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Former NFL player Eddie Jackson just scored a TV touchdown: Sunday night’s Food Network Star finale revealed Jackson as Season 11’s winner, which means he’ll get his own show on Food Network. And it wasn’t a big surprise: Jackson shined all season long with his smooth on-camera delivery (the ladies love this guy) and his mouth-watering Caribbean-inspired cuisine.
Jackson played cornerback and strong safety at the University of Arkansas before signing with the Carolina Panthers in 2004. He spent the next two seasons with the Miami Dolphins before a devastating ACL tear sidetracked his pro career. But he still managed to make the roster of the 2007 New England Patriots — i.e. the 16-0 team that stands as one of the best in league history. After five seasons in the NFL, Jackson turned to cooking, and competed on Season 4 of Fox’s MasterChef (finishing eighth) before appearing on Food Network Star.
Yahoo TV caught up with Jackson to get his take on his big win (and his emotional reaction), how he transitioned from football player to chef, the best advice he got from mentors Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis, what to expect from his new show, BBQ Blitz — and if this season’s villain, hashtag-spouting millennial Matthew, was as annoying as he seemed.
Congratulations on your win! You got very emotional when you were announced as the winner. Was that just surprise?
No, it’s not that I was surprised. It was just like, “Finally!” I really worked hard to get there, and sacrificed some things. So I was just thankful, just blessed.
You played pro football for a few years. So what’s tougher: Food Network Star, or NFL training camp?
Whoa. [Laughs.] That’s two totally different things. I would say Food Network Star is definitely difficult, because with football, you have other guys that you can kind of depend on. But on this show, it’s just you and that camera, and you depend on yourself. It makes us that much tougher. It’s something I’ve never experienced before.
How did you make the transition from football player to chef? Did you cook for your teammates?
Well, I’ve been around food my whole life, from my grandmother and my dad. It’s just something that I’ve always done. Even when I was in college, we’d have a night where I would cook, and we’d all get together in fellowship. And then I did that same thing when I played professionally.
And then after I finished playing — I left early due to my injury — it was just like, “What am I gonna do now?” And my dad said, “What else do you love to do?” And I was like, “I love to cook.” He’s like, “Well, do something with that.” [Laughs.] And that’s what I did.
You and Jay and Dom and Alex were together on the show for a while; you seemed to form a real bond.
Oh yeah, to this day, we text each other at least once or twice a day, every day. Alex just texted me today and invited him to his best friend’s wedding: “We need to go bomb this wedding!” [Laughs.] So it was just like brothers from day one.
Dom had many struggles this season trying to speak on-camera. Did you give him advice, because he’s a friend, or did you try to hold back, because he’s your competition?
Well, Dom ended up being my best friend on the show, so I would give him advice. I’d just tell him to relax, and those type of things. Yeah, of course, at the end of the day, it’s a competition. But I said this [since] day one: I always want to see people at their best. I don’t want to say I won a championship, but the other guy had a sprained ankle.
You shot your pilot with Rachael Ray, who knows a thing or two about food TV. What advice did she give you?
Rachael Ray was amazing. I was really starstruck when I saw her, because she’s like Bobby Flay — the epitome of Food Network. And she was so good. Her advice was very, very simple: She just said, “Relax, and just be yourself, sweet pea.” [Laughs.] That’s what she said! And I did that. I just relaxed and took a deep breath and thought about being myself.
Did Bobby and Giada work with you off-camera to help you hone your technique?
We definitely get feedback from them. They’re our mentors, so they definitely give us criticism and things like that. I tell people, you’re getting mentorship from two of the best in the business. Why wouldn’t you want to listen to them? So everything they told me, I tried to take it and run with it.
The second week, I started out the show with this thing I wanted to do: a “Cheat Day” concept. And it’s so hard to come up with your POV, because it’s not something you do every day. And Bobby Flay gave me some great advice. He said, “Don’t worry about that. Each week, all you need to do is just concentrate on cooking good food and being yourself in front of that camera.” And when he told me that, my eyes just lit up. I was like, “That’s what I’m gonna focus on every week: Try to make the most amazing food, and be myself in front of the camera.”
What can we expect from your show, BBQ Blitz? Will you be traveling to barbecue restaurants around the country, or sharing your own recipes, or a little bit of both?
Well, they’re basically still putting it all together. I know we start shooting in a few weeks. But right now, I think they’re putting all the final pieces together for it. And then I’ll know more about what exactly I’ll be doing.
You’re a former athlete and a fitness guy, but you’re also cooking these not-so-healthy recipes like barbecued brisket. How do you reconcile that on your show?
Fitness is something that’s a huge part of my life, and food is definitely a huge part of my life. What I tell people is, you can enjoy things, but in moderation. Barbecue is my first form of cooking with my dad; I was ten years old on the patio. So it’s something that I love. But you can’t eat barbecue every day, right?
Finally, we need to ask you about Matthew, who got eliminated in Week 2. Was he as obnoxious off-camera as he seemed to us at home?
No, you know what? Matthew is a good guy, and I’ve talked to Matthew. I just think Matthew is a ball of energy, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] At the end of the day, I think some good things are going to happen with him, because the guy is an amazing cook, and he has an amazing personality. I think he’ll find some way to utilize those talents that he has.
Eddie’s new show, BBQ Blitz, premieres Friday, Oct. 9 at 10:30 p.m. on Food Network.