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Take Lionel (Little Train) James, Jackson's former roommate and running mate who was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Chargers. Jackson still calls James his best buddy, and he'd just as soon tell of a block he threw for James--like how he took out a Georgia cornerback on Nov. 12, 1983, to spring James for Auburn's only touchdown in a 13-7 win--as describe a scoring run of his own. But James tempted him, says Jackson. He tried to get him to party. And Jackson so prized his Al Green and Mahalia Jackson gospel albums that he kept them in the sanctity of his bedroom. "I didn't leave 'em out by the stereo, with Lionel's Gap Band and Prince," he says.
Take drugs. Jackson was 15 when he found a joint in a paper bag at school. He brought it home, locked himself in the bathroom with the window open and smoked it. "After that I ate out the whole refrigerator, fell asleep and got sick," he recalls. "Now I get high off of nature, sports and being around kids."
Take, even, parking tickets. Jackson once visited the video arcade on College Street in Auburn to work the Galaga game, an exercise in kill-or-be-killed in which, he says, "you're dodging bullets all the time." When Jackson emerged to find a ticket on his windshield, he drove straight to the police department. Fifty cents, paid-in-full. "If you don't pay within 24 hours, it goes up to a dollar," says Jackson.
Imagine an athlete so gifted that the very abundance of his gifts worked to obscure his greatness. That's a tough concept to latch on to, but consider Jackson's case. "We knew the body was a great talent, but we didn't know he was that great a back in high school," says Auburn coach Pat Dye. And who could tell? At McAdory High in McCalla, Ala., he'd only carry the ball 11 times a game because he was so busy playing every down on defense, returning kicks, kicking off, punting and kicking PATs and field goals. "He didn't pile up the great stats," says McAdory coach Dick Atchison, "because he never came off the field."
Jackson says that's not true. "I'd leave the field to put on the kicking shoe," he says. "And I'd leave it to take it off."
In high school Jackson did things like twist his ankle while winning the state title in the triple jump (48' 8�") and then come back the same day to set a state record (9.54) in the 100-yard dash; like throw a discus 149 feet without spinning his body, because he'd never been taught the proper form; like win the state decathlon crown his junior and senior years without running the mile, the final event, because "distance is the only thing I hate about track."
As a high school senior, Jackson hit .493 with 20 home runs and was drafted by the New York Yankees, who offered him a $250,000 contract. He played centerfield and shortstop for the most part, but pitched on occasion, too, showing a 92-mph fastball and throwing two no-hitters during his final season. "I hated it," he says. "There's no action on the mound. You just sit there and throw the ball. But that's all I did when I was little. Throw. Started out with rocks."
Jackson is the Southeastern Conference's first three-sport letterman in 20 years. He has the fastest time (4.12) in the 40 ever turned in by a football player, college or pro, and bench-presses 400 pounds. "Every so often in practice he does things--balance and awareness things--that we've never seen before," says Jack Crowe, Dye's offensive coordinator. "The fact that he wasn't a polished runner in high school has him learning his style as he goes. He started last year trying to knock folks down. By the second half of the season he was giving them the fast track instead of the hard road. And he didn't fumble but once last year, when he took his eye off a pitchout. Then he threw all of his athletic ability into trying to get that ball back."
Major league scouts love his arm, strength and speed but wonder about his bat. As a freshman centerfielder at Auburn, Jackson struck out 21 straight times before cracking his first hit. In the spring of '84 he gave up baseball to concentrate on track but quit at midseason, partly because his best time in the 100 meters, a 10.39 at the Florida Relays in March, wasn't good enough to qualify him for the Olympic trials, and partly because the demands of being a Heisman hopeful--interviews, addressing school kids and the like--took up too much time. "He didn't come to Auburn to run track," says Dye, who doubles as athletic director. "He came to play football. And he's just beginning to realize the impact he can have on a game."
So is his coach. Jackson didn't have a great day against Texas in the Tigers' only loss of 1983, mainly because Dye had his quarterback get the ball to Jackson only seven times--"a drastic mistake," the coach admits. In fact, Jackson has a knack for playing well in big games. In a 28-21 defeat of Florida, a game in which he played while suffering from a virus, he went 55 yards on his second run from scrimmage, then 80 on another, to score twice. And, for reasons we'll soon see, he has a showman's way of beating up on 'Bama.