There wasn’t a lot of buzz surrounding the Country Day football program coming into the season. In fact, a certain sportswriter – one who, ahem, will remain unnamed – even had the audacity to predict the Bucs to finish last in the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association standings this season.
Some of the Bucs noticed, but others simply ignored the lack of confidence outsiders had in the team. Senior Thomas Jackson said he and his teammates didn’t care what the outside world thought of Country Day’s chances – they knew they’d be a factor in the always-tough CISAA.
“We like it that way,” Jackson said of the media slight. “I know that I’ve always been the underdog because I’ve always been pretty small. I think it helped that we were kind of considered underdogs this year, too, and it helps that we have a chip on our shoulder.
“It didn’t matter to us. I know we lost (quarterback) Michael Radford (to Wake Forest) and a couple of other key guys from offense and defense, but we were confident that we could win some football games. We weren’t scared and we knew we’d put in the hard work to be good.”
The last part of Jackson’s statement is what’s turned him from a key contributor on a really good team last year to emerging as one of southern Mecklenburg’s most dynamic players this season.
“He’s a little quicker, a little stronger and a littler bigger than he was last year,” Country Day coach Bob Witman said. “He worked hard in the weight room this summer to get into good shape. All I can say is that he’s just a year better.”
Jackson’s skill set has been clearly on display every night the Bucs have taken the field this season. Take the Bucs’ 21-7 win over Ravenscroft on Sept. 27 as an example of all Jackson can do on the field. The senior ran nine times for 30 yards and a touchdown, caught one pass for 80 yards and another score, had 78 kick-return yards and added 38 more returning punts.
The return game has always been one of Jackson’s strengths, but he’s taken his gaudy numbers a step further this year – to national acclaim. He’s ranked 19th in the country according to Maxpreps.com in total return yards after climbing to as high as No. 12 earlier this season
“It was weird because I hadn’t seen it,” Jackson said of the national ranking. “But someone said I was ranked in the country in kick returns. I didn’t believe it, I mean I’ve never been ranked locally in (anything), but it was like all of the sudden I was No. 12 in the country. It was strange.”
But that is the kind of production the Country Day faithful has come to expect. Jackson has 1,000 total yards through five games this year, including 137 rushing yards and four TDs, 351 receiving yards and four TDs, and 512 total return yards including two punt-return touchdowns.
With his multi-faceted skill set, Jackson isn’t defined by a single position.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s wherever they need me,” Jackson said about where he prefers to line up. “As long as I’m on the field, I just love playing so it doesn’t matter to me where they put me. I just want to play.”
Since bursting on the scene last year, Jackson has been doing just that, according to his coach.
“He’s always been a talented kid and he just happens to be the one making plays right now,” Witman said. “Last season, he was the first one out of the gate making plays. But once teams started planning for him, the other two guys just took off and did well, too.”
The other two guys Witman is referring to are receivers Akanimo Eyo and Byron Smith who, along with Jackson, have eased the new Country Day quarterbacks into the big shoes Radford left last season.
Even with sophomore Cole Bloomer and senior Robert Tate splitting time at quarterback, Jackson, Eyo (181 receiving yards) and Smith (97 yards) have remained productive.
And while Jackson has taken the majority of the spotlight, he’s fortunate to have his running mates helping lead the Bucs back to prominence.
“It’s nice having Akanimo on the other side with me,” Jackson said. “With Byron lined up on the same side, defenses can’t pile up on one side of the ball and have to balance it out to stop us both.
“As receivers, we have more weight on our shoulders. Michael Lee made a lot of the big plays for us last year, and I think this year it’s turned over to Akanimo and me.”
And Jackson has delivered.
“He’s an athlete and as quick as anyone we’ve seen,” Witman said. “So far this year Thomas has had the opportunity and has used it to make big plays.”
Witman said he and his coaching staff are in the process of putting the final touches on Jackson’s highlight package and distributing them to college coaches. It’s an ever-increasing task since Jackson seems to specialize in making the spectacular seem ordinary each game. Witman said that will no doubt lead Jackson to a college football program.
Jackson said he’s hopeful he can play in college and added that he has some camp invitations and general interest from college coaches, but no formal offers as of yet.
But Witman knows Jackson can play at the next level.
“Oh yes, without a doubt,” Witman said. “Thomas is as athletic as any kid I’ve seen in a long time. He’s not real tall – 5-11 or 5-10 1/2 or so – but he’s 185 pounds and he’s solid muscle and he’s a good football player. He can certainly play at the next level.”
But for now, Jackson is concentrating on making plays and keeping the Bucs atop the upper echelon of private-school teams, even as he isn’t sure himself what happens when he gets his hands on the ball.
“The big plays just kind of happen,” Jackson said. “I don’t think that I plan on doing any of that stuff, it’s just kind of keeping my feet moving and keeping going with the play. I’m just trying to make plays. In the end it doesn’t matter to me what my stats are, I just want to win a state championship.”