football Edit

'These people behind me are going to hate me': A night with Daniels’ family

Jayden Daniels' mother, Regina Jackson, celebrates one of her son's three touchdowns in his ASU debut
Jayden Daniels' mother, Regina Jackson, celebrates one of her son's three touchdowns in his ASU debut

Regina Jackson was headed down the I-10 east around 10:30 a.m. Thursday morning.


She was two hours outside of Tempe, eight hours away from stepping foot inside Sun Devil Stadium and nine hours from standing on the stairway in between sections 12 and 13, yelling and dancing to the tune of her son’s greatest athletic achievement.


Then her tire popped. She pulled her car to the shoulder, 100-degree heat beating down on her blue truck. They were so close. Jackson, carpooling with her daughter Bianca, and her co-worker Tamera Suguitan decided to call AAA.


Problem was, they didn’t know where they were. They didn’t see any landmarks, no mile markers to guide the repair. So they went on to google maps and read the operator their longitude and latitude, like soldiers in World War II.


33.58. -113.44.


An hour later, help arrived. The AAA driver replaced their busted tire and sent them back cruising east.


Almost 12 hours after she veered to the side of the road with three working tires, Jackson stood behind the north end zone, a few feet to the left of the Pat Tillman statue, brushing off her earlier inconvenience. It’s not like a faulty tire was going to detour her from watching what every ASU fan was equally -- OK, well not equally, not even close -- eager for Jayden Daniels’ first start.


“I was going to get here regardless,” Jackson declared.


Daniels, who became the first ASU true freshman to start a season opener, impressed in his debut. The San Bernardino, Calif., native completed 15 for 24 passes for 284 yards, three total touchdowns and, and perhaps most impressive in his collegiate debut, no interceptions.


Through it all, his mom and family stationed themselves in section 12, row 11 and 12, anxiously watching his every move. There was chanting, wincing, dancing, yelling and everything in between. In short, Jackson was the life of section 12, ASU’s family section.

And that may be an understatement.


*****


I met Jackson and the rest of Jayden Daniels’ cheering section in a parking lot less than 200 feet from the north entrance of the stadium. In the shadow of the towering State Farm building, they had joined a tailgate under a massive canopy of ASU pop-up tents.


Just next to a white table that housed a sandwich platter and what looked like a garbage pail of seemingly uneaten El Sol salsa -- it had to be at least 48 oz. -- Jackson introduced me to everyone. First Bianca. Then Suguitan. Then her older sister Michelle Greenhouse and Michelle’s husband, Mark -- Jayden’s aunt and uncle.


Suguitan is the only one of the group not related to Daniels, yet she was wearing a maroon, No. 1 ASU jersey -- a recent Amazon purchase I came to learn. And not recent as in last December, when Daniels committed to ASU. No, that was before she knew Jackson or knew of her uber-talented son, Jayden.


A few months after he signed his Letter of Intent to attend school in Tempe, Suguitan joined Sunrun, a residential solar electricity company, in a sales role. Jackson was her team leader, and the top-selling one in the company, Suguitan claimed.


“You know how people can sometimes just click,” Suguitan said. “We clicked.”


The two hit it off. They bonded over a shared mindset backed by determination to sell, to get things done and to be the best. In sales, Suguitan argued, everything is about mindset, and Jackson’s has made her tops in the company.


“Wanna know where Jayden gets his mindset from?” Suguitan asks, pointing over to Jackson. “That’s where he gets his mindset from. It’s about manifesting success.”


Even in his short time at ASU, Daniels has already demonstrated that manifested success. He pledged to the Sun Devils despite the fact a pair of quarterbacks -- Ethan Long and Joey Yellen -- were already headed to Tempe. From the start, he always said he was going to win the quarterback competition, win the starting gig.


But that felt like forever ago as Jackson stood on the Sun Devil Stadium concourse, by the mobile team shop in the northwest corner of the stadium. She couldn’t stop moving, borderline hyperventilating.


She told me she couldn’t talk at the moment. She was too anxious. Her son saying he was going to win the starting job was one thing. Coach Herm Edwards announcing he would be under center for the first game was another thing. At that moment, though, it was actually happening.


“My nerves are crazy,” she said. “I knew he could beat out the QBs, then he did it. Now it’s real.”

Jayden Daniels as a toddler
Jayden Daniels as a toddler


*****

She hadn’t been that nervous for one of Jayden’s games since he was 14. It was August 2015 when Cajon High School coach Nick Rogers called to inform her Jayden was the was going to be the Cowboys’ Week 1 starter as a freshman.


Scared at the unknown her son was venturing into, she started crying. Bianca told the story of her mom closing her eyes during Jayden’s first high school pass. There were cheers. She didn’t know what happened. Someone had to tell her Jayden just threw a touchdown.


There was no explanation for Jayden’s’ first collegiate touchdown. Jackson’s scream was evidence enough. She jumped and jumped, holding her left hand in the sky and the program she used as a fan most of the game in her right hand.


Behind her, Mark had both hands up in the air, his index fingers pointing to the sky. Suguitan was spinning around videotaping the whole scene -- her and Michelle on a game-long quest to time up the “A-S-U. A-S-U” chant with the rest of the crowd.


When the cheers died down, Jackson opened her phone and went on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. As you would expect, the notifications were pouring in all night. Whenever there was a break in the action, Jackson popped open her phone and raced to get caught up with the timely buzz about her son.


After Jayden’s first touchdown, an 8-yard pass to Eno Benjamin, she found the video on Instagram and showed Mark and Michelle. Then she put the video on her story, and it was as if that erased all the uneasiness in her stomach.


“I’m good now,” she said. “Everyone is mentioning me. The world is watching Jayden.”


*****

As Jackson left to trek down to the field, Mark stood at the edge of the concourse with his vertically-oriented Samsung Galaxy phone outstretched from his body. He was recording a Facebook Live of his nephew warming up as a starting Pac-12 quarterback.


When he arrived at his seat, he couldn’t find the video. Suguitan leaned over to help Mark, who admittedly doesn’t use the app often. She couldn’t figure it out. I peeked over and tried to troubleshoot with the confused pair. We went to his profile -- nothing. We were stumped. In the process, though, I noticed he has “Pastor” written on his profile.


Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a farce. Mark is the pastor at At The Cross Ministries in Riverside, Calif. He called himself, “Jayden’s spiritual advisor,” and said his nephew knows to call anytime.


Over the last couple of months, his phone rang. Not off the hook, but a few times. And as a good pastor does, Mark offered wisdom with his nephew.


The definition of failure is when you stop trying.


Wise people seek wise counsel.


And before Jayden’s first collegiate game, Mark shared an excerpt from Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you.”


Mark doesn’t think God messes with sports. After all, he argues, there are kids on both sides. But that’s his nephew out there getting bull-rushed and repeatedly hit. His nephew with the pressure and expectation on his shoulders. The least he can do is arm him with lessons he’s gleaned from the bible.


When they sat down, the group spotted Jayden during team stretches, yelling his name and waving their arms to no avail. He ran off the field and we all waited to spot him again. In the meantime, we endured the 103-degree heat so deep into the stadium that it didn’t seem like much air was circulating.


In an effort to cool off, Michelle and Bianca went up to get shaved ice. Later in the game, Suguitan bought four large iced drinks from Dutch Bros. -- the group’s first time trying it. It was so hot earlier in the day that, in her clear backpack, Michelle had SPF 100 sunscreen.

I honestly didn’t know they made such a thing.


When player introductions finally came, Jayden’s name was first -- too quick for Michelle to get her iPhone X out.


She’s wasn’t thrilled, she wanted the clip. Michelle tells me she hasn’t had her phone for too long but has already put on more than 3,000 pictures on it -- mostly from her two son’s baseball games. When ASU is about to run out of the Tillman Tunnel, she pulled the veteran photographer move and headed for open space.


With a long-running video winding, she stood in an empty row in the adjacent section. When Sparky stomped the Kent State bus, her eyes lit up. Fireworks burst from both ends of the stadium as she recorded her nephew running onto ASU’s field for the first time.


Three minutes prior to kick-off, Mark wanted to pray one more time for his nephew. He stood up, crossed his arms, bowed his head and closed his eyes and he softly spoke a few words. Seconds later, he opened his eyes, peering his head over his right shoulder to Jackson coming down the stairs.


“I made it,” she shouted to the entire section. “I’m so nervous.”


*****


The first thing you should know about watching a game with Jackson is she doesn’t sit down. Never has. And she doesn’t just stand up at her seat, she stands up in the middle of the stairway.


“Oh you know what I do,” Jackson said. “These people behind me are going to hate me.”


Surprisingly enough, no one said a word. It was as if she had been doing for 40 years like there was an unwritten rule she was grandfathered into that allowed it. Or perhaps because, after just a few minutes at the seats, she felt like quasi-celebrity of section 12.


She chatted with sophomore safety Aashari Crosswell’s mom, freshman center Dohnovan West’s dad (another parent watching his freshman son in the starting lineup) and whoever was sitting in front of us -- she wasn’t sure when she first sat down -- like it was a 20th high school reunion.


When ASU’s creative designer Radmen Niven paced near the end zone closed to her, Jackson yelled down. “Hey Radmen, can I get a picture?” He found her in a second, laughing at the absurdity of both her noticing him and her yelling down mid-game. Then he shrugged, showing he only had a video camera and could not take her picture.


“Rad’s the best,” she turned and told me.


In essence, Jackson was the life of the party Thursday night.


When an NSYNC song played through the stadium during a timeout, she danced and bobbed. Every time Jayden took off running, she would yell, ‘Don’t run. I told him that.’ She has a different shirt made up for every game (Thursday it was a black tank top with ‘Daniels’ down the back and an ASU logo on the front).


She had a good laugh watching Jayden line up at receiver as Ethan Long motioned over to quarterback. “He’s like, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ She started chanting “Cin-Cin-Nati” when she found out the Bearcats beat UCLA. And she apologized to the entire section for yelling too loud after Jayden’s first completion. “Sorry, y’all. We’re just a little much over here.”


The only times she seemed to even be a tad frustrated came when ASU stopped passing the ball. Cajon had massive success opening up the offense for Jayden, she wanted to see the Sun Devils do the same.


“They need to open things up and let him play,” she said, adding about a million screams of “Throw the ball.”


After halftime, Jayden threw the ball on the first two plays of the second half for a combined 20 yards. Jackson was fired up. Then, Jayden handed it off six straight times.


“They’re like, ‘Do you have your Pop Warner voice?’ Jackson said during the barrage of running plays. “I’m about to.”


There was no need. Two plays later, Jayden scampered into the end zone from 1-yard out for the score. The screams from section 12, though, preceded him actually crossing the goal line. Jackson was waving her arms and bouncing around like she was standing on burning hot sand. Then she went and high-fived a dozen nearby hands.


“She loves it,” Michelle said.

Jayden Daniels on one of his signature runs on Thursday night
Jayden Daniels on one of his signature runs on Thursday night

A few minutes later, Deja Vu struck. Jayden hit wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk for a 77-yard score, upping ASU’s lead to 27-0. Jackson again started waving her arms and jumping up and down. This was a night in which during nearly every break she was dancing to whatever song was playing, of course, she was going to go crazy for a touchdown.


“They’re mad because a freshman is kicking their ass,” Jackson said.


“See, he’s doing better every drive,” Michelle added.


“He’s going to go for 300 yards,” Mark said.


He finished just 16 yards shy of 300. By the end of the night, no one was complaining -- or concerned. Need proof? At the end of the 3rd quarter, the unthinkable happened: Jackson sat down. Michelle looked over and started laughing.


“Oh, you’re sitting down,” Michelle said. “Someone take a picture. The only reason she’s sitting is because they’re not on offense.”


*****

As the game wound down, an ASU victory already in hand, Jackson found the video of one of Jayden’s touchdowns. She showed it to Mark, mimicking the Pac-12 network's broadcaster’s voice as Mark held it up to his ear.


“Daniels steps right,” she quipped. “Daniels throws it.”


She was a completely different person from three hours prior. No queasiness. No hesitation. No doubt. As we walked down to the field after the game, I asked her if her nerves were gone.


“I’m a pro,” she said, shaking off the thought that she could still nervous after what her son just did.


We reached the edge of the Tillman Tunnel just ahead of the stampede of Sun Devils heading to the locker room. Most stayed along the rope, but Jackson jumped into the fray and started talking with and hugging seemingly every other player that walked by.


It was clear, despite the fact Jayden had only been on campus since January, that she had truly gotten to know and care for her son’s teammates. Among those who stopped to talk with Jackson was linebacker Darien Butler, wide receiver Kyle Williams, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver Frank Darby, cornerback Chase Lucas and running back Eno Benjamin.


Benjamin almost walked past her before Jackson called out, “Eno B.” He ran back, gave her a hug and they chatted for a few seconds. After the players cleared out, Associate Athletic Director Jean Boyd stopped and hugged her. A little later, Athletic Director Ray Anderson was walking by with ASU President Michael Crow.


Jackson hit Anderson on the side with her program, sparking him to immediately turn around and say, ‘Hey, Regina. What’s up,” like the two were old college buddies.


When she was waiting for Jayden to meet them outside, Jackson opened Facebook and read out a direct message that Damontae Kazee, an Atlanta Falcons’ defensive back who also went to Cajon, sent her.


“Your son is a Dogg,” Kazee’s message read. “Tell him good job today.”


Kazee then told Jackson that everyone on the Falcons’ plane was watching Daniels play. She then looked up at the giant video board on the north side of the stadium playing Jayden’s press conference.


“Ah, look at him,” she said in a loving way only a mother can.


She opened her phone again and showed me her home page. The notifications were popping up by the second. On the one hand, she seemed overwhelmed. On the other, she seemed ecstatic.


Every parent wants the world to know how great, how amazing their child is. On Thursday, Jackson got to live that -- what felt like the whole country talking about her son.


Perhaps that’s why she checked social media so much. Thursday was another validation, on a grander stage in front of a grandiose audience, that Jayden Daniels is, indeed, special.


Not that Jackson didn't already know that, but as of last night, a few more people do, too.


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