Just over a decade ago, David Foster Wallace wrote Roger Federer as Religious Experience for The New York Times. It’s something I, as a Federer fan, have read countless of times. After he wins. After he loses. When I was missing watching him play. Even today, it rings true, and because I have experienced Federer play, it will be a story that I can understand long after Federer retires. The story isn’t so much about analyzing Federer as a player, but rather assessing and reflecting on what it’s like to watch him play.
Justin Jackson is not Roger Federer. But for Northwestern, Justin Jackson will soon be on a pedestal as the most accomplished offensive player ever. And through it all — bowl wins, bowl losses, Top 25 upsets and FCS losses — it has been an absolute joy to watch him play and experience his impact every Saturday.
In the summer of 2016 — my first months in charge here — I stayed in Evanston to cover the football team, give campus tours and take summer classes. But really, I was there for the football.
On the first day of summer media availability, I called my grandpa when walking up to Ryan Field. He’s a lifelong sports fan and, until then, a casual Northwestern fan as well. But as I wound through the tree-lined streets of Evanston, I decided that if I was going to be covering the football team, I’d take him along for the ride as well, even if I watched every game from the press box and he watched from his TV screen.
The walk takes about half an hour. It’s a perfect amount of time to discuss anything, really, but we decided on Northwestern football. Throughout the summer we went through the positions — how Clayton Thorson was expected to be much better as a sophomore, who he would throw to, and who would step up defensively from a unit that lost Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and many others.
But no matter what position or what player or whatever Northwestern football-related subject we talked about, it always came back to this:
“Who’s that good runner again?” my grandpa would ask. (He is in his mid-80’s after all.)
“Justin Jackson,” I’d reply.
“Oh yeah, I like that guy.” he’d say.
“He’s gonna break the school record,” I’d tell him.
Over a year later, I still call my grandpa before gamedays — usually on Friday afternoons — and after gamedays — usually Saturday nights after a win and Monday after a loss. And he, just like Northwestern football for the past four years, always comes back to Justin Jackson. And I always tell him Jackson’s going to break the record.
The Justin Jackson jump cut is straight out of a how-to manual that every young aspiring running back should read.
But we’ll get to that later.
Rather, I want to talk about Jackson’s best quality: “brutally consistent,” as Pat Fitzgerald said after the Pinstripe Bowl win last season.
The four yards and a cloud of dust approach fits Jackson perfectly because that’s who he is as a person and a player. He’s brutally consistent in his approach to every run. He’s endlessly patient waiting for holes to open up. You shout “Go! Go!” every time he touches the ball and stretches toward the sideline. But the approach is measured and battle-tested. He waits and waits, and then slivers through a tiny crease — a crease that only he sees and a crease that’s not always according to plan.
And you’re glad he didn’t “go” when you told him to. Patience is a virtue.
Then he hits the hole, contorting his body around would-be arm-tackles and up to the second level. That’s one part of Justin Jackson at his best. He might be tripped up after four yards. But it’s four yards that few other backs would gain.
Then there are times when the hole never arrives, no matter how long Jackson waits, leaving flailing defenders in his wake. These plays have happened more than enough throughout Jackson’s 935 career carries. But he churns ahead. He makes guys miss in the backfield, turning a loss into a gain, a busted play into a salvaged one.
Having watched almost every single one of Jackson’s runs, though, I’ll be honest with you. The four yard gains are the ones Northwestern loves. It keeps the team on track.
The big plays are the ones that make the Justin Jackson experience unparalleled.
Nine hundred and thirty-five carries are a lot to keep track of. And every once in a while, one of those plays has put Jackson in a one-on-one situation at the second level.
For Northwestern, this is the Jordan with the clock running down, the Gretzky in the shootout, the Brady down a score in the two-minute drill.
This is the thrill for a Northwestern team that hasn’t produced a ton of plays over the past four years. For that one split second in time, it’s Justin Jackson and one other player.
Justin Jackson and one opposing force trying to stop him.
One on one.
Just like it’s supposed to be.
Just like all the drills you do growing up.
All the work you put in trying to be better than the man across from you.
And he eats it up.
and like this
and like this
And it leaves everyone watching like this:
This is Justin Jackson at his finest. The Justin Jackson I’ll remember. It wasn’t these types of runs that have gotten him to these records. It’s these types of runs that have made him running a work of art. When Jackson hangs up his Northwestern cleats for the final time, hopefully after a bowl game victory, we’re going to miss those runs so much.
But for now, we still have time to reminisce. And so Monday afternoon, I’ll call my grandpa up. We’ll talk about the game — who performed well, who didn’t and who’s on the horizon. And inevitably it’ll come to this:
“Who’s that runner I like?”
I can’t wait to tell him what “that runner” does this weekend.