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IRVINE - Curtis Jackson’s mother wanted a better life for her son, a life away from the gangs and crime-filled streets of Watts.
Jackson, a slot receiver and free safety with Irvine High’s varsity football team, is grateful that his mother, Quinyawnna Evans, laid the foundation for that before she died following a long battle with lupus on Dec. 28, 2014.
“She wanted something better for me, so she moved to Irvine,” said Jackson, who lived in Watts all his life with his mother, whom he calls his “superhero.”
“My mom had a huge impact on my life and she was a huge role model,” he said. “I feel like she was the greatest person anyone could ever meet. My mom was my biggest supporter and my biggest fan.”
Jackson, 17, is trying to continue to make his mom proud even though she isn’t around to cheer him on. He got off to a great start, scoring two touchdowns Sept. 3 in Irvine’s season opener against Esperanza, a 39-15 loss. Jackson wound up rushing for 65 yards and hauled in two passes for 74 yards.
It has been quite a journey for the 6-foot, 170-pound senior, who is in his third year on the varsity.
Jackson’s mother moved from Watts to Irvine in 2009, so her son, who was in the fifth grade at the time, could focus on academics and athletics and stay away from the temptation of gangs, which lured many of Jackson’s friends.
“I’ve seen a lot of things,” said Jackson, who avoided being involved in a gang. “To me, it was home because I was used to it, but as you get older, it gets scarier; gangbanging and gunshots every night and fighting; a lot of activity that went on throughout the city.”
Jackson never witnessed one of his friends being shot, but says he learned of five friends who eventually lost their lives as a result of gang crimes.
“I lost a lot of friends in L.A. that I grew up with or who are younger than me who have been killed or are in jail,” he said.
It was a much different scenario living in Irvine, routinely ranked as one of the safest cities in the country.
After moving to Irvine, Jackson started at Brywood Elementary in the sixth grade before attending Sierra Vista Middle School.
“The best part of moving out here is that it kept me away from the gangs and the environment and the shootings,” he said.
“Curtis told me his mother moved to Irvine because they had some friends that lived here and she loved visiting them here,” said Irvine resident Mike Filia, who became his legal guardian. “She felt this would be a great city to give her son the life she wanted him to have.”
At first, Jackson didn’t want to move to Irvine and leave all of his friends in Watts.
“As I got older, I realized it was a better place and Irvine was a more safe environment and it made me feel safe,” Jackson said.
Jackson began playing with the Irvine Chargers youth football team in the eighth grade and showed his athletic ability from the start. Filia was the president of the league at the time.
All the while, his mother was cheering him on, watching the first five games of his freshmen season at Irvine. Because she was battling her illness, Jackson’s mother was unable to attend any of his varsity games at Irvine.
Still, life was more stable for Jackson, who continued to show prowess on the football field. Then, the death of his mother caused an uncertain future.
“It was pretty tough,” he said. “I wasn’t the same person that I was and a lot of things changed; a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. It impacted my life a lot. I started to make smarter decisions. When she passed away, I felt that part of me was gone. I still feel that part of me is gone and I’m lost sometimes, but I always have a motivation. I always have a picture of her on my dresser when I wake up and that keeps me going to push and work hard every day.”
Jackson’s future was uncertain until Filia and his wife, Stacy, stepped up at the request of their son Mikey, one of Jackson’s teammates at the time.
“Curtis and Mikey were at football practice and they were talking about Curtis’ mom’s health,” Mike Filia said. “Curtis was telling the guys that his mother wasn’t doing good and she might pass away, and Curtis didn’t know what was going to happen to him and who he was going to live with and if he was going to be able to stay in school here or go back to L.A.”
Mikey Filia told Jackson that if he needed a place to stay his family would “take him in.”
“My wife and I said, ‘If you’re going to be that compassionate towards another person, of course we support it and we will be glad to,’ ” Mike Filia said.
So the Filias, after the death of Jackson’s mother, took the next steps.
“Curtis’ father granted us guardianship when Curtis moved in with us on Feb. 3, 2015,” Filia said. “My wife, Stacy, and I are working with Social Services to become his foster parents.”
So now Jackson is part of the Filia family, which includes former Irvine baseball and football player Mikey (who is now on a baseball scholarship at UC Irvine); Marc, the backup quarterback on this year’s varsity team; and Eric, who is entering his senior year at UCLA and is a member of the Bruins baseball team.
When Jackson moved in, there were rules to follow, the same ones that Mike Filia’s sons had to follow.
“He would not be allowed to go out on weekday nights with friends,” Mike Filia said. “He was required to stay in and study. The only exceptions were to attend school functions or to work out at the gym. These are the same rules we apply to our other boys.”
It took a while for Jackson and his new family to bond.
“As with any change in a family dynamic, there was certainly some getting used to each other,” Filia said. “Curtis adapted very well. He understood that we are very family-oriented and that family meals on Sunday were a priority to us.”
“It was something I had to get used to,” Jackson said. “They slowly helped me get comfortable and started to help me with things and they made a huge impact on my life. I don’t know where I would be now if I hadn’t moved in with the Filias. They helped me a lot and they are still helping me accomplish my goals. They help me in any part of life that I need. They are some great, loving people.”
Jackson had another family, the Vaquero football family.
The players showed support for him when they all attended the funeral for his mother in South Los Angeles. Irvine boosters and alumni parents pitched in to cover the cost of food at the reception after the funeral.
“The majority of the football team showed up,” Jackson said. “We had everyone show up in white and the players showed up in white jerseys and it was very nice. It meant a lot to look over and see them all there.”
Jackson said he is grateful to be part of the Irvine football family.
“It changed my life and helped me become a better man,” he said. “Like they said, ‘We’re another family.’”
Irvine coach Erik Terry saw the progress firsthand.
“Since Curtis joined the program, it’s really been kind of a maturation process,” said Terry. “He believed and loved all the glamour things about football. He always wanted to wear the extra wristband and he wanted the visor and all the things that are out of our uniform standards. He had to do some growing up. He had his ups and downs with everything that was going on with his life. So, he was a challenge at times.
“But to sit back and watch him develop into the young man he is today has been truly a pleasure. He has really tried to model himself after some of the guys who have been leaders and captains in our program. Ever since that first month since his mom passed away, it seems like every month he has grown a year as every month goes by. It’s been amazing. He still has his moments of emotion, but for the most part he has been so steady.”
Jackson made an impact last year as a first-team all-league safety and is regarded as one of the top defensive backs in Orange County. This year, he is expected to contribute significantly on offense too. He also returns punts and kickoffs.
“On the field and off the field he has really become the complete Vaquero,” Terry said. “He really wants to be the best Vaquero he can possibly be.”
Jackson has developed in all areas, including academics.
After his mother died, he struggled with his academics. But then after moving in with the Filias, he earned straight A’s in his first semester and was named to the Principal’s Honor Roll, Filia said. He also received a Heritage Award for his achievement in history courses.
“It’s one of the things that motivates him to make his mother proud,” Filia said.
Jackson would like to play college football. Terry and Filia are looking at possible junior college programs next year for him.
Terry believes that Jackson has a tremendous future.
“I think Curtis is an eventual Divison I prospect,” Terry said. “That would be the ultimate icing on the cake. We’re all rooting for him and doing what we can to help him along the way.”
Jackson makes it clear, “I want to play football in college.”
But first, Jackson has a few goals for his senior year at Irvine.
“We want to hopefully be city champs and league champs and get a berth in the CIF playoffs and help my team be the best that we can be,” he said.
Those goals would definitely make his mother proud.
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