Gritty. Smart. Hard working. Competitive. Authentic. All attributes that, according to his teammates, encompass Cal inside linebacker Jackson Sirmon and propel him to success.
He’s the last player off the field after practice. He’s very careful about his diet (but makes an exception for A&W diet root beer). He’s always seeking to improve.
Maybe he has something to prove: that his success is a product of his own effort, not his father’s.
Sirmon’s January announcement that he was transferring from Washington to Cal was significant in an offseason during which Cal picked up several transfers. His father, Peter Sirmon, is the Bears’ defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach, and after years of facing each other from opposite sides of the ball, the two are finally on the same team.
“Last year at Washington, at the end of the year, there was a lot of stuff going on,” Sirmon said. “There was going to be a whole new coaching staff, and I was graduating and only (had) so much eligibility left, and I thought it’d be a really neat opportunity to be able to come and play for my dad.”
With a redshirt year and the NCAA’s pandemic eligibility extensions, Sirmon can play on the college gridiron for two more years. Between his 147 career tackles and All-Pac-12 preseason first team selections, that is good news for the Bears.
Sirmon’s transfer was a bow on every hat his father wears.
“I was very excited,” his father said. “As a parent, I feel very strongly about the culture we have here. I really feel strongly about the boys in the locker room and how Coach (Justin) Wilcox treats them. … And then as a coach, bringing in another player that has played at a very high level in the conference … this was another avenue that allowed us to get better.”
It might seem like Sirmon playing Division I football was fate. In some ways, his story started on another college team altogether. His father met his mother, Lindsay Jones Sirmon, while at Oregon, where he played alongside Wilcox before serving on various coaching staffs together later on. Jones Sirmon’s father was the team orthopedist, and the two met at the 1998 Aloha Bowl.
Peter Sirmon went on to play seven seasons as a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans before serving coaching stints at Central Washington, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, USC, Mississippi State and Louisville before joining the Cal staff in 2018, just a month after his son signed his letter of intent at Washington.
“With (my dad) coaching at a bunch of different places, I’ve always been around football, so I always knew I wanted to play football in college,” Sirmon said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough, but I just kept playing and kept enjoying it, and got some opportunities.”
Beyond his father, Sirmon comes from a family full of football players and other athletes, and his family ties were a significant factor in his commitment to Washington. His grandfather played football for the Huskies, and all three of his father’s brothers played DI in college.
One of his younger sisters does crew at UCLA, another is a cheerleader at TCU and the third is a competitive cheerleader in high school.
One cousin pole vaulted for Montana; another threw javelin for Washington State. Another is throwing javelin at Nebraska and was a two-time state champion in high school. And of course, there are all the current college football players in the family.
His cousin, Camden Sirmon, is a running back at Washington. Another cousin, Andrew Sirmon, joined the Huskies as a walk-on this past spring.
And cousin Jacob Sirmon was part of his recruiting class at UW before transferring to Central Michigan and now Northern Colorado.
“A lot of my dad’s family is in the state of Washington, so I knew they’d be able to come to games. My mom’s family is from Oregon, so I knew they’d be able to make a lot of games, and then my cousin Jacob Sirmon, who I’m really close with, was in my recruiting class,” Sirmon said. “We were both kind of talking, and we both ended up picking Washington.”
Despite all roads pointing toward football, Sirmon played a diverse range of sports growing up.
“I played just about everything I could play — soccer, baseball,” he said. “I played lacrosse in middle school and high school. I did some track and field in high school, threw discus and shot put my junior senior year.”
His mother even put him in gymnastics when he was younger, and though he “didn’t really like that too much” and can’t do a handstand, his father won’t deny that the experience strengthened his body control and balance.
His father might have thought to push for football, but he says the family looked at and encouraged potential in other sports. In fact, Sirmon’s parents weren’t going to let him start tackle football until middle school, but relented when he was in the fifth grade.
“In my experience, the more accomplished athletes have a very wide variety growing up,” the elder Sirmon said. “They’ve learned how to learn the rules, learned how to compete, learned how to deal with other coaches, learned how to deal with other schedules.”
Football persisted, however, and helped Sirmon acclimate whenever the family moved for his father’s career. The linebacker was born in Eugene, Oregon, then lived in Nashville, Tennessee, until the second grade. The Sirmons spent six months in Ellensburg, Washington, then two years in Knoxville, Tennessee, before moving to Seattle. The family lived in Los Angeles for Sirmon’s first two years of high school before moving back to Nashville.
Each new place gave Sirmon a new team to play with, new coaches to learn from and new friends.
“Football starts in late summer, so I was able to make friends before the school year would start, and it kind of gave me some community going into the school year,” Sirmon said. “Football helped me in that aspect with moving around a lot. I was able to make friends and had something in common with people.”
Ending his high school career at Brentwood Academy in Nashville, Sirmon helped the team to two state championships and an undefeated record his senior year. Cody White, head coach at Brentwood, said Sirmon was “a dream to coach.”
“He’s just a step ahead of everything because he understands what’s happening and what’s coming,” White said. “He’s just one of those people that’s going to be really successful in whatever he chooses to do.”
There’s no doubt his father’s legacy has affected Sirmon’s career, but he doesn’t worry about following footsteps or creating his own legacy.
“I don’t really put a ton of thought into that. I’m just more focused on trying to play good football and enjoy the time I have playing it,” Sirmon said. “I know he was a good football player, and I want to learn from him, and then I want to be the best football player I can be.”
There are no expectations from his father, either. The defensive coordinator said he hopes all his children feel they can “cut their own teeth and make their own path,” and he isn’t living vicariously through his son.
And though Sirmon is playing for his father, there is no indication of the familial relationship in the locker room or on the field.
“People always ask me, since his father is the defensive coordinator,” said fellow inside linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo. “I think if a random didn’t know that that was a fact and they came into our linebacker room, I don’t think they’d notice that his dad is a coach.”
Other players of Sirmon’s caliber may be eyeing the NFL, but his attention is on the present.
“If I get the opportunity (to play in the NFL), that’d be great. But I’m focused on trying to play the best football I can here and try and win a lot of games with the guys in this locker room.”
His effort is evident to those around him. Fellow Cal inside linebacker Blake Antzoulatos, who lives with Sirmon, describes him as someone who always sees things through. He recounted going golfing with Sirmon in 45-degree weather and asking him if he wanted to keep going when the two were struggling on the ninth hole.
Despite the cold and difficulties keeping the ball in the fairway, Sirmon was insistent they continue.
“That’s just the story of who he is. someone that finishes stuff, just for the enjoyment of it or just because once you start something, you finish it,” Antzoulatos said.
His commitment to finishing everything he starts extends to his hobbies as well. He spends his free time reading and watching YouTube, but the books and videos might be unexpected. He loved the “Percy Jackson” series growing up, but his current reading list is on the other side of the bookstore.
From “The Alchemist” (which Wilcox gave him when he was at Washington) to Malcolm Gladwell to finance and history books and videos, Sirmon seeks life lessons in everything he reads. And though the content can be “a little dry,” he makes his way through.
Cal inside linebacker Nate Rutchena emphasized Sirmon’s character and talent.
“When he’s locked in, he’s focused,” he said. “His work ethic, he’s always improving.”
Of course, no one is perfect.
“He’s a horrible driver,” Antzoulatos said.
Sirmon was quick to defend himself, calling the claim “heinous.“
“It’s totally out of pocket for him to say that, especially given his skills. And I’m honestly just disappointed,” he said. “He’s just trying to have some fun. He knows I’m a very skilled driver and I’m excellent behind the wheel.”
Whether or not you trust him in a car, Sirmon has made it clear he’s reliable on the field, and the blue and gold faithful are looking for all the reliability it can get this season.
“I strive to be a little bit better than I was yesterday,” Sirmon said. “I hope that people view me as someone that helped this team out, that worked hard.”