Every young athlete who dreams of playing on the big stage could learn a lesson from looking up to Daniel Jackson.
Never the biggest player on the field, but equipped with a tenacious work ethic, the 2019 North Hall High graduate always dreamed of playing football at the University of Georgia.
The Bulldogs never offered him a scholarship.
However, Jackson, who is a gifted student with plans of majoring in engineering, never wavered in his path he wanted to follow.
It’s his life and these are his dreams.
And football is right near the top of what he loves most.
So, when his moment came to make a big play during Georgia’s spring game on April 18, Jackson, a reserve safety, was in the right place at the right time.
Patrolling the secondary, he tracked down a pass near the goal line from quarterback Carson Beck, which he said was intended for freshman wide receiver Arian Smith.
From the jump, Jackson had a good read on the ball and caught it in stride with outstretched arms, like he was the intended target.
And after the pick, Jackson turned back and started running the other way, before being taken to the ground.
Once Jackson hit the sideline, it was a celebration for the All-State player in high school, who continues to go toe to toe every day against some of the most heralded football talent in the country.
“That was an unreal feeling,” Jackson said. “All my family, teammates and friends were so excited for me.”
It wasn’t the only big play for Jackson during the G-Day Game, but it’s the one everyone saw on the highlights. The video made the rounds on social media. His phone was flooded with messages after the game ended.
Jackson said he was on the field for ‘40 or 50’ plays during the spring game and got a few tackles on the running backs.
Like anyone wearing the Bulldogs uniform, Jackson’s goal is to get to play when it counts in the fall at Sanford Stadium.
He said playing in front of a crowd of Georgia fans is the ultimate rush.
“Playing between the hedges is a feeling you can’t describe,” Jackson said. “The energy beats anything I’ve ever experienced.”
Right now, Georgia’s pecking order at safety is pretty solid with Chris Smith and Lewis Cine in line to get the bulk of the playing time.
However, the challenge of showing coaches he’s got the talent needed to play, once 2021 rolls around isn’t a proposition that deters Jackson.
Actually, it makes him want to work even harder.
“I just have to keep working hard, keep being consistent in everything I do,” Jackson said.
Even though he’s about 190 pounds, Jackson said he wants to add a little more weight to his frame. And once summer camp rolls around, he wants to give it all he’s got.
In high school, Jackson was a two-way star for the Trojans, but was overlooked until late in his senior season because of his perceived slight frame of about 165 pounds.
When it came down to making a decision, Jackson had a chance to play at Air Force — which he gave some serious consideration — or follow his life-long dream of going to Georgia.
North Hall coach David Bishop had a connection with then Bulldogs defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who had recruited one of the Trojans’ earlier stars, Andrew Smith, to attend Air Force.
Bishop knew Jackson had a deep desire to go to school at Georgia and chase the dream — even though it might be a long shot — to make it on the field with the Bulldogs.
“Daniel’s a high-character kid and tremendous in the classroom,” Bishop said. “He’s just an all-around great person.”
Jackson said the support at home has been particularly strong. He’s the middle son of Valencia and Joe Jackson. Daniel’s older brother, Sam, and younger brother, Will, have also been athletes at North Hall.
Jackson said his family faith and continual prayer helped lead his decision to play at Georgia.
It’s a decision he doesn’t regret, even though there are no easy days when you are trying to tackle running backs like Zamir White and James Cook — who will certainly be playing in the NFL after college.
He said those first experiences of ‘thudding’ in practice — where players hit, but don’t tackle to the ground — gave a very clear picture of what it was going to be like playing at Georgia.
However, it’s a challenge he didn’t shy away from.
“You have to have the mindset that either you’re going to hit them hard or they’re going to hit you hard.’”
Jackson hasn’t won all his battles in practice, but he’s earned considerable attention from the coaching staff and a chance to line up for meaningful snaps.
Even before the spring scrimmage in front of about 20,000 fans, Jackson drew the praise of Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart.
“He’s getting better every rep. It’s so important to him, you know it matters to Dan,” Smart said in a statement to media.
And with his academic responsibilities, football is only part of Daniel’s jam-packed day.
Even though the majority of his coursework is still the required classes for freshmen and sophomores, he’s started to get into some engineering-related courses.
He said after practice and dinner, it’s straight to the books for hours of studying.
Then repeat and do it all again the next day.
However, he remains resolute in his path and feels comfortable with handling the rigor of playing football and pursuing a challenging degree.
And, hopefully, getting to play in the fall at Sanford Stadium.