Edward AschoffESPN Staff Writer
ATLANTA — The chants filled a Georgia Dome packed to the brim as Alabama’s captains strutted toward midfield for Saturday’s coin flip.
Edd-ie, Edd-ie, Edd-ie!
Edd-ie, Edd-ie, Edd-ie!
Hours later, those chants were back. This time not as loud — thanks in large part by the overwhelmingly pro-Alabama crowd getting lost in other hoots and hollers celebrating the Tide’s 24-7 win over Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl — but just as meaningful.
Edd-ie, Edd-ie, Edd-ie!
This is the love that the senior safety Jackson received because he’s a life force for Alabama’s football team, even with his collegiate playing days having ended in October. Dressed in his crimson Alabama jersey and matching sweatpants and shoes, Jackson strolled the Georgia Dome sideline in the final college football game that will ever be played there with fans chanting at him, and his teammates couldn’t have been happier to see their fallen captain by their sides on Saturday night.
“We do this for you,” confetti-covered linebacker Tim Williams lovingly screamed at Jackson as Alabama players celebrated yet another trip to the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T.
They do this for him because Jackson, who was the heartbeat of Alabama’s defense before a broken leg against Texas A&M ended his Tide career, has become a major inspiration for Alabama’s entire football team. The defense worships his leadership and feeds off that chippy energy he showed when he was vigorously motivating his teammates in games and practices back when he could play.
Jackson can’t get as physical with his guys anymore, but he’s just as motivating. He sits in during film sessions. He barks at Alabama’s secondary through the good and bad. He’s coaching up the young guys and making sure the older ones are in their right spots.
Sometimes, he’s so loud that guys can hear him from the sideline during games.
“He’s always here,” defensive back Anthony Averett said.
“He’s the heart.”
Jackson’s season-ending injury rocked Alabama’s football team. The former No. 54-rated high school wide receiver turned All-American safety/return man, who could change a game with the flick of his hips in the open field, was the secondary’s signal-caller. He was the on-the-field coach and locker room leader. If guys needed a boost, Jackson was there, whether it was with an electrifying defensive touchdown or jaw-dropping punt return.
Now he’s resigned to motivating with just his words. And his words couldn’t have been any louder than when he published an article to his teammates in The Players’ Tribune entitled “To My Brothers.” In it, Jackson talked about how far he’s come in life because of Alabama football and his Alabama teammates.
“I’ve been named an All-American, I’ve won a national championship and I’ve earned my college degree. I’m really proud of all of those things, but the accomplishment that means the most to me is being voted one of your captains earlier this month,” Jackson wrote to his teammates.
Jackson’s article was published Friday, and coach Nick Saban read it to his players before Saturday’s game — a game in which Alabama’s defense held Washington’s elite offense to a season-low 194 yards and seven points with three takeaways.
“I thought Eddie’s article that he wrote sort of epitomizes the team chemistry that this team has and how they really sort of care about each other and everybody tries to help each other and have each other’s back and support each other in doing the right things,” Saban said.
“I think that kind of leadership and that kind of togetherness is something that really helped us sustain the kind of effort that we needed in what was a very tough game [Saturday] against a very good Washington team.”
Williams said the letter “warmed my heart.” Linebacker Rashaan Evans said Jackson gives players hope and “guidance on playing each and every down like it’s our last.”
Senior linebacker Ryan Anderson, whose marvelous pick-six against Washington was so Jackson-esque, calls Jackson one of his closest friends. Jackson went from a “little knucklehead” when he arrived to a guy Anderson admired so much that he asked his coaches whether he could honor Jackson by wearing his No. 4 jersey after his season-ending injury.
Hearing the shouts of his friend’s name still leave Anderson searching for words.
“He means a lot to this team. I can’t put it into words,” Anderson said.
“Now, he means a lot to this program and the state of Alabama.”
Jackson was stoic after Alabama’s win. The chants made him smile, and the hugs squeaked out a chuckle or two, but he mostly kept his poise as he walked around a confetti-soaked field Saturday. When asked about how tough it’s been to watch his teammates race to yet another national championship appearance, Jackson smiled and deflected the attention from himself.
Even with his pads long gone, Jackson was playing the part of captain, and pushing the attention to his team … like any good leader should.
“It’s been a great feeling, man,” he said. “Just to see the work that these guys put in. They deserve everything. I’m proud of these guys, and the focus should be on these guys and this team.”