After Michigan’s blowout win last Saturday, most of the Wolverines were smiling. They had just dismantled Indiana, and the anticipation was already building for their biggest game of the year.
But Jerome Jackson couldn’t share his teammates’ excitement just yet.
Jackson knew what was coming. He knew he would soon receive a phone call from his older brother Terry. In fact, if Jerome glanced at his cell phone right then, the screen could very well have shown that he had already missed the call. But Jerome wouldn’t have to listen to the message to know what it would say.
Terry – a former running back at Minnesota and Southern Illinois – wouldn’t let Jerome get away with his subpar performance. Not after the junior had to persevere through two seasons of limited playing time before his coaches finally gave him a chance. Even with his touchdown in the second quarter, Jerome’s eight carries for 23 yards weren’t good enough anymore. Terry expected more from his little brother, who probably expected even more from himself.
“He always keeps me on my toes,” Jerome said last Saturday. “He watches every game, and he critiques me after every game. I know I’ve got to hear it from him today.”
But even though Jerome wasn’t looking forward to that particular call, he has always welcomed his brother’s advice. After all, Jerome has spent his entire life trying to be just like Terry.
In 2002, Jerome finished an impressive career at Saginaw High School in which he amassed more than 4,000 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns. An All-America selection and four-star prospect on Rivals.com, Jackson no doubt had his pick of Division I football programs. But the highly touted tailback had always wanted to come to Michigan, his dream school, so he decided to follow his brother into Big Ten football.
Earlier that year, Terry began his sophomore season at Minnesota with the hope of receiving more playing time than he had in 2001. As a freshman, Jackson carried the ball just 21 times, amassing 87 yards and one touchdown.
“He went through a lot of hard times in Minnesota, and he rushed for 1,300 yards when he got his opportunity,” Jerome said. “He’s been there; he’s been down the same road. – He’s just a great inspiration.”
To be exact, Terry finished the 2002 season with 1,317 yards and six touchdowns for the Golden Gophers. But at a school teeming with top-tailback talent, Jackson’s time as Minnesota’s No. 1 option in the backfield didn’t last. The emergence of then-freshman Laurence Maroney and then-junior Marion Barber III relegated Jackson to a back-up role, and he carried the ball just 55 times in 2003.
The demotion presented a crossroads for Terry – remain at the school that gave him a chance or take his mixture of power and speed somewhere else. The elder Jackson chose to leave snowy Minnesota for Division I-AA Southern Illinois, where he finished out his college career. Terry left the Gophers as a means to play more, but he ended up splitting time with Arkee Whitlock and Auburn transfer Brandon Jacobs anyway.
A script based on the start of Jerome’s Michigan career would read like a remake of Terry’s first year at Minnesota. Jerome arrived in Ann Arbor in 2003 as one of the nation’s top running back prospects, but with Heisman finalist Chris Perry on the roster, the freshman spent most of his first season on the bench. When Jerome was on the field, he carried the ball 29 times for 187 yards and two touchdowns, likely expecting to play even more behind David Underwood in 2004.
But even after Underwood was injured in the Wolverines’ second game, Jackson remained on the bench, thanks to freshman sensation Mike Hart. Jerome started the next two games – against San Diego State and Iowa – before Hart assumed the starting job for good.
In his second season in Maize and Blue, Jerome rushed 32 times for 90 yards and one touchdown – less than half the number of yards he recorded in 2003.
Jerome won’t admit it, but the thought of leaving Michigan likely crossed his mind – even if just for a fleeting second. After all, he had molded his life in his brother’s image, and Terry transferred when he wasn’t happy with his playing time.
Staying at Michigan became the most notable instance of Jerome breaking from his brother’s example.
Maybe Terry’s experience at Southern Illinois taught Jerome a lesson. Maybe he didn’t have anywhere to go. To hear Jerome tell it, he just couldn’t bear to leave.
“For me to lose my goal – to lose my dream by transferring somewhere else – that was impossible,” Jerome said. “So I just stayed.”
Even though Jerome had decided to remain in Ann Arbor no matter what, he still wasn’t content to sit on the bench all the time. Last spring, Jackson approached coach Lloyd Carr to discuss what his role would be for the 2005 season. The rising junior left the meeting with renewed optimism – and more faith in his abilities.
“(Carr) said, ‘You’re going to do great things here. Stay focused. Keep fighting. You have a great attitude,’ ” Jerome said. “He just gave me the confidence.”
Jerome took that boost and used it to prove to running backs coach Fred Jackson that Hart wasn’t the only tailback who deserved to play this season. Coach Jackson gave each of the running backs a chance to speak in a players’ meeting at the beginning of camp in August. Jerome told his coach that Michigan would have the nation’s best backfield this season – especially if he played all of his backs.
“We were going to force him to play all of us, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Jerome said following Michigan’s overtime win at Iowa. “We’ve been practicing great all year, we had great camps, and we’ve been doing well in practice. We’ve forced coach Jackson to play all of us. I told him that in the beginning, and it came true.”
Terry has yet to realize his dream of competing in the NFL. After Tennessee acquired running back Travis Henry from the Buffalo Bills on July 19, the Titans waived Jackson, who has since attempted to sign with an NFL Europe team. As of yesterday, Jackson was not listed on any team’s roster.
But Terry’s post-college struggles have done little to alter Jerome’s admiration for his brother. If anything, Jerome has come to respect Terry a little bit more. Every Thursday night, the younger Jackson watches Terry’s highlight tapes from high school and his time at Minnesota. Jerome has tried to base his style of running on his brother’s. Terry calls Jerome before every game to offer motivation; he phones Jerome after every game to point out ways for him to improve his play.
The two brothers have had a lot more to discuss this season.
When Hart was first injured against Notre Dame on Sept. 10, Michigan experimented with its backfield rotation, relying heavily on freshman Kevin Grady and sophomore Max Martin. Since then, Grady and Martin have started two games apiece, but both players had trouble holding onto the ball.
Then Hart was injured again in the first half of the Iowa game, and this time Fred Jackson gave Jerome a larger chunk of the carries, especially down the stretch. Jerome notched all 44 of his yards in the fourth quarter and overtime – where he leaped over the Wolverines’ offensive line to score the game-winning touchdown.
Outside the locker room after the Michigan victory, Fred Jackson explained that only Jerome had the combination of power and vision necessary to run between the tackles against Iowa’s defense.
Jerome’s patience had finally paid off.
“(The coaches) believed in me today and put me in there, so I have to thank them,” Jerome said. “I told (Carr), ‘Thank you for the opportunity, Coach. Thanks for believing in me.’ And he turned around and said, ‘Thank you. Thank you for being that person with a great attitude.’ “
Only Jerome knows exactly what Terry told him after his disappointing game against Indiana last weekend. But it’s safe to assume Terry’s message implored Jerome not to give up – in addition to suggesting ways to break tackles against Ohio State this weekend.
Even if Jerome never starts another game in a Michigan uniform, he won’t lose the positive attitude that has brought him to this point.
“I look up to the heavens, and I thank God before I go on the field every game,” Jerome said. “He brought me through a war and a storm and now I’m playing. I’m just cherishing my opportunity.”
Just one in a long line of lessons he learned from his brother.