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Two years after being drafted, MVP Lamar Jackson has proven critics were so wrong

What surprises will the 2020 NFL draft hold for black quarterbacks?

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Seems like three lifetimes ago: April 26, 2018.

On that draft night, the world and the NFL were normal. Quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, sat in the green room and waited as four white quarterbacks were selected ahead of him.

That wouldn’t be the most disappointing moment of his career, but it’d certainly be the most humiliating.

As the NFL prepares for its first virtual draft beginning Thursday, Jackson, speaking to the media via Zoom, said that his advice for players who are overlooked is to remember that time heals all wounds.

“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” he said. “But, as life goes on, and once you’re in the league and producing, you have that chip on your shoulder, so you are going to go out there and show people how you felt in the moment.”

For Jackson, the wound has healed but the scar remains. He began last season with a monster game in Miami, throwing for five touchdowns. Afterward, he began his postgame news conference saying, “Not bad for a running back,” a dig at those who believe — and still believe — that the game needs a white star at that position. That black athleticism and quarterback do not mix.

On Tuesday, a reporter, perhaps trying to get Jackson to gloat in light of last season’s performance, asked about those postgame remarks. Jackson led Baltimore to a 14-2 record last season, led the league with 36 touchdowns and broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback. Jackson initially sidestepped the question.

But later, asked how he thought the coronavirus scourge would have impacted his ability to impress scouts and general managers before the 2018 draft, Jackson said: “Probably dramatically, because they were already saying I was a running back, and this and that. So, I would have been fighting bad right there to show them that I’m a quarterback and stuff like that. It would have been bad for me, probably.”

The scar’s still there. So is the motivation.

Two months ago, Jackson became only the second player in NFL history to be unanimously voted league MVP.

I was in the crowded backstage area that evening, watching everyone mingling, shaking hands, hugging. A day later, 80,000 fans showed up to watch Kansas City defeat San Francisco in the Super Bowl.

That also seems like another couple of lifetimes ago.

In March, our lives were turned inside out by the coronavirus. Sports were unplugged: March Madness, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day and the NBA playoffs.

With every escape lane shut down, the NFL offers the last semblance of normalcy with a virtual NFL draft.

Apparently, some players still think we’re in normal times.

New Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady was kicked out of a park in Florida while trying to sneak in a workout.

“I feel I’m pretty good right now. I just want my mind to grow even more, get in-depth with just learning the ins and outs of the game even more like Tom Brady. That’s all I want to do right now, is focus more on that.” – Lamar Jackson

Jackson worked out with Antonio Brown but stopped after being ridiculed on social media for failing to social distance. “I’m social distancing,” he said Tuesday.

In the real world, hundreds of thousands around the world and in the United States are getting sick and dying. Segments of the black community have been disproportionately ravaged.

I asked Jackson if his family had been affected by the coronavirus.

“No. Even though you guys see me on social media, out and stuff like that, we do pay attention to this stuff and try to stay away from it — washing our hands, and stuff like that. My family members, anyone close to me, nothing really has happened with any one of us. No sickness, nothing like that.”

I’m amazed at how many athletes find it difficult, if not impossible, to consider that in the short term, fanless stadiums will be part of the new normal. “I really don’t see that happening,” Jackson said Tuesday. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve never played football without people watching. So, I don’t know.”

I suggested that the experience would be like high-stake practices, except that millions would be watching virtually. “Yes, it’d feel like practice. And not [training] camp practice either, because we have a lot of fans up there in [training] camp practice. So, it’d be like seasonal practices.”

The coronavirus has disrupted our lives, perhaps permanently, and taken away one of the chief avenues of escape: sports.

For Jackson, the virus has delayed the process of removing the deep disappointment of consecutive first-round playoff losses for the Ravens.

That seems like a trivial pursuit now. But when the new season begins — if it begins — the pressure on Jackson to lead Baltimore to a title will mount.

Lamar Jackson (center) runs the ball against Bobby Wagner in the fourth quarter of a game at CenturyLink Field on Oct. 20, 2019, in Seattle. The Baltimore Ravens topped the Seattle Seahawks 30-16.

Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

He is the league MVP and will be on the cover of Madden 2021.

But if the Ravens fail to reach the Super Bowl, Jackson’s critics will come out of hiding and reopen the wound.

“I feel I’m pretty good right now,” Jackson said when asked if he planned to put on weight. “I just want my mind to grow even more, get in-depth with just learning the ins and outs of the game even more like Tom Brady. That’s all I want to do right now, is focus more on that.”

First, the season has to start. After the draft, the NFL will have gone as far as it can go with make-believe fantasy and non-contact.

How to gather players and bring coaches and staffs together under one roof is nearly as daunting as reopening the country for business.

Jackson is convinced there will be a season.

“The world needs football,” he said Tuesday.

We’ll see.

In light of the death and destruction that have forced us to reconsider our priorities, football as we know it may be one more casualty of the coronavirus.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.