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There’s nothing unusual about kids in high school wanting to go out and get a tattoo. What makes Kareem Jackson’s tattoo story a little different is the way he went about it.

“My mom let me get my first tattoo in the 10th grade,” Jackson says. “I actually got permission to get it. I was playing sports and lifting like crazy. I was just starting to really develop muscles and my body was starting to fill out so I was like, ‘Man, it’s time to start getting some tattoos.’”

With his mother’s blessing, Jackson got his first tattoo, a portrait of Jesus that he still has to this day. “Even if I wouldn’t have gotten permission, I probably still would have gone on ahead,” Jackson laughs. “Don’t tell mama I said that.”

The tale of his first tattoo is incredibly telling about who Jackson would grow up to become, both as a man and as a football player. His dogged determination, faith and cerebral way of thinking are all evident in his actions as a young man. 

We spoke with Jackson mere days before his Denver Broncos had their Week 5 contest against the New England Patriots postponed after an outbreak of COVID-19 within the Patriots’ organization, just one of many such events during an NFL season unlike any other. Our conversation with the Broncos’ strong safety touched on the oddness of playing in empty stadiums, his many tattoos by Nikko Hurtado and his desire to intercept every single quarterback he goes up against.

Inked: It must be pretty crazy playing competitive games in empty or mostly-empty stadiums.

Kareem Jackson: It's different. Honestly, it sucks because you’re so used to playing in front of thousands of fans and I feed off of the fans and the energy. You’ve gotta be able to not think about that obviously and it can’t affect how the game goes. Sometimes the crowd noise can definitely help you on defense, but other than that, it’s still football. You still gotta go out there, you gotta execute, you gotta run around just like the stadium is full. I don’t think it’s something that any of us could probably get used to. It’s definitely weird.

How different has every aspect of this season been? There was only a minimal training camp and no preseason games, has it been hard to get into it?

I think you’ve got to try and tunnel vision it. It's not hard to get into it, but obviously, every aspect of the season has been different, from training camp to the way we're entering the building every day to the cafeteria and the locker room. Just constantly having to keep a mask on and keeping that six feet distance from teammates and in meetings. Everything is completely different, but you have to have tunnel vision, you can't let that affect the way you prepare week in and week out.

Do you feel like the NFL has done enough to protect you guys safety-wise with all the steps they've taken?

I feel like they've done all that they can do. There’s just always that added element of traveling and you see what the Titans are dealing with now, I think they have, what, 18 guys testing positive now. And I think maybe it was from when they traveled. In training camp, obviously, everybody was in their respective towns and facilities. But once you started traveling and having to get on the plane and staying in hotels and things like that, we could take all the precautions and all the protocols we want but it puts you into a higher risk.

How have you liked making the transition from cornerback to safety?

I love it. It gives me a chance to do what I do naturally, and that’s just running around hitting people. I get a chance to hit people a bit more because you’re active in the running game. You get a chance to play more sideline-to-sideline. Playing corner you’re just on an island, as a safety you get a chance to affect plays on both sides of the field.

Defensive backs are often known for getting into it with receivers over the course of a game. Do you like to trash talk while you’re playing?

I'm one of those guys. I get into it a little bit, I'm going to talk a little bit. It just depends on what type of response I get from whomever we're playing, if I'll keep going and turn it up another notch, or just kinda let them off the hook.

Are there any particular quarterbacks you really, really want to pick off?

I want to pick them all off. There’s nothing like getting a chance to get your hands on the ball regardless of the quarterback. Whoever I'm seeing that Sunday or Thursday or Monday night, I definitely want to get my hands on one of their balls.

This is Inked, so let’s start talking about tattoos. You have a bunch of pieces done by Nikko Hurtado if I’m not mistaken.

I do, he's been great. I've been working with him for maybe the last three years now. Just getting the chance to get some of his artwork on me and it's been really cool. He's an amazing artist.

He did a portrait of Martin Luther King for me, a Malcolm X, a Jackie Robinson and a Muhammad Ali. Then recently he did portraits of my daughters. He definitely did a great job on all of them.

Is there an overarching theme throughout your tattoos?

I collect small pieces at a time, but for me, pretty much all of them have meaning. I just try to pick things that are near and dear to me, or maybe it's something I've been through in my life or my career. I'd much rather do that.

Which of your tattoos means the most to you?

Definitely my daughter's portraits. And I also have a breast cancer ribbon that signifies my mom's battle with cancer. She's a breast cancer survivor, so that definitely means a lot for me and my family.

This has been a tumultuous year for many reasons, but one focus has to be the Black Lives Matter movement and what it means for civil rights, an issue that you’ve been vocal about in the past.

Obviously, a lot has happened and a lot of things are still happening. Over the last few months, it's been a lot going on, but you know, as far as me and my MLK piece, I think about everything he fought for and every bit of progress and equality we gained as African Americans. Here we are now in 2020 still fighting for the same rights and to be looked at as equals. It’s a shame, cause we’re still going through the same things he went through. For me, the things that I do in my community here in Denver or in Houston or in my hometown, it’s one of those things where I’m going to continue to fight. I’ll continue to use my voice and my platform to fight for equality for the African American community. 

Photos by Corey Hanks of Stand By Productions