Somewhere along his academic way, Justin Jackson decided he was a numbers guy.
Math seems to click with the Glenbard North senior, which makes sense considering the vast amount of rushing yardage he amassed during his three-year varsity football career.
But watching, listening, simply being around Jackson makes you see the full range of his abilities on and off the field. Reading, writing, arithmetic … and running. Lots of running.
As much as Jackson's humble nature tries to brush aside his 5.0 grade-point average and scholarship to Northwestern, there's no denying how he graded out on the football field.
Following one of the most dominant seasons in state history, Jackson is the Daily Herald DuPage County 2013 All-Area football captain. The absolute epitome of a "student athlete," those who know him best stress that his athletic talent is matched only by the strength of his character.
"I'm not any different just because I'm an athlete," he said. "I don't want people to think I'm unapproachable because of that. I try to walk around like I'm just another guy."
Opponents forced to game plan for Jackson tore themselves in two directions. One side grew exhausted trying to slow him down. The other side never grew tired of watching him play.
"He's classy, he's smart and he's one of the most enjoyable players to watch on film," said Lake Park coach Chris Roll. "You don't always pull for the other team, especially when they're your rival. But he's one of those kids. He's got all the intangibles."
It often took a calculator to keep track of Jackson's rushing numbers this season.
He finished with 3,171 yards, the second most in IHSA history. Considering he averaged 30 carries and nearly 300 yards a game, it's not a stretch to assume Jackson -- 154 yards shy of the record -- would have shattered the mark had Glenbard North not lost to Stevenson in the second round of the Class 8A playoffs.
A stunning roll through the meat of the DuPage Valley Conference never slowed him down. Not even as he began to play all-state caliber defense at cornerback against passing teams like Wheaton North and Class 8A champion Naperville Central en route to a second straight league title.
Jackson rushed for a DVC-record 405 yards in a 40-34 victory over Naperville Central. From that point on, he was unstoppable. Three hundred forty-nine yards against Wheaton Warrenville South, 354 against Wheaton North, 340 in the opening-round playoff win over New Trier and 282 against Stevenson.
That's 192 carries for 1,730 yards in his last five games. All against playoff teams including the 8A champion and an 8A semifinalist.
"We got every ounce out of him that we could," said Panthers coach Ryan Wilkens, "and he just kept asking for more."
In his three-year career Jackson, who scored 38 touchdowns this season, plowed for 6,514 rushing yards and 84 touchdowns. Among his many highlights was leading the Panthers into last year's 8A title game, which he began by returning an interception for a touchdown against Mt. Carmel.
That's another amazing fact about Jackson. Many coaches believe he's a better defensive back than running back, and some colleges recruited him as such. This season he made 27 tackles, including 6 for loss -- most on ill-advised receiver screens -- and knocked down five passes while snaring 2 interceptions.
At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Jackson's suited to play on either side of the ball at the next level. No doubt he was best suited as a high school running back, though.
"I really wasn't sure how good I was going to be, but then my first game as a freshman I scored 5 touchdowns," Jackson said. "After that I just told myself that I was going to work as hard as I could to go to college and play."
For all the fans Jackson earned during his career at Glenbard North, one of his biggest fans dates back to well before high school. Only this fan never had an interest in getting Jackson's autograph.
Jackson's older brother, Phil, served as a mentor to Justin during their one season playing together. Phil was a senior leader for the Panthers while Justin, a sophomore, adjusted to varsity play.
Phil quickly realized the adjustment wouldn't last long as the duo helped lead the Panthers into the state semifinals.
"I think his sophomore year is when he really started to get serious," said Phil, a sophomore at Northwest Missouri State. "That's when I knew he was going to be a special player."
Jackson's family, including older sister Megan, always has been a tight-knit group. When Justin was 3 years old they suffered the loss of their mother to breast cancer, but the three kids and their father, Phil Sr., have become even closer through the years.
When Justin and Glenbard North lost to Stevenson, ending his high school career, several members of his extended family were there on the field to ease him through the disappointment.
Through good and bad, it's a family that cherishes its moments together and the accompanying memories.
"Family's really important for me, and for all of us," Justin said. "Me and my brother and sister pretty much did everything together when we were growing up."
It's no surprise that Jackson's first football memory involves grabbing a ball and just running outside. His first experience with organized football came in second grade when he decided to sign up for park district ball because his brother was also signing up.
The rest is a history littered with excellence. Even as Justin began to earn more and more carries as a sophomore, Phil remained his proudest fan.
"He's my brother, of course I want him to be better than me," Phil Jackson said. "I'm very proud of him. How couldn't you be?"
Jackson's off-the-field resume reads like a superhero's dictionary: character, integrity, courage, inspiration. For those lucky enough to coach him, everything you want in a high school student athlete rests in this one young man.
You see it in the way he begins every interview by talking about his teammates. You see it in his visits to youth teams where he speaks to players about school being more important than football.
In Glenbard North's realm Jackson dominated the fall. He remained humble and respectful through everything.
"I don't think he realizes how important he's been," Wilkens said. "Not only to the program but to the community."
Until football became primary in his athletic landscape, Jackson's first love was basketball. He's been on varsity since his sophomore year, but it would have been understandable if he backed off on his basketball commitments to focus more on football.
Not Jackson. Last summer he participated in every basketball event.
"Justin was incredible over the summer, probably our best player," said Panthers basketball coach Joe Larson. "He's just a tremendous kid. He's the type of kid that comes around once every 25 years."
The 5.0 GPA extends beyond Math, History and English.
An A+ in Health stems from a dedicated in-season diet that includes no soda, a limited salt intake and an even more limited exposure to fast food. It helped enhance Jackson's 100 percent effort while hardly ever coming off the field during the Panthers' biggest games.
In Science you'd have to give him an A++ for his ability to physically do things that seem impossible. The speed, the power and the knack for stopping on a dime and changing directions dropped jaws throughout the season.
Opponents were helpless in preparing for Jackson because there was no way to simulate what he does. For all the incredible players that have passed through the DVC, many veteran coaches believe Jackson is the best of them all.
They don't doubt he'll quickly develop into an impact player at Northwestern. Beyond that, they wouldn't be surprised to see Jackson someday playing on Sundays in the National Football League.
Down the road the scenery may change with the uniforms. One thing that won't change, though, is Jackson.
"I gave it my all out there," Jackson said of his time at Glenbard North. "We had some great moments and I'm just honored and blessed to have had that opportunity."
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