Highlands grad Jackson makes return to football field with Slippery Rock
Like a running back waiting for a hole to develop, Elijah Jackson stayed patient for two years away from football.
He watched friends and former opponents succeed at the college level, while he did his best to stay in shape for his eventual return. He went to class and got good grades, putting himself in position to join a college team.
Jackson finally found some daylight, as the former Highlands star running back and defensive back will join Slippery Rock when training camp opens Wednesday, taking the field as a walk-on running back for the first time since he finished his career as Highlands' all-time leading rusher.
“I had to step on the field,” Jackson said. “I could not sit back and just watch another season pass by.”
Slippery Rock recruited Jackson in high school, but it took a long time for him to get there.
Coming out of Highlands, Jackson didn't have the required grades or test scores for college. He and his brother, Jeremy, instead enrolled in Georgia Prep Sports Academy in Atlanta in fall 2015, but that experiment ended for both after a couple of months.
“Basically, they said things that didn't really happen,” said Jackson, who had three rushing touchdowns before leaving the prep school. “When I first learned about the school, they said they were going to have tutors, scouts come in, put out your game highlight.
“I didn't get any highlights. They really didn't give us a chance to get looked at by colleges.”
That door closed, Elijah and Jeremy Jackson went to CCAC. There, Elijah brought his grades up. He went to Pitt football games, watching friend and former opponent Tre Tipton have success as a Panthers wide receiver.
That did nothing but feed the flames of his desire to play college football.
“Being away from the football field the last two years made me think about how much I wanted to play the sport I loved,” he said. “Sitting in the stands just watching him made me think about what I need to do to go to the next step, the next level.”So Elijah Jackson took summer classes, doing everything he could to be ready. He enrolled at Slippery Rock, remembering the school's interest in him in high school, and emailed coach Shawn Lutz in early June about the potential to play there.
“He's going to be a great addition to our program,” Lutz said. “He was one of the top running backs on our board coming out senior year, and I remembered his name right away. I just gave him a call, and he said he wanted to come.
“It was just a no-brainer.”
Lutz said Slippery Rock kept track of Jackson during the past two years, and Jackson said the school's continued faith in him ultimately drove him to join the team.
“(That) pretty much made me make my decision right there,” Jackson said. “They were one of the teams that believed and had faith that I could do it, and that's one of the reasons I decided to go there out of the other schools.
“It means a lot. I appreciate that. Coming out of high school, I thought I was going to have an offer. They knew the situation I was in and stuck with me. They motivated me, helped me. ... I wanted to play football again after two years, and I knew if I contacted them they would be for it.”
Elijah Jackson said Jeremy remains at CCAC but also still hopes to play college football, potentially at Slippery Rock.
Although he generally kept himself in shape, Elijah Jackson said he started going harder the past month or so in order to get ready for training camp. Although he expects some early rust, he hopes to quickly regain the form that helped him rush for 1,708 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior.
“What I always look for in a running back, a special running back, is every time you give him the ball, you hold your breath,” said Lutz, Slippery Rock's longtime defensive coordinator before becoming head coach in 2016. “I've been a defensive coach for a long time, and you don't want the ball in his hands. He can take things and make a small play into a big play. He is explosive, and he can break the long run, and he has great vision. Once he gets in the open field, he's a game-changer.”
Slippery Rock's all-time leading rusher, Shamar Greene, graduated after the 2016 season, leaving a void in The Rock's backfield that Jackson hopes he can help fill.
“Once we all put on the jersey and everything, we're all there to play,” he said. “It was harder for me being a walk-on because I didn't think I'd have to join a university and be a walk-on. But over the past couple years, I figured it was whatever works for the best.”
Jackson believes he has a lot to prove, not just to his new teammates and coaching staff in terms of earning a role. He wants to prove to himself that even after everything that happened over the past two years, it was worth it — he could still fulfill his dream.
“I still have a lot to prove, but I can't really blame it on no one but myself and getting myself situated,” Jackson said. “A lot has changed since high school. I still have all my friends and family who stuck by me and kept me level-headed.
“I feel like I not only owe it to myself, but basically to my family. My mom stuck with me through the process. It's been a rough time, so I know what I want, and I'm going to try to go get it and try to make it to the next level.”