By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
As the top-ranked hurdler in the nation coming out of North Garland High School in 1992, Jeff Jackson had scholarship offers from all over the country.
But, he came to Baylor because “I was going to get the best education these legs could get me. I’m just running track to pay for my school.”
Jackson got a lot more. He did earn his degree, a BA in physics in 1997, but was also a five-time All-American, three-time Southwest Conference champion and the high-point scorer when Baylor won the team title at the last SWC Indoor Championships in ’96. And now, 20 years later, he adds Hall of Famer to his impressive resume as part of the 2017 Baylor Athletics Hall of Fame class that will be inducted Oct. 20.
“When I got the call and he said, ‘This is Walter Abercrombie,’ I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m getting a call from Walter Abercrombie,’’’ Jackson said of the “B” Association director and former NFL running back. “He may not have known it, but he was like a mentor, somebody I looked up to when I was at Baylor. And then it dawned on me, ‘Hey, Hall of Fame.’ It was like I finally crossed the finish line. It was a big ‘Yes!’’’
A two-time state champion in the 110 hurdles at North Garland, Jackson went on to win the U.S. Junior championships in both the 110 and 400-meter hurdles and the Pan Am Junior title in the 110 hurdles in 1992.
And he wasn’t even the fastest guy at North Garland. Milton Mallard won the 200 and 400 at the UIL state meet and went on to run at UTEP and LSU. “That’s a story in itself,” Jackson said, “not even being the fastest kid in my high school.”
Jackson, whose father died when he was a freshman in high school, said he chose Baylor “because of Clyde Hart and Michael Johnson” and being close enough to go home to visit his mom in Garland.
“Clyde Hart visited and recruited me the most of all the schools,” Jackson said, “to the point where the day I signed was his last official visit. He was like, ‘Look, I can’t talk to you again, unless you sign.’’’
Making an immediate impact as a freshman, Jackson won the SWC title in the 110 hurdles and placed fifth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
That was just the start, though. Jackson won another conference championship in the 55-meter hurdles at the 1995 indoor meet, was part of the winning 4x400 relay team at the 1995 conference indoors and earned high-point honors at the ’96 indoor meet when he ran the 55-meter hurdles, the open 200 and the 400 meters on the sprint medley relay, helping the Bears claim the team championship.
“Everybody runs the quarter mile at Quartermiler U.,” said Jackson, who still holds the school record in the 110 hurdles at 13.20 seconds. “I actually ran on most of the mile relays, I just don’t get credit for it, because I wasn’t on the relay with the fastest time. I felt like I grew as an individual having to do multiple events.”
At the national level, Jackson was the runner-up in the 110 hurdles at the 1994 NCAA Outdoor Championships and the 55-meter hurdles at the ’96 Indoor Championships. He also added fourth-place finishes in both events at the 1995 meets, but failed to make the outdoor finals in the 110 or 400-meter hurdles as a senior in 1996.
“They take eight to the finals, and I was the next one out because I took it too easy,” Jackson said of the 400-meter hurdles. “I ran in one of the early heats and ran a time that I thought would be sufficient to make it to the finals. And then, I went out in the 110s and ran out of anger, and fell down. I hadn’t fallen down in the finals of a race all through college.”
Jackson, who had come to college with the intent of just running to pay for school, made the decision to continue his running career while he was just a sophomore.
“I had a physics teacher, Truell Hyde III, who I thought of as kind of a mentor and counselor,” he said. “And he made a good point, which is after you’re 25, your body deteriorates but your brain doesn’t. So, he said that if you have an opportunity to pursue something athletically, do that and come back to your academics, because you can’t do it the other way around.”
Turning pro after college, Jackson represented USA at the World Championships and Pan Am Games in 1999 and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, before retiring the following January.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of prestige with the Olympics, but I have a negative connotation with it because I ran so poorly,” he said. “I ran three of the worst five times in my career at the Olympics. . . . I had an opportunity, and I just didn’t perform. I don’t have any explanation for it. I haven’t figured it out yet. It just didn’t happen.”
Depressed about his results at the Olympics, Jackson said he “ate McDonald’s every day.”
“Six months after I walked away, it was, ‘Why did I stop? Why didn’t I get over this?’’’ he said. “I got to experience a whole new world. I just wish I would have made loftier goals. I achieved every one of my goals that I set for my life at a pretty young age. Now that I’m a teacher and a coach, something I tell my kids is to really, truly shoot for the stars. You never know what you can achieve.”
Jackson was a partner in a small technology business, but turned to coaching and teaching not long after hanging up his cleats. He was a football coach and head track and field coach at North Garland, his alma mater, until taking a job as receivers coach and head track coach at John Paul II, a private school in Plano.
Jeff and his wife, Amanda, have two children, 12-year-old daughter, Edith; and 9-year-old son, Jett. “He’s pretty fast,” Jeff said of his son. “You can’t play the tuba and have a name like Jett.”
Joining Jackson in the 2017 Hall of Fame class are fellow track standouts Bill Payne and Jennifer Jordan Washington, Steffanie Blackmon off the 2005 women’s basketball national championship team, 2004 NCAA tennis champion Benjamin Becker, football players Ron Francis and Bill Hicks and golfer Melanie Hagewood Willhite.
Tickets to the Hall of Fame banquet, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, in the Brazos Room at the Waco Convention Center, are $50 per person and may be purchased by contacting the “B” Association at 254-710-3045 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Table sponsorships (seating for eight) are also available for $750 (individual) or $1,000 (corporate).