Aug. 5, 2013
By Chad Shepard, MGoBlue.com
Former Michigan football All-American Marlin Jackson (2001-04) grew up in Sharon, Pa., where he and his siblings endured a difficult childhood environment as the result of a mother who battled drug addiction and an absent father. He felt numb to the world, drifting from place to place until he found his escape and new home at the University of Michigan. Recently retired, he is doing everything he can to ensure a brighter path for the underprivileged youth of Sharon and Indianapolis, Ind., where he played five NFL seasons.
Founded in 2007, Jackson's Fight for Life Foundation seeks to enable emotional growth, self and social awareness, physical wellness and life balance in its participants. The program begins in elementary school where kids participate in the Building Dreams stage, an in-school or after-school program that rewards communication, literacy and academics and seeks to build a stronger family-community bond. Fight for Life has aligned its curriculum with Casel's Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Indiana Common Core English Language Arts standards to ensure that their students are where they need to be among their peers.
Jackson says he had designs on starting a foundation like Fight for Life as a senior while at Michigan and made his goal a reality after just two seasons in the NFL. He credits Coach Lloyd Carr with his mature approach.
"He always stressed being a part of something bigger than yourself, and he equated that to us being at Michigan and how important it is to be part of this tradition, so that helped reshape my mindset. It caused me to look back and see how blessed I was to be able to make it from where I made it from and to have another view on life. Now I want to go back and try to help younger people discover what I discovered but sooner in life."
The eight-person executive board for the foundation includes Jackson and seven other talented individuals from various professional backgrounds. Currently, Fight for Life is in the process of developing its Building Dreams Action Sessions, the ensuing stage for students once they pass through the first part of the program. In the program's final segment called Reach out and Access your Peers, or RAP, students in grades 9-12 practice reflection to achieve self-actualization. RAP encourages self-interpretation and individual expression, especially through music.
Fight for Life offers even more ways for students to build the life skills they need to succeed. Seal the Deal special events help kids make big plays on and off the field and pushes the message that "school + home + sports = balance." Jackson and his staff offer two-day Youth Football Camps in addition to six-week football summer programs by partnering with other local organizations to combine drills and flag football with the life skills instilled in each of the program's students. The theme of "Seal the Deal" stems from Jackson's interception of Tom Brady in the final seconds of the 2006 AFC Championship game, which "Sealed the Deal" for the Colts to make it to the Super Bowl. Fight for Life has another campaign -- Be A Blessing -- that incorporates toy drives during the holidays, back-to-school supplies in the fall and offers cultural field trips as well as college tours for families unable to afford these experiences for their children.
While it has been in existence for nearly seven years, the foundation took a leap forward recently when Jackson retired from the NFL in October 2012.
"It's been revamped," says Jackson. "It was on a much lower level from the standpoint of me focusing on football. As I got closer to exiting the game, I started to focus on this more and more, and I had developed things enough to where I was ready to move on and re-establish Fight for Life as it is now."
Now he's seeing his dream take shape.
"With any kind of venture it's a process and you don't know what's ahead in the future. You don't know what it's going to look like. You know what you have but not how it will evolve. I'm seeing the branches start to sprout and relationships growing. It's still a process, but I can see more clearly now."
A process it may be, but Jackson's foundation is doing big things in the Indianapolis area and in his hometown of Sharon. Sponsors for the foundation include the NFL, YMCA, Indianapolis Colts and USA Football, among others. The foundation is gaining momentum, but Jackson has a message for kids who haven't yet been fortunate enough to receive help from Fight for Life.
"Exposure is key. In the environment you expose yourself to or the people and relationships you're exposed to, it's always best to surround yourself with the positives. When all you see is negativity on a daily basis, that's what you know as normal. The most important part of what we're trying to do is provide help with the shift in mindset of young people, because if you have a strong mind and strong will you can go on and succeed in whatever you choose to do."
Jackson knows this is what he wants to do with his post-football life.
"There are some things that you feel so strongly, and I've always felt strongly about this. I was always passionate about football, but this is something else that I was passionate about, and it lit a fire under me. It was a natural transition for this to take over and be what I do going forward. I may even become more passionate about this than I was about football."