As the kick sailed toward North Hall High return man Daniel Jackson during the second quarter of last Friday’s game, he approached the play as it if were just another rep at practice.
It was anything but.
Jackson returned the kick 93 yards for a touchdown, breaking a tie and propelling the Trojans to a 55-34 region win against Union County High at the Brickyard in Gainesville. He finished with 227 all-purpose yards, added another score on the ground and compiled 13 tackles as North Hall clinched a playoff spot after starting the season 0-4.
“We used that negative criticism from the start of the season to strive to get better,” Jackson said. “ … We knew winning that game (against Union County) would secure us a spot in the playoffs, and we played like it.”
Jackson certainly did — for his efforts, he’s The Times’ Player of the Week.
The junior said he played every snap against the Panthers, including special teams. A regular at safety last year, Jackson began rotating at running back this season after the graduation of 1,600-yard rusher Kyle Bacus and has gradually shouldered a greater load there due to injuries in the backfield.
It’s not uncommon for Trojans coach David Bishop to utilize players on both sides of the ball, especially on this year’s squad that’s short on depth and experience, but he still had high praise for Jackson’s determination.
“It got to the point about a week or so ago where he told me, ‘Don’t take me off the field; I want to play every down,’” Bishop said. “That’s a testament to his character and selflessness. He has grown into being a big leader for this team.”
Jackson’s first touch was a 42-yard rushing touchdown that put North Hall (3-5, 3-1 Region 7-3A) ahead 20-7 with about nine minutes left in the second quarter.
But Union County stormed back for two quick scores over the next four minutes, reclaiming the momentum in a battle of squads with playoff hopes on the line. The Trojans regained a bit of energy by blocking the extra point to create a 20-20 tie, but the real spark came on the ensuing kickoff.
“The ball hit the ground, and I had to pick it up,” Jackson said. “We’ve been practicing the return for weeks now, and there was just a major hole. All I had to do was run through it. I actually almost lost my footing around the 50-yard line and went down.”
Instead, he faked out the kicker — a distant relative of Jackson’s, he said — and raced the rest of the way to the end zone.
“There were several plays that really changed the game in our favor,” Bishop said. “That kickoff return was one of the big ones in the first half.”
North Hall outscored the Panthers 28-14 the rest of the way, truly seizing control early in the third quarter thanks to a goal-line stand followed by a 99-yard touchdown drive. Jackson finished with 119 yards on seven carries and had a 27-yard score called back due to a penalty.
But his return touchdown loomed large in the win that sent the Trojans to the playoffs for the third consecutive year. North Hall still could have squeaked into the postseason even with a loss, but Jackson and company made sure those unlikely scenarios wouldn’t be necessary.
“I told the kids I’d rather us control our own destiny than let others do that,” Bishop said. “It was, ‘Win and you’re in.’ We needed to play our best game, and we played well, but I’m not sure it was our best. We can still improve.”
The Trojans will likely need peak performances during the final two weeks of the season, which begin with a trip to face to region leader and second-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian before a road showdown with East Hall High (5-2, 2-1 region).
If so, North Hall can continue proving the first month of its season was just an aberration.
“A lot of people have grown up throughout the season,” Jackson said. “It has been a lot of fun shocking people after what we did in the earlier games. We knew what we could accomplish, and we still do. We know we can be a lot better.”