Last Thursday was a cold, windy, overcast day in Columbus, Ohio, and the players and coaches in town for the College Cup-soccer's version of the Final Four—were dreading the prospect of having to square off in such inclement conditions during the weekend. One player, however, was feeling the opposite. "I love it," said North Carolina senior defender Danny Jackson. "I love this kind of weather."
Jackson is an Englishman, and a wet pitch under gray skies makes him feel right at home. Playing in a blustery wind with the temperature in the 40s on Friday evening, the Tar Heels defeated Stanford 3-2 in quadruple overtime. Jackson played all 136 minutes of the semifinal, though he was barely conscious for the final five. An inadvertent elbow to the head from a Cardinal defender momentarily knocked him out cold just before junior midfielder Mike Gell got the match-winner. Ten minutes into Sunday's mud-spattered final, Jackson took another shot to his head. "That knocked the sense out of me for a little while," he said. Again he played on, driving North Carolina to its first national tide with a 2-0 win over Indiana. Jackson not only anchored the defense but also scored the game-icing goal on a 75th-minute penalty kick.
Tar Heels coach Elmar Bolowich had speculated before the final that the only way to keep Jackson off the field would be to "chop a leg off of him." That is the kind of observation that might lead one to conclude that soccer is Jackson's life, which isn't true, though a few years ago it nearly was. After graduating from high school in 1996, at 16, he was living at the youth academy of Leeds United, his hometown team. He played for the youth team nonstop from July to May, taking one day of college-level classes a week to break up the training routine. After that, he says, it was, "twiddle your thumbs, play a little golf, go shopping or watch TV."
Following two years at the academy Jackson began thinking that it might not be a bad idea to get a proper education, but intercollegiate sports are almost nonexistent in England. He had played a handful of games in the U.S. with Leeds in 1997, and on that trip a few English expatriates had planted the notion in his head that he could go to college in the States and play soccer. He wrote a few letters, and when Bolowich sent an eager reply, Jackson decided to give Chapel Hill a shot the following year.
Jackson had little trouble adapting, though the move was tough for his parents, Michael and Barbara, who had grown accustomed to watching him play. (They listened to the College Cup games over the Internet, but it cost a dime a minute. Michael joked that the broadcast of the marathon semifinal match was the best money he'd ever spent.) Bolowich was so impressed with Danny that he named him captain in the spring semester of his freshman year. "He's the smartest player I've ever played with," says Mike Ueltschey, a senior goalkeeper from Jackson, Miss. "There's not a better player in the country at timing his tackles. He's good with both feet, he has a pinpoint long ball, and he's fast. He doesn't look fast, but when does he ever get beat?"
While Jackson was undoubtedly the team's leader during a 16-4-0 regular season, he had help from his three fellow seniors: Ueltschey; defender Chris Leitch, who finished his career in front of hometown fans in Columbus; and Noz Yamauchi, a midfielder from Chapel Hill. "We've got a redneck, an Englishman, a Yankee and Noz, who's a little bit normal," says Ueltschey. "It's funny how we all came together and became best friends." The disparate quartet played a huge role in North Carolina's success. The 5'4" Yamauchi led the team with 11 assists, while the other three formed the heart of a defense that allowed only 0.76 goals per game.
Jackson's clinching goal came five days after he took his last exam. He crammed 18 hours of classes into his fall semester after taking 18 last spring and a full load in summer school so that he could get his degree in political science a semester early and focus on his pro career next spring. The thought of going back to England intrigues him, but not as much as playing in MLS, a heretofore unheard-of concept for a top young English player. If his smile after the Tar Heels' win on Sunday wasn't enough of an explanation for why he'd want to stay, Jackson says, "The experience I've had with soccer in America has only been positive. I've had a fantastic time."