When Justin Jackson transferred from Pacelli in Columbus to Glenwood prior to his sophomore season, his main goal was to win as often as he could in the regular season. Now on the verge of his final game with the team, Jackson has made those old objectives pale in comparison to what he and the Gators could accomplish Friday.
Jackson has filled an important role at outside linebacker for a Gators team that will face Bessemer Academy in the AISA Class AAA state championship game Friday, which marks the Gators’ first appearance in a title game in eight years. Through 12 games, the senior has 63 total tackles — 40 of which were solo — with four interceptions and one forced fumble on a Glenwood defense that has only given up 21 points in its two postseason games.
As productive as Jackson has been in making stops and forcing turnovers for the defense, he’s been just as important as a de facto coach on the field who can make sure the Gators are ready before each and every snap.
“He played a vital role even last year. We teased him and called him 'Little McConnell,'” said Glenwood head coach Jason Gibson, referring to former defensive coordinator Josh McConnell. “He makes all the checks and all the adjustments. He just plays lights out at that position. His knowledge of the game and the things he does, we're going to miss that. That's why we're where we are defensively, because of his knowledge of the game.”
When asked how far Jackson has come since arriving at Glenwood, Gibson laughed in a way that Jackson could take pride in. Jackson himself admitted he was timid as a Gator early on, opting to stay quiet and just do what was asked of him each and every practice.
Soon enough, Jackson understood that his role would increase the more experience he got. Instead of running from added responsibility, Jackson welcomed it with open arms.
Jackson understood the coaches were putting him in position to make plays, and he recognized that he was capable of doing the same with his teammates. In addition to following his coaches’ lead, he committed himself to constant film study, which allowed him to learn more of the hows and whys of the plays the Gators were running.
Jackson grew comfortable with being a leader who held the teammates around him accountable, and soon enough the Gators made tangible strides as a defense. For teammates like senior middle linebacker Scott Anderson, Jackson’s leadership has been invaluable, especially during the Gators’ postseason run this fall.
“He is probably the biggest person on that team. He's like having a second defensive coordinator. He's a genius with the sport,” Anderson said. “He's just an athlete. He's good all around. He's a great leader and just a good all-around person.
“I don't think we would be where we are or go as far as we have without him.”
Jackson has consistently came up clutch for Glenwood in critical situations, which included intercepting two passes to help the Gators top Morgan Academy back in September. He quietly took care of business in the semifinals against Tuscaloosa Academy, piling up six tackles to help the Gators beat the Knights and move on to the title game.
Even in the days that followed Friday’s win, Jackson said the victory still felt unreal. After all, Jackson didn’t even dream of playing for a championship when he first arrived in Smiths Station three years ago.
“I still have little butterflies in my stomach. I knew we would make it here, but I just didn't think it would come so fast. It's been a great journey with me and my team,” Jackson said. “For us to win that game, there were a lot of emotions there. I just knew that it was destined to come. Now, it's time to put in some more work.”
Jackson and his teammates on defense will have their work cut out for them Friday in facing a Bessemer squad that is averaging 35.3 points per game. Jackson said the Gators have to play sound, fundamental football to stop a speedy Rebels squad, and he understands it’s up to him to set the tone and keep all the Gators on the same page.
Jackson has come a long way since he crossed the river into Alabama and settled in at Glenwood. He’s now on the verge of helping the Gators win their first state championship since 1992, an achievement he couldn’t fathom three years ago.
“It would mean a lot to me, and it would mean a lot to the Glenwood family. I know they haven't had a state championship in Lord knows how long,” Jackson said. “It would just mean a lot to them, the senior class and to me. I would have never thought I would make it this far.
“Just to know that I have a great team and coaches and a great family over here at Glenwood and that we finally did it and did it for them would be special.”