The walls of San Quentin crossed my mind Friday morning when I saw that DeSean Jackson had been released by the Philadelphia Eagles, reportedly because of concerns about his personal life.
The NFL team concluded its star wide receiver has many associations with the criminal element.
He most assuredly does.
But it's more complicated than appears on the surface.
[NEWS: Eagles release DeSean Jackson]
I don't know if Jackson is a gang member or has gang affiliations, but I know he grew up surrounded by the culture. He also knows it is, figuratively and often literally, a dead end.
See, I've been to prison with DeSean. I've seen him walk the yard as if it were his old neighborhood, shaking hands and embracing inmates and engaging them in animated conversation. I was just a few feet away.
Back in May 2011, when I was a Bay Area News Group columnist, DeSean's brother, Byron, invited me to join their small group visiting the notorious state prison on the northwest shore of San Francisco Bay. I accepted, curious to see and hear a millionaire NFL star's personal interaction with murderers and rapists and others confined to the margins of society.
DeSean was tremendous, speaking with authority and clarity about his own experience in Los Angeles, talking about friends he had lost to prison or death as a result of the gang lifestyle.
He told me he saw a lot of people at the Q who grew up as he did, navigating violent streets and hoping to survive. Some did. Others did not. DeSean said he always looked to his brother -- Byron Jackson had a brief NFL career -- and their father for guidance.
Jackson said something else that struck a chord: Gangbangers, sensing his bright athletic future, protected him, insulating him from danger. The thugs told him he was going places, and they did not want to be responsible for shattering his dream.
Jackson that day spent several hours at the Q, listening as much as he talked. This was his second trip to the prison and he said he was compelled to visit because doing so reminds him of what he has overcome and, above all, keeps him grounded.
One of the last things he said after the nearly three-hour visit was that he would be back. That he felt the need to return.
It was evident Jackson clicked with the inmates and their stories. They also recognized Jackson and his story. There was a bond from shared experiences.
In an NFL rightly concerned with its image -- particularly with former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez facing murder charges -- such a bond puts Jackson a bit too close to discomfort.
Jackson on Friday issued a statement saying he is not and never has been part of any gang. He is, however, among hundreds of pro athletes personally familiar with the gang culture. It's almost unavoidable these days. Hall of Famer Jim Brown has spent decades explaining this to anybody who cares to listen.
The Eagles concluded, at least for public consumption, that they were not willing to take the chance on Jackson. Other teams will, and he will land with one of them.
As we said, it's more complicated than it may appear. A lot more complicated.