Hurry up and wait.
After months of training, tests and interviews, there's a 72-hour window in late April where prospects await their pro football futures alongside family members and a cell phone. Some get the call early. Others, like Chargers running back Justin Jackson, are forced to painfully wait for what they've been working towards for most of their lives.
The NFL Draft is the ultimate dream maker, but that doesn't mean nightmares don't pop up along the way.
"For guys who are mid- to late-round picks – you're not really sure where you're going to go – it's like the worst few days ever, until it's not," Jackson said on The Backstage: Chargers Podcast.
Jackson's experience exactly a year ago was one clouded in uncertainty. As the 2018 NFL Draft rolled into its eleventh hour, Northwestern's all-time leading rusher was still without a team.
The transition from potential draft pick to full-blown undrafted free agent started to become a reality for a player who compiled four consecutive 1,000-plus yard seasons in the Big Ten.
Jackson entered what he referred to as "the wild, wild west." He said he called his agent, who started dialing teams in preparation for the post-draft recruiting process. While all of this was happening, the Chargers were poised to make their final pick of the draft – No. 251 overall.
Six selections before Mr. Irrelevant, Jackson's phone rang.
"To finally have that monkey off your back, when you're like, 'This team selected me, they obviously want me, and I don't have to make this rush decision on where I want to go,'" Jackson said. "That was very exciting for me, and it couldn't have been a better team."
Late-round picks and undrafted free agents naturally enter their new surroundings with something to prove. The odds may not be favorable, but when opportunities present themselves, taking full advantage equals survival.
When Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon sustained a knee injury in Week 11 against the Arizona Cardinals, the 8-3 Chargers increased the role of their seventh-round pick. A critical stretch that included primetime road games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs loomed large.
Eight months after wondering when his phone would ring, Jackson found himself center stage under the lights with 60,000 Terrible Towels waving at Heinz Field. His 82 total yards in the second half – including a 19-yard rushing touchdown – helped the Chargers overcome a 16-point deficit to beat the Steelers 33-30 on "Sunday Night Football."
Eleven days later, Los Angeles entered a Thursday night showdown against the Chiefs, again without the services of Gordon. Jackson totaled 85 yards and a rushing touchdown in the Chargers' 29-28 come-from-behind, playoff-clinching victory in Arrowhead Stadium.
In two of the franchise's biggest moments, Jackson showcased his ability to help the team win.
"You have to prove yourself and it doesn't matter where you're drafted," Jackson said. "… Most of the league is made up of late-round picks to undrafted free agents because you come in with a chip on your shoulder and you just work your butt off."
The Chargers' track record of success with draft picks and UDFAs tells us that additional help is on the way for a team that went 12-4 and won a playoff game last season. When those players arrive at Hoag Performance Center, they'll enter an atmosphere that Jackson credits for his and fellow rookie teammates' success in 2018.
"That's what's great about this organization is with the younger guys and older guys, there's a lot of cohesiveness," Jackson said. "I think our team chemistry is there, and that's why we were able to build so much last year and be successful."
When it's the right situation, the wait is always worth it.
Listen to the entire interview with Jackson on The Backstage: Chargers Podcast, which is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play, YouTube and the official Chargers app. A five-star rating/review is appreciated and will help spread the word to other fans this offseason.