Will he be well received? Jackson chose Orange and Blue over his native Crimson Tide
Published: Thursday, September 29, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 29, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
A popular story line this week for Saturday's Florida-Alabama game is this: Former Hoover star Chad Jackson, the Gators' leading receiver, returns home to face Tide and reacquaint with old friends.
Florida vs. Alabama
NO. 5 FLORIDA at NO. 15 ALABAMA
SATURDAY, 3:30 P.M., CBS
It could have been this: Chad Jackson, star Alabama wide receiver from nearby Hoover, fired up about playing against former team Florida.
Jackson's much anticipated homecoming this weekend almost happened much sooner, two years ago as a matter of fact, when Jackson, an unhappy true freshman at Florida, was exploring the possibility of transferring to Alabama.
"It was a real difficult time and I was thinking, 'Why did I come here?' " Jackson said Wednesday. "I thought about transferring and coming home.
"I was real serious about leaving. I talked to the coach (Ron Zook) about it and I talked to my mom about what I should do. I probably would (have transferred to Alabama) and sat out a year. I was going to come home."
That homecoming never happened. Jackson said he decided to stay at UF after having conversations with running back Ciatrick Fason, who also contemplated a transfer from UF early in his career, but stayed and ended up leading the Southeastern Conference in rushing last season.
"He stuck with it and things worked out for him," Jackson said. "I stuck it out, and things are working out for me."
Instead of coming home a disillusioned former Gator two years ago, he returns this weekend as a Gator and the SEC's leading receiver.
Had Jackson followed through with his thought to transfer, he certainly would have received a warm reception upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa two years ago. As for Saturday, Jackson isn't sure what to expect, but he's eager to find out.
"I haven't been home in a long time, so I'm excited," he said. "I want to see how they treat me when I come back home, see if they're mad at me because I left. I want to see how they react.
"I've never been booed before, not personally. I don't know how I'll react. I won't take it to heart. I'll just go out there and play my game and not pay any attention to it."
Jackson likely will get booed Saturday. Because in the football crazy state of Alabama, the folks don't take too kindly to top high school prospects who spurn Alabama and Auburn and leave the state.
Few players ever leave, especially a guy like Jackson, an All-American receiver who played his high school ball in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham only about 55 miles down I-20 from Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Had he decided to stay in state, Jackson probably would have signed with Alabama. But, he wanted to leave and he picked Florida, which happened to fall on Alabama's 2005 schedule.
Jackson signed with the Gators despite intense hometown pressure to sign with Alabama or Auburn.
"I considered Alabama a little bit," Jackson said. "But I wanted to go out of state and do something new, and that's what I did. I wanted to see where I was as a person and see what I could do out there on my own.
"It's tough to leave home, and I got a lot of push from teachers and others to go to Alabama or Auburn. Some people pushed my mom about it. It was real tough."
Jackson said a factor in his decision to leave Alabama was the death of close friend and Hoover teammate Victor Hill before the start of his senior season. Hill collapsed during a summer workout and died. Jackson now wears Hill's number at Hoover (No. 8) to honor the memory of his friend. Jackson said he plans to wear Hill's number for as long as he plays football.
"It was like a brother to brother relationship," Jackson said. "I met him when I was a freshman and he was in middle school. (His death) kind of was a factor (in Jackson's decision to go out of state).
"It makes me upset to think about him (when I'm on the field). I think about him every now and then."
Jackson said he's looking forward to Saturday and the chance to reconnect with some old friends, including his former high school quarterback, Tide redshirt freshman John Parker Wilson. Jackson said he knows numerous other Tide players, among them wide receiver Tyrone Prothro and fullback Tim Castille.
"I have some friends I played with in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game," Jackson said. "I know a lot of them on the (Alabama) team."
Jackson also will know quite a few people in the stands Saturday. He's had to round up 20 to 30 tickets this week for family and friends. "I have a lot of family down there," he said.
Jackson said Wednesday he's viewing this as just another game on the schedule. But it's much more than that. It's his homecoming.
"He's going home and he has a lot of family and friends there and he knows a lot of players at Alabama," UF quarterback Chris Leak said. "I can imagine how special this moment is for him and his family. It's a big-time game and he's going to enjoy it."
Jackson has been enjoying all the games this season. He's become Leak's go-to guy and leads the SEC in receiving (32 catches for 401 yards and five touchdowns).
He's on pace (if the Gators play in a bowl game) to break Carlos Alvarez's single-season reception record of 88.
"It's possible in this offense," Jackson said. "I hope it happens. The way things are going now, it could."
He's had an All-American season so far. But his performances haven't been good enough by Urban Meyer's standards to earn Jackson champion's status in any game yet.
"He's getting better and better," Meyer said. "In the Kentucky game (last week), he didn't grade a champion. That means he made some great plays, but wasn't consistent enough. He's not graded a champion yet and he leads our team in receiving. Every play, every down, he needs to be consistent running routes and blocking."
Jackson agrees with his coach.
"Coach wants you to play perfect," he said. "One day, I'll eventually get there."
Maybe it will be Saturday, which would make for a perfect homecoming.
"I'm going to go out, play my game and try to make plays," Jackson said.
Robbie Andreu can be reached at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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