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How Nipsey Hussle's death led DeSean Jackson to Boys' Latin visit in Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson was about halfway through his Q&A session with the students at Boys' Latin Charter School in West Philly on Wednesday, and to that point he had fielded only football-related questions. Knowing there were bigger issues at hand, he took it upon himself to change the direction of the conversation.

"Let's try to switch it a little bit," Jackson finally said to a group of about 150 high schoolers, who sat at rapt attention as Jackson spoke from the stage in a surprise appearance. "Let's go to everyday life, when you all leave from school, any obstacles you are all going through."

Jackson was aware of the series of tragedies that had struck this community. Boys' Latin, the only public all-boys school in Philadelphia, lost four students to homicide or suicide in the 2017-18 school year alone, according to lead student support officer Kenyon Meeks. One of the victims was William Bethel, a 16-year-old athlete who was slain on Easter Sunday in 2018. Bethel shared a connection with Jackson, having attended Jackson's youth football camp during his first stint with the Eagles.

Meeks was a supporter of that camp and built a relationship with the star receiver over time. He helped arrange Jackson's first trip to Boys' Latin in 2013. It was the death of artist Nipsey Hussle, Jackson's longtime friend, that prompted Meeks to reach out to Jackson for a return appearance, as he identified a common thread that could tie a success story to a group of young men in need of some hope and direction. Jackson was moved to help.

"We brought in DeSean Jackson today because of the recent Nipsey Hussle situation, related to the loss of some of our students," Meeks said. "One of the key things for me was, how do I bridge that gap with our students that are feeling down and depressed, or just have to deal with the everyday aspect of being out here in West Philly?

"We have had our shares of ups and downs, and it was nice to finally have some joy here."

Jackson remained hidden behind a side door in the school cafeteria before being introduced by the principal. He was greeted by a roar of applause when he emerged, and he went down the line shaking the hands of all the boys in the first row before hopping up on stage. He spoke of his journey from the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles to the NFL, and the pitfalls that had to be navigated along the way. It wasn't long before he evoked Hussle's name for the first time.

"I'm sure everybody in this room heard about the Nipsey Hussle situation, right?" Jackson asked, the crowd responding with a resounding "Yeah" in unison. "That was my boy, man. I grew up with him. That still hurts my heart to this day. Because it's not really the enemies, it's the people in your inner circle you've got to watch out for. You get to a certain point where you feel comfortable. You've got everybody praising you for what you do where you come from, sometimes you let down your guard. I'm going to tell you guys here today, just be careful.

"You have to really understand: What are you in it for? Are you in it to win or to lose? Every day I chase to win. I don't chase to lose. We're not losers. Everybody in this room today has a destination in life.

You've got a born date and you've got a death date. In between that time, how are you going to make the most out of it?"

Hussle was fatally shot outside his store in Los Angeles, Marathon Clothing, in late March. According to Meeks, Hussle's death affected his students "on a level that you wouldn't even believe," saying that it "just uprooted everything that we have been through as a school community."

Besides his music, Hussle was known for being an agent of change for the area in which he grew up, a neighborhood he stayed loyal to his entire life.

Hailing from the same area in South Central Los Angeles, Jackson and Hussle were friends for more than 15 years. Jackson will be wearing custom cleats to honor him this season.

Once he redirected the conversation, Jackson was asked about the neighborhood he came from and difficulties it presented. He spoke of his upbringing in the Crenshaw district, where "all people know is Crips and Bloods," and where wearing the wrong color clothing can put you in peril. He had a decision to make: go into the streets and "hang out with my homeboys that's just killing, that's robbing, that's selling drugs" or try to make a positive impact by pursuing his dream to be a professional football player.

"It's obstacles," Jackson said. "And I'm sure in your neck of the woods, where you come from, it's the same."

"It really touched me, because my uncle and a couple of my friends were killed due to gun violence," said Jeremiah Carter, a Boys' Latin senior and defensive lineman who is slated to attend Morehouse College in the fall, "so it helped to see somebody that comes from the same situation as that being in a higher place in life, and it motivates me to focus on, OK, even though bad things happen to people, that you can still push through that."

Carter will pursue a degree in political science and plans to become a lawyer, with dreams of returning to Philadelphia to open up a school of his own, citing a need for better options for children in the city.

That spoke to Jackson's overall message, one inspired by Hussle: to make something of yourself so you can one day create the change you want to see in your community.

"It's the same stuff Nipsey was on," Jackson said. "Like Jay Z said, 'Go buy up the block.' That's what we need to do as young black men, and any other race, you've really got to go back and buy up the block.

"Anytime you're able to do anything, put your best foot forward and change the culture. We've got to come together as one."

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