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The Justin Jackson Story: A humble, homegrown success at Northwestern

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson wasn’t going to elude his coach the way he often does defenders. Pat Fitzgerald was a great linebacker in his heyday. Nowadays, he just strikes with words.

“Fitz cussed me out and told me to put it on,” Jackson said.

That would be a purple jersey for practice. He tried to wear a white one.

As his teammates saw it, Jackson’s new jersey meant more ridicule. He is the Wildcats’ best back, but that color is reserved for quarterbacks.

Northwestern running back Justin Jackson (Getty).

“They don’t get hit ever,” running back Corey Acker said. “We were like, ‘Oh, Justin’s a quarterback now. He can’t get hit. He made it.’ ”

In a way, Jackson did.

He was a sophomore at the time, but already was Northwestern’s workhorse. He didn’t need the extra contact if he was going to get 20-plus carries on game days.

But Jackson didn’t like it. He’s a star who prefers not to shine. Everyone who knows him speaks of his humility first. Being from Glenbard North in west suburban Carol Stream, he also embodies Northwestern’s “homegrown” mantra.

“He likes to compete in practice,” Wildcats running backs coach Matt MacPherson said. “Well, you put that jersey on him, now people can’t hit him. Now, it becomes a lot less competitive for him. So he wasn’t too happy about it.”

But everyone understood why. His teammates call him “Bread and Butter” for a reason.

“He’s such a valuable piece of the offense,” Acker said.

He’s more than that, too.

Jackson is a rare four-year starter who is 84 yards shy of breaking Damien Anderson’s school rushing record of 4,485 yards. He’s also 13th in Big Ten rushing history. He could realistically finish in the top five — joining Ron Dayne, Archie Griffin, Anthony Thompson and Montee Ball — with another productive season.

“He’s got one more chapter — this season — still to write,” Fitzgerald said. “But after three chapters of a four-chapter book . . . he’s on the Mount Rushmore of Wildcat football. He’s going to go down as one of the best, if not the best, player to ever play here.”

* * *

Jackson still is a gamer at heart. It’s obvious when he rambles off his favorites — NBA 2K, Madden, Saints Row, Grand Theft Auto, Godfather and NCAA Football (which Jackson complains no longer exists).

“Oh man, those were good times,” Jackson said. “It takes me back.”

Mention that to Jackson’s older brother, Phil Jackson II, who is named after their father, and he laughs.

“NBA 2K was one of his favorites so he can play with [Dwyane] Wade, his favorite player on the Heat,” Phil said.

But Phil also remembers his message for him.

“I told him he’s got to stop playing too many video games or he’s going to end up not being able to play football,” Phil said.

Jackson started playing football in second grade because of Phil, who began at the same time but in fourth grade. When the video games were off, the brothers played football hard enough in their backyard that fences were broken.

“He was a little scrapper,” Phil said.

The Jackson family is beyond tight-knit. There is an incredible closeness that was strengthened through tragedy. When Jackson was three, his mother, Denise, died from breast cancer. Growing up, Jackson asked Phil and his older sister, Em, about her often.

“I think more of it [as far as] how it had an effect on our family,” Jackson said.

Phil Jackson Sr. can’t thank the Carol Stream community and their friends enough for their support. He eventually remarried, and their stepmother, Veronica, is the “backbone” for the family, Phil II said.

Through it all, though, a new perspective was gained, an unwavering resolve formed. Phil Sr. wouldn’t let his family be driven apart by loss. He made sure his family communicated even when it didn’t want to. He made sure they remained close with Denise’s family.

And as Phil Sr. put it, there would be no “pity party” for his children. Other people experience similar issues or worse.

“You’re saying, if they can be strong enough, so can I,” Phil Sr. said. “It’s, if I can get through this, I can help other people get through similar things when they go through adversity.”

A mindset for football was formed, too.

“You just got to keep persevering,” Jackson said.

Jackson called his father his “biggest role model,” a “superstar” who is more popular than him in Carol Stream.

“I’ve always just seen how he goes about things,” Jackson said. “He’s always passing credit off. He’s a very humble guy. The only time he gets a little arrogant is when he’s talking about his kids.”

* * *

Glenbard North coach Ryan Wilkens remembers not only the 42 carries, 405 yards and five touchdowns Jackson had in a win against Naperville Central, but also that he played defensive back.

“You could put him out there every single play and give him the ball and ask him to play defense, and he always answered,” Wilkens said.

McPherson remembers the spin move Jackson put on a cornerback on a short touchdown run against Nebraska in his freshman year.

“That’s when I thought, this is going to be a ‘guy guy,’ ” he said.

Justin Jackson was a star running back at Glenbard North. (Sun-Times)

Quarterback Clayton Thorson, who played against Jackson at Wheaton North and has known him since fifth grade, recalls how Jackson concluded his 40-yard touchdown run in Northwestern’s 34-21 win against Pittsburgh in last season’s Pinstripe Bowl.

“Running down there celebrating with him, I hear him, ‘Who doesn’t have a breakaway speed!’ ’’ Thorson said. “He’s yelling that. It’s so unlike him. I was like, ‘Yeah!’ That got everyone fired up.”

Jackson was named the game’s most valuable player after rushing for 224 yards and three touchdowns.

So don’t confuse Jackson’s humble, don’t-look-at-me demeanor for a lack of passion. It’s there. It just burns differently than other top backs because he’s different.

Sneeze around Jackson and his friends say that he’ll respond with a “God Bless You” in French. The language is his minor — and his love affair with French culture began in middle school. (His major is economics)

As a roommate, Jackson is clean. For his meals, he prefers breakfast foods. As far as music, he listens to everything and always has at least one earphone in.

Acker said Jackson is seemingly a friend of everyone at Northwestern — from swimmers to volleyball players to classmates.

“Football players get that jock persona,” said Acker, a walk-on who is one of Jackson’s closest friends. “He’s a phenomenal football player, but if you were to see him out at the bar, he’s not flaunting it. In fact, if people ask if he’s the starter, he’ll say no.”

* * *

In Jackson’s mind, his brother, Phil, always will be a star. They played one season together at Glenbard North when Jackson was a sophomore.

After high school, Phil played for Division II Northwest Missouri State and became a three-time national champion.

“Justin looked to emulate his brother in a lot of ways,” Phil Sr. said.

Now, it’s his brother who overflows with pride. The NFL is next for Jackson. He put off leaving Northwestern after his junior season because he wanted his degree and one last run with his teammates.

“I don’t think there are words that can describe the sense of pride that you have,” Phil said.

Fitzgerald’s conversations with scouts typically include the same queries about Jackson.

“Wow, he seems tough. Yep. Wow, he seems durable. Absolutely. Wow, he just seems like he gets stronger as games go along. Yep.”

Jackson’s vision, quickness and decisiveness are positive attributes, too. But four-year starters come about because of their intangibles.

“Since Day 1, [Jackson’s] been the same guy — great work ethic, great attitude, great teammate, great humility,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get a chance to coach a guy like him again.”

Justin Jackson and his father, Phil. (For the Sun-Times)

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.
Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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