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Monday, February 3, 2014
Updated: February 4, 2:36 PM ET
Split decision

By Mitch Sherman
ESPN RecruitingNation

LOS ANGELES -- Early in the summer of 2011, Russell Biggs first laid eyes on Adoree' Jackson.

Jackson wore a backpack and an outfit resembling pajamas, according to Biggs, a longtime track and field coach in Southern California. Straight out of Belleville, Ill., Jackson, 15, stood about 5-foot-7 and attracted zero notice as he strode into a USC football camp.

Lane Kiffin and the other coaches in charge had no idea.

Biggs did, though.

In fact, it was Biggs who suggested Jackson attend that USC camp after Jackson's brother-in-law, Jason Keene, not long before, approached Biggs at a restaurant.

Their encounter seemed innocuous to the coach, but Keene, who worked security at a T.G.I. Friday's, had noticed Biggs, wearing a whistle around his neck and talking sports, on previous trips to the restaurant.

Keene told his wife - Jackson's sister -- that if the coach came back, he would be prepared.

Adoree' Jackson
Adoree' Jackson moved to California to become a track and field star, but he turned into one of the nation's top football recruits.

Sure enough, when Biggs showed up and launched into a conversation about Marqise Lee -- his star pupil at Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra -- Keene pounced. Biggs listened to Keene tout his kid brother-in-law.

The coach was unconvinced. Then Keene showed him the numbers online, how Jackson came within a hair of a 23-foot long jump to finish second at the Illinois state meet as a freshman that May. It astonished Biggs.

"The first words out of my mouth were, 'Man, I want to meet him,'" Biggs said. "Where is he?"

Keene explained. And soon, Jackson, executing Biggs' plan, visited Los Angeles for the football camp. He wowed the coaches at USC with his speed and athleticism.

Something else appealed to Biggs.

"He was smiling the whole time," Biggs said. "I liked him immediately."

Two months later, Jackson, spurred by that visit and the encouragement of Biggs, moved away from his parents, Christopher and Vianca Jackson, and an adoring hometown for the bright lights and sunshine of Los Angeles. He started school at Serra, a private institution where the students wear ties and slacks and walk among a legion of college-bound athletes.

Athletically, Jackson, in less than three years, has risen to a level above all of his peers at Serra. He is the No. 1 prospect in California and top player nationally, at ninth in the ESPN 300, yet to announce a college decision.

Wednesday, live on ESPNU at 2 p.m. ET, he'll reveal his choice among Florida, LSU, UCLA and USC.

Projected most often at cornerback but equally explosive as a receiver and kick returner, Jackson is the ultimate national recruit, coveted with same fervor by programs of the SEC as the Pac-12 powers near his surrogate hometown.

Outwardly, he is the picture of exuberance.

"He's got the most joy I've ever seen in a kid," Serra coach Scott Altenberg said.

But Jackson is torn by internal conflict. Forces tug at him with power as strong as the contrast between the winter landscapes of Illinois and the beaches of Los Angeles.

Ultimately, a big part of this decision for Jackson comes down to this: Who is he? The kid from outside St. Louis who still spends weeks each year back with his parents or the L.A. prodigy who shed his innocence as a high school sophomore?

Midwestern sensibility and California flamboyance mix like oil and water, but Jackson has found a way to make it mesh.

Is he the kid from outside St. Louis who still spends weeks each year back home? Or is he the L.A. prodigy who shed his innocence as a high school sophomore?

"I've told him to make his decision and not to feel guilty," said Lekisch Williams-Keene, Jackson's 32-year-old sister, with whom he moved to live in Los Angeles. "Doesn't matter if you hurt anyone's feelings. That's life."

Jackson's answer on Wednesday will unlock one of the most compelling mysteries of this recruiting season and end a chapter that began some 31 months ago aside a restaurant table with track charts and big talk.

The obstacles and pressures of his past two-and-a-half years would have thrown many prospects off course.

"Adoree' has always set his own bar," Williams-Keene said. "I knew my brother was destined for something at age 3. He had this discerned spirit about him, like he was going to do something spectacular in life."

No doubt, he's on his way.

* * *

Jackson returned home from the June 2011 trip to Los Angeles with paperwork in hand to process his transfer from Belleville East to Junipero Serra.

Weeks passed. Biggs, the anxious track coach, heard nothing. Jackson began to forget about the idea. Before the trip, he never envisioned California as a place he'd like to live.

"I thought of myself as the hometown guy," Jackson said.

More than that, his dad would never go for it.

Biggs called the elder Jackson a few weeks before the fall semester at Serra. It was the first Adoree's father had heard of the proposal.

You're in Belleville, Ill., Biggs told Christopher Jackson. He's not going to get coaching and training he needs to develop into a champion.

Adoree's parents prayed on the decision and sought advice.

"It was hard," Christopher Jackson said. "We had a lot of hope that the best would come out in him."

From the start, Adoree's two words failed to operate in harmony; Belleville and Los Angeles are just too different.

A former coach in Illinois, for instance, thought Jackson had transferred to the high school attended by Tom Brady. Brady, in fact, graduated from a school by the same name - 400 miles north of L.A. in San Mateo, Calif.

Less forgivable, Jackson's football coaches at Serra initially called him "Chi-town." They knew he was from Illinois. Must be Chicago. But Belleville sits 300 miles southwest of the Windy City, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Back in Belleville, they remember him well. He starred on the track, jumping nearly 22 feet as an eighth-grader at Central Junior High to set a state record. He dunked on rival Belleville West in a freshman basketball game and made his mark in football as a running back.

"People were just in awe of him," said Bill Wright, who coached Jackson in junior high basketball and introduced him to the long jump. "When he took off, people gasped. It was really cool."

During a recent visit to his old schools while home in January, Jackson drew wide-eyed looks. He talked to a second-grade class at Westhaven Elementary, advised an athletic third-grader-- at the urging of a former teacher -- on the importance of focusing on academics.

At the high school, former classmates flocked to him.

"He's a mini-celebrity here," said Jim Loyet, athletic director at Belleville East.

Marqise Lee
Will Adoree' Jackson follow in the footsteps of fellow Gardena (Calif.) Serra products Robert Woods and Marqise Lee at USC?

That the people of Jackson's former hometown never lost sight of him speaks to his magnetic persona.

"I remember when he called me that summer and said he was leaving," said Jeff Creek, Jackson's freshman basketball coach at Belleville East. "I knew I was going to miss him, but mostly because of the kid we were going to lose."

The Jacksons' home in Belleville sits about 12 miles from blight-riddled East St. Louis, Ill., where Adoree's father was raised.

Christopher Jackson moved from East St. Louis after high school to attend business college in Los Angeles. He stayed in the area for 10 years and met Vianca, a California native. Christopher, Vianca and her daughter, Lekisch, left for Illinois not long after Lekisch's father was killed in a 1993 drive-by shooting. Two years later, Adoree' was born.

They settled in Belleville. Christopher works as a concrete mason. He helped build the sidewalks of the city's redeveloped downtown. Vianca draws blood at a nearby hospital.

Despite the distance of his father's hometown, the specter of East St. Louis loomed for the young Jackson. His grandmother remained in East St. Louis until recently. He visited regularly.

"East St. Louis is real toughness," Adoree' Jackson said. "It's right in your face. There's no getting around it. They don't care."

Lekisch moved back to California in 2007 with her husband, Jason, an Illinois native and the eventual first connection to Biggs, setting the stage in more ways than one for Jackson's 2011 move.

Christopher Jackson said he saw special athleticism in his son by about age 4. Adoree' tried to imitate every acrobatic move of his favorite movie, "Space Jam," and he picked up football easily when Christopher put him in pads as a sixth-grader.

Basketball always ranked as Adoree's first love. He played through 11th grade, when he suffered a broken ankle that hindered his progress in the long jump. Jackson still jumped 25 feet, though, finishing as runner-up at the California state meet after winning as a sophomore.

His football prowess emerged only after the move to California.

"I was just going out there for track at the start," Jackson said.

The football coaches recognized his talent and put Jackson at cornerback.

New to the position, he didn't know a thing about it. The coaches watched in confusion and wondered if the kid could make it. Still, his stint on the junior-varsity squad in 2011 lasted one day.

Beyond Jackson's elite set of skills, Altenberg, the high school coach, noticed unique qualities.

"He had just shown up, and it looked like had been there for a month, the way the other kids were drawn to him," Altenberg said. "He was instantly just in the middle of everything. It was bizarre."

Others have always gravitated to him, Adoree's mother, Vianca Jackson, said. He's a natural leader.

But she worries about the pressures he faces. Year by year during his stay in California, the burden has grown heavier.

* * *

Jackson's reputation mushroomed after his first year in California.

He played only defense as a sophomore. But as college recruiters took notice in 2012, Jackson blossomed as a diverse threat, helping lead the Cavaliers to a CIF Division II bowl game victory. He scored on touchdowns of 50, 27 and 78 yards in that final game of his junior year.

As a senior, Jackson earned first-team All-USA honors from USA Today and was named Mr. Football in California by Cal-Hi Sports, drawing comparisons to the 2004 winner of the same award, DeSean Jackson.

Like DeSean Jackson (no relation), Adoree' adds an element of sizzle to his game, best exemplified by the time he flipped into the end zone at the end of a run-after-the-catch score last year.

Adoree Jackson
All-American Adoree' Jackson will chose among USC, UCLA, LSU and Florida live on signing day.

At Serra, though, somehow Adoree' Jackson blends in, perhaps because the high school will send two signees apiece to UCLA and USC this year even before Jackson's decision and one to Oregon as well as several others to smaller FBS programs.

There's also the history. People here are used to brushes with greatness. The Serra receiving trio of Robert Woods, Lee and George Farmer, all of whom attended USC, attracted similar attention in 2010 and 2011.

Last week, as Jackson readied for a workout with Biggs, out on the track walked former USC sprinter Bryshon Nellum, a member of the U.S. silver-medal-winning 4x400-meter relay team from the 2012 Olympic Games.

Jackson has Olympic aspirations for 2016 and has considered the track programs of his college finalists. Biggs said he expects Jackson to approach 27 feet in the long jump as a senior, a milestone that would break the national high-school record.

Britain's Greg Rutherford won Olympic gold in London with a leap of 27-3 ¼.

For Jackson, the ascension to prominence occurred in spite of a living arrangement in Los Angeles that turned unstable several months after the move from Illinois. Football coaches in the spring of 2012 heard complaints from teachers at Serra that Jackson was struggling to arrive on time and stay involved in class.

Jackson told the coaches he'd been sleeping at the homes of a few friends. His sister cared for two young children of her own while working as a teacher and Jackson didn't have a car. Additionally, Jason Keene, Jackson's brother-in-law, had been injured in a car accident.

"I had to grow up pretty quick," Jackson said.

It wasn't an easy time.

"This is not mommy's house," Lekisch Williams-Keene said she told her brother. "I'm not going to pamper you."

Josh Dabbs, the defensive coordinator at Serra, offered a room to Jackson at the three-bedroom rental home that Dabbs shares with fellow Serra assistant Jason Sands.

Jackson has lived with the coaches for much of the past two years.

"He's a good kid," Dabbs said, "and that's the only reason I did what I did. The way he carries himself is an indication of the job his parents did in raising him. But you know, sometimes, it takes a village."

Jackson's situation with his sister has improved, especially of late as she offers him counsel with the impending college choice.

He's got plenty to consider.

* * *

The phone beeped in Altenberg's left hand last Friday shortly after his 9 a.m. arrival at the high school.

It was USC - a coach texting to see who, among the competition, was headed to visit Jackson.

With an appointment set in the next 20 minutes to see LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and defensive coordinator John Chavis, Altenberg pushed the phone aside.

"What am I, their secretary?" the 14th-year coach said.

The wide-open nature of Jackson's recruitment has made this stretch run a "nightmare" for Altenberg, he said.

"Normally, an L.A. kid is an L.A. kid," he said. "But with him, everybody had a chance. And he's such a feel kid. If he hits it off with a coach, that coach is going to go back and think he's great. But that's just Adoree'.

"If someone asked me, with a gun to my head, what is the order of his final three, I could not say."

Of his four final finalists, Jackson made an official visit only to LSU before the final weekend. He saw each of the other campus in addition to official trips to Oklahoma, Tennessee and Florida State.

While in Illinois on Jan. 16 and 17, he and his parents met with head coaches from USC, Tennessee, Florida and LSU.

His parents talked openly of their admiration for LSU coach Les Miles and the school's history of success with multi-sport athletes.

Coaches from all of the schools still recruiting Jackson have offered their word that he can participate in track and field during the spring.

Jackson, too, before the visits, said he was most excited to see Miles.

Steve Sarkisian
Landing Adoree' Jackson would be a huge building block in Steve Sarkisian's rebuilding effort at USC.

A fan of Illinois basketball as a kid, Jackson liked the Tigers in football. He wanted to play like Tyrann Mathieu, according to Williams-Keene. She said he was "like a kid in a candy shop" when LSU offered a scholarship.

Alongside LSU, USC re-emerged as a leader after the push engineered by new coach Steve Sarkisian. UCLA coach Jim Mora made his visit to see Jackson in Los Angeles on Jan. 27. That day, as many as eight UCLA football and track coaches spent more than half of the school day at Serra.

"I kind of feel bad for him," Serra athletic director Ted Dunlap said. "It's like saying I feel bad for Michael Jordan because he couldn't go out to dinner or go to the beach. But it puts a ton of pressure on an 18-year-old kid.

Biggs, the track coach, watched from afar as the coaches descended on Serra last week.

"You could see it bothered him," Biggs said. "He wasn't smiling."

Williams-Keene said she thinks her brother "has a handle" on his decision. Many others close Jackson said they believed he was torn.

"In quiet moments," Biggs said, "he's like, 'Man, what am I going to do?'"

To complicate matters, an undercurrent of skepticism lurks between Jackson's parents and the coaches at Serra.

Christopher Jackson said he's concerned the high school coaches want to see his son stay in Los Angeles at the next level.

Not at all, said Altenberg. The coach said he never offers his recommendation; only support.

Altenberg does not know Jackson's parents well. They've met three times, the coach said, and talked for a few minutes each visit.

"They really trust us," Altenberg said, "because we take care of him."

In the middle, 31 months after that fateful meeting at the restaurant, stands Jackson with his made-for-California personality, laboring until the end over this decision, but nonetheless composed as usual. He said he feels no pressure from his coaches and knows that his parents want what's best for him.

"He's living it," Altenberg said. "He eats it up. And that's one thing I love about him. Everything he does, he just enjoys it.

"A different kid who wasn't so smart, this could have been a hot mess."