Self knows what made Jackson's late bloom possible. "For the first time [since he's been] at Kansas," the coach says, "he's at peace with himself."
The nightmares that began haunting him as early as grade school all centered on the same chilling subject. "I always dreamed that I was going to die—that I would get shot in the head, or that a car I was in would crash into a gas station and I'd burn," says Jackson. He would awaken in a sweat, crying, and he'd go to his grandmother's bedroom.
"She'd say, Put your head on my stomach," Jackson wistfully recalls. "She'd pat it, and tell me I was going to be all right, that God would come and save us all, and my pain would go away."
Evon was the matriarch, Darnell the grandmama's boy; they were best friends. It would have been fitting for Jackson to have a glorious sophomore season—the first one after the accident—in her honor. Instead, that season began with a crisis: a nine-game suspension levied by the NCAA for accepting $5,000 in impermissible benefits from a Kansas booster.
Jackson was a spectator at one of future Jayhawk J.R. Giddens's high school games in Oklahoma City in 2002 when Don Davis, a KU-educated engineer, introduced himself, and their relationship began. Davis became a genuine friend to the Jackson family, but his well-meaning aid—ranging from rides to games to help in refinancing a car loan while Jackson was in high school—was in glaring violation of NCAA rules. In November 2005, Jackson was ordered to donate $5,000 to charity to regain his eligibility; every month since, $100 has been taken out of his KU stipend for that purpose. It's money that otherwise would have gone home to his mother. Shawn is still unable to work, with 10 surgeries behind her and more looming. Whenever Jackson heard reports of unpaid bills or a nearly empty fridge, he would wire Shawn cash either from his Pell Grant or his stipend—what was left of it, at least.
As a sophomore Jackson began performing an on-court tribute to his deceased grandmother, his injured mother and Davis, his disgraced friend: three thumps to his chest with a closed right fist after made free throws. He told his cousin Lee Tibbs, now a senior offensive lineman at Iowa State, about the gesture. Tibbs had become a long-distance confidant whom Jackson, increasingly withdrawn from his Kansas teammates, would call in his worst hours of sleepless depression. Better to talk—about anything—than reprise morbid nightmares that kept coming true for others in his life.
Tibbs visited Jackson last season, and they were at a Kansas City mall when something odd happened: Six strangers—from teenagers to a man in his 40s, Tibbs says—recognized Jackson and triple-tapped their chests. Local newspapers had carried stories of his tragedies, but Jackson hadn't realized how many people truly cared about him. Tibbs told him, "You've become a role model."
"Darnell doesn't understand the joy he's brought to Kansas fans," Self says. "They love him because they identify and sympathize with him. Everyone has gone through pain, but at 22, he's already been dealt enough for a lifetime."
JACKSON CAME to know suffering far too early, and basketball nearly too late: He played football from the ages of six to 15 and "thought I'd end up at [Oklahoma]—and then in the NFL—as a tight end," he says. In the summer of 2000 he was assigned 60 hours of community service at McKinley Park recreation center (now the Oklahoma County Boys and Girls Club) after he was with some friends who were caught smashing school windows with rocks. The sports director there, Corey Colbert, made the then 6'6" Jackson his project, drilling fundamentals before "throwing him to the wolves"—into pickup games with gang members and ex-cons at the gym. Colbert's persistence kept Jackson at the center long after his 60 hours were fulfilled; there he developed some of the toughness that helped earn him his nickname.
It was not until this season, though, that Jackson became a consistent, complete force. Thanks to a summer of grueling workouts at Oklahoma City University, and an education in footwork and positioning from new KU assistant (and '88 national-title-team star) Danny Manning, Jackson ranked fifth in the nation in field goal percentage at 65.9 through Sunday, after shooting 55.0 percent (and averaging 5.5 points) as a junior. He has flirted with so many double doubles—coming within a single point or rebound five times—that Manning calls him Trick. Regardless, Jackson has put himself in position to help his family; he is projected as a second-round pick in the next NBA draft.