In distance, it's apprx. 547 miles from Chicago to Horn Lake, Mississippi. The distance Brandon and his family have traveled in getting to the south though, it might as well have been an eternity. So much has changed for Jackson since the day Chicago was put in the rear-view mirror of the family car.
So much for the better.
Growing up in the neighborhoods of Chicago, there was a simple philosophy.....watch your back. Gang violence running rampant, surviving alone was accomplishment enough, especially for a young black man in the inner-city, constantly tempted by the allure of what these violence-prone "families" offered.
It was enough for his mother to keep him out of sports altogether, Jackson not picking up a football in organized play until he moved down to Mississippi. "There was just so much violence everywhere." Brandon said. "Friends getting killed, shootings all the time, my mom didn't want us to be anywhere near that."
While his mom was able to keep Brandon out of the elements that she so feared would overtake her son as it did so many of his friends, Jackson still had an early affinity for the game of football, even if it wasn't on a plush grass field, marked with yards and goal posts at either end. "We played in dirt lots." Brandon said. "We didn't have a field, so just a bunch of friends would get together and we go out and have some fun."
Can you guess as to what position Brandon played even before he picked up a ball in an "official" contest? "I was always the running back." he said. "It just felt natural for me to carry the ball plus it was a lot of fun."
Fun for him maybe, but probably not for the team across from him, everyone flailing about if only to get a hand on the already very athletic Jackson. After all, when playing in a dirt lot, probably the last thing you want is to get hit, you never knowing what you might land in or on. Brandon said laughing a bit, he didn't have to worry about that. "They could never catch me." he said. "I would just get out into the open and that was all I needed and I was gone."
True enough that the sheer physical ability of Brandon was going to be ample for his early future in football, but not even that impressive 6'0" and 210 lbs. frame jaunting along at a reported 4.39 in the forty pace could dwarf what motivates or in this case, inspires Jackson each time he takes the field. For him, it's not about what he's made of himself, rather what someone else inspired him to be. "My dad (Charles) is a big reason why I am here today." Jackson stated. "He taught me to appreciate what you have and that you can do what you want if you work hard enough."
Charles is indeed a testament in accomplishing the seemingly impossible as according to Brandon, he was the first black basketball player at Arkansas College. "I remember asking my mom about it and wanting to see the newspapers just to see it for myself." Brandon said. "She showed me the clippings and I was just like ‘wow, my dad really did something special'."
Charles sudden death in 1996 from the result of a car crash couldn't stop his impact on the young Jackson's life, all the way to today. "He did something that anyone would be proud of." Jackson said of breaking the color-barrier at Arkansas College. "He showed me that you can achieve what you want to achieve. My brother has been the biggest influence in my life since he passed away, but my dad is still influencing me every day I am alive."
That influence combined with the constant support of his mother and older brother was enough to keep Brandon focusing on his goals for the future. And, it was a no-brainer to anyone else what would be part of that future for him. "Everyone else just kept telling me that I had to play football." Jackson stated. "I was just working out and in track at the time when I was in 9th grade and everyone just kept telling me how good I could be if I played."
"I tried out for varsity and once I got on the field I found out they were right."
Right to the tune of over 150 yards in the very first game he played for Horn Lake, while galloping into the end zone twice. Since that time, it's been a deluge of one prolific performance after another, Jackson one time topping the 300 yard mark, scoring five touchdowns overall.
Comparisons to Walter Payton from a man who played against "Sweetness" when he was still at Jackson State, to now where he draws comparisons to anyone from legends themselves in Emmit Smith and former Detroit running back, Barry Sanders.
What's Brandon think when his name is put in the same sentence with players who's contributions are legendary in perception? "I don't know what to say." he said. "It's like a dream to think that you could one day be even close to players like that, but I've got so much to do and so much to accomplish, it's nice to think about, but I have to look at where I am at right now."
Where that is in Horn Lake, but preparing for an eventual trip to Lincoln. Jackson, one of Nebraska's most touted commits from the class of 2004 is expected to vie for playing time his first year with the big red. Brandon himself looks at the opportunities as just that and plans to take nothing for granted as he never has. "This isn't eighth grade anymore." Brandon said. "You can't just show up on the field and run all over everyone. At Nebraska, you have to be better than you've ever been and work harder than you ever have if you want to contribute to the team."
"My brother has helped me so much in seeing that you can't take anything for granted. Every day is another day you can succeed or you can fail, but you have to try as hard as you can to make sure you succeed."
Head coach, Bill Callahan called Jackson the "big back" he was looking for and since his commit, whereas the hype around most players dwindles, the attention towards what Jackson might do even in his first year as done nothing but rise at a dramatic rate.
That's just fine with Brandon as he would have it no other way. "If you don't expect a lot, you don't achieve a lot." he said. "I expect to do my best every time I am on the field. Some days that will be good and some days, it might not be, but you have to try to be the best out there every game."
And, is that the goal for Jackson as he ponders on his future career at Nebraska? Does he want to be THE best? "Everyone does." Brandon said. "I don't know anyone that says they want to be just ok. I am going to Nebraska as someone that will try their hardest and whenever I get a chance to get out there, I'll try to be the best I can be."
The best he can has yet to be determined, at least from an athletic perspective. From the far more important aspect, the best he can be as a person seems firmly in place. Grounded yet aspiring, grateful yet always wanting more, Jackson knows full well where he came from, where he's at and the reason the future is actually his to make of it what he can. "Because of what I can do is why I am on the football field." Brandon said. "But, because of what so many have done for me in my life, that's why I am even here right now."
"My mom, my dad, my brother, they never gave up trying to help me do the right thing, showing me that you can do what you want if you are willing to work your hardest. That's how I have to be and how I plan to be. Anything else just wouldn't be right."
Steve Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 402-730-5619