Skip to main content

Jackson Carman: Bengals Rookie For All Seasons On And Off Field

Jackson Carman knows he's a leader.
Jackson Carman knows he's a leader.

Jason Krause, the Fairfield High School head coach who moved Jackson Carman from defense to offense his sophomore year, often ended up amazed at the result.

Such as those screen passes when the 300 or so pound man-child would glide through an open field and latch his hands on those supposedly more agile defensive backs. Maybe even more impressive were the "Dart" calls, where the tackle would pull and there would be the 6-5 Jackson barreling into a space before jettisoning a linebacker into space.

"To come from the left to the right side, to wrap all the way around the other side to square up on a guy," Krause still wonders, "and, in our conference, finish a linebacker on his back. Every time we ran 'Dart,' I feel that happened."

But the trip two weeks ago to Jungle Jim's may have topped all that.

They were shopping for the draft party that Krause was putting on for Carman, the one with the worst kept secret in the draft that the Bengals were staying home to take him in the second round.

They walked past the toy section and Carman picked up a ukulele. Krause, no doubt remembering the football team's luncheon for senior citizens Carman once serenaded with an impromptu melody on the piano, said to himself, "Here we go."

"He tuned it perfectly and he played it for 15 minutes as we went up and down the aisles. People were saying, 'What the heck?'" says Krause, still amazed. "When we went to check out, it was still in the cart."

That's just one of the reasons the Bengals figure moving Carman from left tackle, where he protected the blind side of Trevor Lawrence so well the Clemson quarterback went No. 1 overall the day before the party, should be a rather straight forward transaction.

Now at about 320 pounds, barely 21 and playing a half hour from where he grew up, learning to play right guard in the NFL and then eventually kicking back out to tackle can't be any harder than learning to play, well, let's see.

The count is a handful of instruments and growing if you include the Banjo and violin.

"Guitar, lead and acoustic ukulele, piano, drums, cello," says his mother, Mary Carman, an accomplished Greater Cincinnati gospel presence who gave her son a love for music and her maiden name.

"All my children are pretty musically talented. The most impressive thing with Jackson is he plays a number of instruments and a lot them he taught himself how to play. I've been quite taken with his ability. Especially the guitar."


Mrs. Carman, who admits her football education isn't far removed from Do-Re-Mi, can still give you an idea why the Bengals built the last two days of the draft around targeting her son as the second round loomed.

"First, you have to be motivated for it," Mary Carman says of self-taught musicians. "Once you focus and have the ear for it, once you start listening to sounds that sound good to you and sound good to other people, that's what increases the motivation. Whatever he's motivated for, he's definitely going to do."

Mary Carman, who has appeared with Cincinnati gospel powerhouse Charles Fold and been in the same showcase with Grammy award winner Kirk Franklin, is the minister of music at New Life Christian Center in Middletown, Ohio and has pretty much seen it all on stage.

Except maybe this from her 12-year-old son during an off-the-cuff day with the guitar in church during one of their usual involved, intricate arrangements.

"There was a song he didn't know and he was just jamming with the rest of us," Mary Carman says. "And then he ad-libbed over the top of what we had and I had to blink my eyes. 'Wow.' Suddenly he started singing it like he knew it."

That day in church helps explains why Willie Anderson has been just as taken aback with Carman's football film study.

"We look for patterns," Mary Carman says. "You know patterns and understand patterns, then we know when those patterns are changing and when they're being deviated from. Patterns in everything."

Anderson, the greatest right tackle of the turn-of-the-century generation, has become a mentor to the next generation of big men and conferred early and often with him.

"How he breaks down pass rushers is really advanced," Anderson says. "He knows what the best guy's move is and how the guy uses his feet on which move. That's a gift. A lot of tackles can't do that until their second or third year."


Carman sees one key thread between football and music that he loves in the patterns.

"The training," Carman says. "Putting in a little bit every day and getting better at something and seeing it come to fruition.

"I never had a favorite player growing up. I just liked watching individual guys," Carman says. "J.J. Watt, Trent Williams, Julio Jones. Cam Newton. A.J. Green. I remember watching Chad Ocho Cinco. A technician. Even when I was young I would watch the individual matchups. That's what I love about football is the competition. Being able to work against whatever the opposition does has always intrigued me. I've always been a film junkie. I just want to be prepared to leave no stone unturned when I'm approaching a matchup."

There is no football vs. music battle here. He's written songs and he's recorded them on his phone. And while he hopes to maybe one day get in the studio, football gets the clear edge in this break down.

"I've got so much more ahead of me that people have yet to see," Carman says. "I don't want to speak too much on it. I'm really not the type of person that says I'm going to do this or I'm going to do that. I just want to be able to show people. I'll just leave it at that."


If you want to know why Carman is a nasty finisher on the field, you have to go all the way back to the Meadowdale Pee Wee Lions in Dayton, Ohio, a fourth-grade team coached by Jerrold Gilbert, an all-city tackle and guard for Meadowdale High School before he went to play at Wilmington College.

"Jackson is Gil," says Doug Spear Sr., of his boyhood friend with whom he helped coach. "He's a very selfless young man. He'll put everyone else before himself. He's a young guy, but a very wise kid. A gentleman, but a savage in between the lines."

Gilbert took Carman under his wing that year, a key season in a football life. Carman is still close to his father, but this was about the time his parents split and his mother was studying for her degree while working.

"Coach Gil was like a mentor for me, another male figure in my life," Carman says. "He took me to every practice. Every game. He bought me cleats, food. Our relationship was more about football. He told me how hard you have to play. You have to leave everything on the field. The great ones have that or they don't and I got that mindset from him."

Gilbert and Spears were buddies since they were eight, when they played against each other in pee wees. They played together at Wilmington, graduated together and went to work together at Montgomery County's juvenile court, where Spear is the hearing officer in charge of discipline and Gilbert was the court programmer getting the kids back and forth to their hearings.

"Gil had no kids. A single man. The football team and the kids in juvenile court were Gil's kids," Spear says. ""He called it 'transfer vibrations.' Spewing good into the world ... He gave those kids everything he had. He looked at football through the eyes of the trenches. That's how he looked at the game exclusively."

This is long before Krause switched Carman to offense. Nine years old playing nose tackle and he pushed down the quarterback rolling out. The ball popped in the air, he caught it and punctuated the touchdown by hurtling over the goal line. It earned Carman the nickname "Jack the Ripper." But the leap infuriated Gil.

"He told him, 'You run the ball through the end zone and you hand it to the ref like you've been there before,'" Spear says. "'I've never scored a touchdown in my whole career.'"

And when the Carmans moved to Fairfield about five years later to be closer to Mary's mother, Gil spewed more good with some advice.

"It was tough for him going to a new place but he told him, 'Just be you. Just be Jackson,' Spear says. '"Keep playing your music. Keep playing hard. Stars always find a way to shine.'"

They stayed in touch. Texts. Phone calls. They went to his games. They came down to Fairfield again the day he signed with Clemson. Gil loved the NFL Draft. He took his vacation for it. He'd cook wings and watch every pick. Imagine what he would have done at the party.

When a coma freed Gil in early November last season and he passed away at 40 years young after a life-long battle with diabetes and two days before Clemson played Notre Dame, that's the week Carman began to experience shooting pain in his back.

"I couldn't sit down for 30 seconds without it hurting," says Carman, who either stood in the meetings or practically had to lay down in his chair. "Pretty much everything I did, it hurt. I walked with a limp. It got worse when I drove."

But he kept playing through a herniated disk that needed surgery after the season. Five gut check games. It would have been hard for one of Gil's Lions to shut it down even though his draft party was assured.

"For one, I knew I had a chance to win a national championship," Carman says. "For two, I'm a leader on the team. I want to set an example to my guys to have to battle through adversity. Three, I just love to play. I love to ball and I could ball, so I did."

And, fourth, well, Gil.

"I just felt like he wasn't supposed to go yet. All the things I'm doing now are the things we dreamed and talked about when I was a little kid," Carman says. "It's just a deep, extra layer of emotion and motivation for me to still carry on that legacy."

The football gods, says Spear, are at work even now.

"Jackson gets drafted to the Bengals," Spear says, "and this year I'm hired (as defensive coordinator) at Meadowdale, Gil's high school. In the same year."


Carman, the son of a scientist and a behavior therapist, has been inquisitive since Mary Carman can remember. When Krause told him he was no longer playing defense, Jackson asked, "Left tackle?" Krause said, "Trust me."

"He comes from good stock when it comes to his intelligence," Krause says.

But the family isn't confined to music or the environment, his dad's field of study. Mary Carman, who has degrees in music education and psychology, as well as a master's in school psychology, also has some cooking credentials and has chaired some robust bake-offs within the family. Thanks to YouTube, Jackson and his siblings work on the gourmet side and go for Boogie's exotic cheeses and spices. Their mother is more traditional with soul food casseroles and sprawling breakfasts.

"He thinks he's a better cook than I am," Mary Carman says. "He usually cooks for me on Mother's Day."

Not on this one, though. Mary and her mother received pedicure and manicure treatments.  

But he been known to spice up his songwriting with some poetry. And prose. He also flashed that early when won a sixth grade essay contest with a paper on Martin Luther King, Jr.

"He's a ball of creativity," Mary Carman says.

Her son laughs when asked his favorite genre of music. He picks up his pone and rolls through several screens.

"All of these," he says. "I can't name you one."

It turns out his tastes are just as varied as the Bengals project his skills across the front.