Hue Jackson was playing in Baldwin Hills Park near his Los Angeles home, the place where everyone knew to find him. A youth football coach noticed the self-assured 7-year-old, handed him a football and told him to throw it.
Jackson squeezed the laces tightly, reared back and let it fly. Not bad for a first try. So the coach told him to keep the ball, practice with it and get better.
Forty-some years later, the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator still has a fondness for the scuffed ball that set his life on its current course.
"The first time somebody handed me a football — I can remember it like it was yesterday," Jackson said. "Probably the greatest day of my life. Football has been good to me."
And just as he grabbed that first football so tightly, Jackson has put his fingerprints on offenses every step of the way.
He was a triple-option quarterback at the University of Pacific. Then a graduate assistant. He moved through the college ranks and onto the NFL, where his creativity and way with people helped him become offensive coordinator at Washington, Atlanta and Oakland. He led the Raiders as coach in 2011, getting one 8-8 season before the dysfunctional front office wanted more change.
Back to Cincinnati, where he'd been an assistant coach for three years on his way up. And when Jay Gruden moved on to become the head coach at Washington after last season, Jackson was back to putting his imprint on an NFL offense.
He's got a distinctive style that players can readily describe.
"He's an upbeat guy. He likes to talk. He likes to get you on edge and challenge you a little bit," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. " It doesn't matter who you are, he's going to call you on it. He's going to be real with you."
The 50-year-old coach has been doing it since those days in LA when he emerged as someone who leads the way.
"I normally got placed at the forefront with my peers about leading," Jackson said. "Somebody said, 'You go play quarterback.' The next thing I'm organizing practice. I think it's just my nature to kind of stand out front and lead."
When he was hired by the Raiders as coordinator in 2010, he helped stabilize one of the NFL's worst franchises. Oakland had failed to win more than five games in any season over a seven-year span. The Raiders went 8-8 in his first season running the offense. He got promoted to the top job in 2011 and had the Raiders in playoff contention until quarterback Jason Campbell broke his collarbone at midseason.
The Raiders sent a first-round and conditional second-round pick to Cincinnati for quarterback Carson Palmer, who was sitting out the season. Palmer failed to get the Raiders to the playoffs, and Jackson was fired after an 8-8 finish.
"The atmosphere had been down for so long with the losing and he tried to change it," said Campbell, who is Andy Dalton's backup in Cincinnati. "The reason our offense did so well those two years was because of the mentality he brought. He was a big part of changing the mindset. He didn't accept mediocrity. He expected high-level results. That's the way he is.
"It's the same here. Guys are playing at a very high level offensively because of that mentality."
The Bengals are 3-1-1 despite missing Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, receiver Marvin Jones and pass-catching tight end Tyler Eifert to injuries. Dalton has improved in his first season under Jackson, avoiding mistakes and taking only two sacks in the first five games.
And the Bengals have provided some of the most interesting highlight plays. Receiver Mohamed Sanu has thrown two passes, including an 18-yarder to Dalton that went for a touchdown.
Dalton and Jackson have formed a good working relationship, relating as quarterbacks — albeit from very different backgrounds.
"He's more in-your-face and expects a lot out of you," Dalton said. "And if you're not doing it right, he's going to make sure that you know you're not doing it right. He pushes you. He wants your best and that's exactly what you want from the top down."
Jackson talks constantly during practice. Any mistake, no matter how small, is pointed out. He also encourages players to share their thoughts in meetings, trying to get them to understand the game.
"You hear the term 'players' coach,'" running back Cedric Peerman said. "I think he can relate to the players. He jokes with us. We just enjoy his presence. He has that personality that's outgoing, sort of head-coachish, I guess."
When receiver Greg Little signed with Cincinnati a few days ago, he already knew about Jackson's style.
"What I've gotten from around the league is he has a father-figure type of mantra that he presents and you can see that very firsthand," Little said.
Former Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes admires the way Jackson teaches the game.
"He does not care who you are, he's going to call you out — not in a bad way, but constructive criticism to where he's going to get everybody right," Spikes said. "I think that's what separates coaches from being teachers. A coach can always tell me what I did after I did it wrong. I don't need you to tell me. Give me some insight. That's the value of having a teacher."
Jackson's approach to game plans is very aggressive, insisting that players line up, snap the ball quickly and do things properly. He likes to keep pressure on the defense with different alignments, players shifting before the snap, and those out-of-nowhere plays.
It flows from an attitude that he started honing with that first football back in Baldwin Hills Park.
"I just kept that football and threw it around," Jackson said. "I might still have it. It might be in storage somewhere because that was a very special time."
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