost quarterbacked the Cornhuskers to a 24-2 mark over a two-year span—some of the glory days for a proud program that used to be at the epicenter of college football.
As he acclimated to his new office and routine, Frost noticed something: Almost every time he walked into the weight room, he saw a bearded player who looked much older than the rest of his roster.
When he heard Jackson's story from the school administration, he couldn't help but be excited about having someone so unique on his roster. Not just because he's always shared a deep appreciation for the SEALs after one of his childhood friends joined, but because of how their attitudes and camaraderie mirror the environment he's hoping to create.
"He's obviously tougher than almost everybody on the planet," Frost says. "A lot of the principles they learn are exactly what we're trying to establish on our football team. Hopefully we can establish a culture that's even close to what he's used to."
With Jackson, there is an understanding he still has a long road ahead. Frost and his staff's evaluation of his skills as a player, much like the rest of the roster, has only just started. With a new staff, however, everyone is starting from scratch.
There are no guarantees that Jackson will see the field this season or any season, for that matter. And yet, the value of having him on the roster—at a time when Frost is expected to reignite the program after leading Central Florida to an unbeaten season—is not lost on the coach.
"I hope he plays a lot, and we'll let those pieces fall where they may," Frost says. "But I know how valuable he's going to be regardless of how many snaps he gets. I love having him on this team."
Jackson has already picked up a new responsibility: long-snapping. The hope is that this could be his ticket to playing time at this level or the next.
He taught himself on YouTube, and he hasn't looked back since.
Underneath Jackson's white practice jersey is a reminder of where he comes from—a tattoo on his left ribcage of a bone frog emblem, a symbol for a fallen SEAL. It's a tattoo he got in memory of his friend Charles Keating IV, who was killed in Iraq. He wears a shirt with his initials and roman numerals around the practice facility, "CKIV," in his honor.
And at his locker on occasion, he will lay down on a gray mat that is roughly two inches thick. It was given to him when he was deployed to Yemen to help cope with the uncomfortable, makeshift wooden beds.
In his former life, he woke up on this mat to explosions. To chaos. But here, he'll lay it out in front of his locker during the long summer and fall practice days and sneak in a nap.
To him, it represents nothing more than extreme comfort. "If I ever go homeless," he says, "this is going to be my prized possession."
But his teammates see it differently. They see much more than a portable bed when they walk by. It is a reminder of where Jackson comes from and all that it took him to get here.