TAMPA - More than 20 years later, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson can still remember the sense of disquiet he felt as a 6-year-old the first time his father, a career U.S. Army medic, was deployed out of the country.
The deployment was to Panama, where U.S. forces had launched an invasion against dictator Manuel Noriega in an effort to protect the Panama Canal and the 35,000 U.S. citizens living there, but Jackson didn't understand any of that.
All he knew was that his father had gone away and was working in a place where trouble and danger were brewing, and that his mother's calming touch and reassuring words didn't completely erase the concern he had for his father.
"My mom would put me to bed and we'd talk about it and do our little thing where I'd say, 'Good night,' to him and, 'Be safe,' and all that,'' Jackson said. "And that was great, but that's still a tough time, especially for a kid.''
Jackson sees those same types of children today. He makes a point of it, regularly stopping by Tinker Elementary School on the grounds of MacDill Air Force Base to read to them and chat about life. Jackson's primary objective, though, is to help them deal with the anxieties inherent in being the child of a mother or father in the military.
With an assist from Danny Dogtags, he believes he can.
The brainchild of Jackson and his wife, Lindsey, Danny Dogtags is the central character in a series of children's books the couple is writing and releasing through Mascot Books and the Pro Bowl receiver's Jackson In Action Foundation.
The first book, in which Danny's father gets deployed, is scheduled to be released shortly after the 2013 NFL season starts.
"The whole idea really kind of spawned from that experience I had as a kid with my own father being deployed and also from the experiences I've had reading to the kids at Tinker Elementary," Jackson said.
"One day I asked them, 'How many of you have a parent that's been deployed?' and hands just went up everywhere. That's when I thought, 'Maybe I need to come here and read something to them that really sparks them.' "
Outside of family and football, nothing sparks passion in Jackson more than the needs of the men and women who, like his father Terence, have devoted all or a portion of their lives to serving in the military. It's one reason Jackson chose to come to Tampa as a free agent a year ago after spending the first seven years of his career in San Diego, which is home to seven Marine Corps and Navy bases.
"The military is a big part of who I am,'' said Jackson, whose 14 years bouncing from city to city came in handy when he had to make his first transition to a new NFL team last year.
Though he arrived in Tampa with a resume boasting three 1,000-yard seasons and two Pro Bowl berths, Jackson quietly went about his business as if he was an undrafted rookie fighting for the final spot on the roster. He sat quietly in team and position meeting rooms, taking meticulous notes, and regularly brought a game-day-like focus to the practice field.
A year later, after earning a third Pro Bowl berth by catching 72 passes for a career-best 1,384 yards and posting a league-best 19.2-yard average per catch, nothing about Jackson's approach to his job has changed.
"I come out for every training camp acting like I have to earn my job all over again and acting like I never heard the system before,'' Jackson said. "I call it a beginner's mentality, and that's what keeps me focused.''
Jackson has plenty to focus on. Just as they did a year ago the Bucs plan to work him not just along the outside, where they try take advantage of his 6-foot-5 frame and 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash, but inside as well.
"He'll line up anywhere from next to the tackle to all the way outside of the numbers and everything in between,'' Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "And that makes it hard (for a defense) to take him out of the game."
Jackson has never balked at a coach's decision to move him around the field, even if it means playing a sub role on a particular play.
"You look at me statistically and it's always about the yards per catch and being a deep threat and stuff like that,'' Jackson said. "And I do take pride in that. But I also take pride in being able to go inside and run intermediate routs and match up against nickel backs and safeties and run middle crosses and stuff like that. For me, it's about how I can be implemented in this offense and make this team better.
"If I can take some heat off Mike (Williams) or some of the other receivers and help us get the safety deep in the field and run him off and let (running back) Doug (Martin) get out in a screen, I'm going to do that. I enjoy that. That's the fun part of the game.''
There's nothing fun about watching a parent walk out the door, not really knowing where they're going or why, and being left to wonder if they'll ever come back. Jackson's foundation is focused on military families dealing with deployment.
"We really want to help those kids," Jackson said. "So, me and my wife, who is an elementary school teacher and is very confident in that realm of 4-12 year olds, we were kicking ideas around one day when we came up with the idea for the books."
The name of the lead character, Danny Dogtags, was derived from the logo for Jackson's foundation, which is a dog tag. Other characters are Danny's dog Salute, his cousin Khaki, her pet seal Navy and their pals Boots, March and Wings.
"We're trying to make them fun and enjoyable to read, but we're also hoping it allows the parents to talk with their kids about topics that are sometimes difficult to bring up, such as dad going away for a year or more," said Jackson, whose wife gave birth to the couple's first child, a boy, on Saturday.
"That can be tough, but through the stories we're hoping to show the kids things like how to make mom's job at home easier, whether it's doing your homework or helping out with the dog or just being nice to your brother and sister.
"It's our first time doing it and we're learning as we go, but we're having fun with it and hopefully we're going to be providing these kids with something that can help them understand and get through a tough time.''