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Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Updated: May 8, 10:18 AM ET
Crossing routes

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

HOMEWOOD, Ill. -- Two grown men sitting in a suburban Chili's on a weekday afternoon, talking about the good old days. All that's missing is some Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox.

I am one of them, a slightly overweight, considerably graying 30-year-old sportswriter with a limited portfolio.

Dontrell Jackson is the other. He's a fit, energetic, 27-year-old minor-league football player with bigger goals yet unrealized. The odds are good you've never heard of him.

Ten years ago, we both thought we were on our way somewhere else, somewhere special, somewhere we never quite reached.

Now we're at Chili's, which seems apt for some funny reason. And it seems like we're talking to each other about past lives, even though we continue to chase the same damn dreams.

***

The Slaughter's Dontrell Jackson hasn't given up on playing on the next level, but he's realistic.

Jackson is a wide receiver for the Chicago Slaughter, a minor-league indoor football team that plays to small crowds in suburban Hoffman Estates and various locales like Wheeling, W.Va., and Marion, Ohio.

The hits still are hard and the fields are hard and small, bordered by waist-high, non-padded walls. The pay is around $400 a game. The chance for ascension anywhere important is slim.

My first question to Jackson, the question all of my friends asked me when I told them I was meeting him, the question all of his friends still ask him, was simple: Why are you still playing football?

"It's fun," he said. "Football is always fun. It's a chance to get away; to get away from the real world. The real world kicks your [butt] during the week. But when I get a chance to play football, you can be yourself. You know what I'm saying?"

I think about all the nights I've spent in press boxes and high school gyms, sweating and writing for a lot less than $400 a story. And then I think about the next day when I see my name, my words, in print and I know exactly what he's talking about.

***

I met Jackson in Athens, Ohio, in 1999. It was late summer and we stood on a makeshift practice field, nothing more than a chained-in expanse of grass. He was a 17-year-old freshman and I was a 20-year-old junior.

Jackson was a recent graduate of Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Ill., where he succeeded a guy named Antwaan Randle El, who spurned Ohio University for the Big Ten and Indiana University. Jackson's high school coach told the Ohio recruiters he had another guy for them, just wait a couple of years.

Jackson progressed for the Ohio Bobcats until a coaching change.

So Jackson quickly became a surprise choice to start at quarterback for the Ohio Bobcats, a middling Mid-American Conference team, one of the few that ran the triple-option offense.

Jackson's opening game was at the Metrodome early that fall, and he looked as green as the school color scheme, trying to run a complicated offense against the University of Minnesota. Generously listed at 5-foot-10 and weighing maybe a buck 65, he didn't have a chance. The Bobcats lost.

I wrote a game story that hack-ishly included the Webster's definition of "incandescent." We both got better. Jackson wound up leading the team to a 5-6 record that included a halftime tie at Ohio State and a win over Miami (Ohio).

One year later, Jackson spearheaded a season-opening upset of the same Minnesota team, while I missed deadline on my game story for the local daily rag for the second straight game. It was a good start for one of us.

The season went on with some highlights and some low. The last game we shared as writer and QB was a nice upset win over Marshall, with a young Byron Leftwich at quarterback. Jackson led an offense that piled up more than 500 rushing yards on a bowl team. My game story won first place in a state-wide competition.

And we both thought, perhaps independently of each other, that those days when the pitches turned to touchdowns and the transitions were seamless would last forever. When you're a dumb kid, you think you're just entitled to success. What you don't realize is that you have to work for it, and even then, it's fleeting.

***

Eight years later, we met again when I walked into the locker room before a Saturday night game at the Sears Centre. I'm a freelance writer and a full-time editor, he's a freelance football player and a full-time educator.

We looked older. He still is muscular and fit, though more mature, naturally. My hair is more gray and my body more flaccid.

This visit was a surprise to him. After all, who makes a trip to interview a minor-league wide receiver? About his college days, no less. He recognized me, though it took a second. In truth, he probably forgot I ever existed. College sportswriters don't make an enduring impression. The Dontrell Jacksons of our young careers do.

We went outside to talk and catch up on life. I already knew some of the details.

After his sophomore season, the head football coach at Ohio, Jim Grobe, landed the same job at Wake Forest University, a major career upgrade.

"You know what happened after Grobe left?" he said to me that night in Hoffman Estates.

"You got [shafted]," I said.

He pounded his fist into his hand and said, "We got [shafted]."

To make a long story short, a first-year coordinator named Brian Knorr got the head coaching job without so much as a courtesy coaching search and was an instant and profound failure. A 7-4 team with most of its starters back went 1-10 in 2001 -- the team's standout player was punter Dave Zastudil, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, and now plays for the Cleveland Browns -- and 4-8 the next year. It was in that second season that Jackson struggled with injuries and, seeing his college career ending, asked for a position change to get some snaps to prepare him for the next level. Instead he got benched for good.

"Here am I at OU, benched, not playing at all," he remembers thinking. "At Ohio University. Benched. I thought the world was going to end."

Angry though he was, he tried to remain positive. He still had the program's pro day, when NFL scouts come, whistles in tow, to rate the seniors. Well, that's how it's supposed to work.

"We had a date scheduled, but no one showed up," Jackson said, shaking his head. "No one showed up. We were there, and no scouts showed up. I don't know if [the coaching staff] knew or didn't care."

***

Dealing with this type of rejection came in handy as he embarked on his pro career. There were plenty of combines and camps, the type you have to pay for, which means you have almost no shot at all. He went to some mass NFL workouts, too, but he didn't get any looks. No one knew who he was and no one cared.

His professional résumé consists of stints with the Green Bay Blizzard, an AFL2 team, and the Slaughter of the Continental Indoor Football League. The CIFL is an impermanent aggregation of teams that puts out its schedule two or three months before play begins, just in case a few teams fold overnight.

Last year, with plenty of minor-league film, Jackson made what he thought was a killer highlight tape.

"I sent my highlight tape to every Arena League team," he said, with a laugh. "And no one called me back. And I did pretty well. But no one called me back, except for the Cleveland Gladiators and they were like, 'we liked the highlight tape but we don't know if the league is going to stay afloat,' and it didn't."

That was it, right? How much could he take? So when the Arena League went on hiatus, Jackson took it as a sign to hang up the cleats. But then something happened. He found out he couldn't give it up.

"The first couple weeks of camp I wasn't there, and it was eating me alive," he said. "I would play 5-on-5 basketball at L.A. Fitness and it wasn't fun. It wasn't the same. I had to do something. I had to come back."

His QB at the Slaughter, Ronnie Gordon, begged him to reconsider this winter. But Gordon left when the team signed strong-armed Chicago Rush castoff Russ Michna. Jackson stayed. Despite all the pain football has brought him in his adult life, the love remains.

"I'm 27, so I know my chances to make the NFL are slim," he said. "But I don't feel old. I feel like I'm 21. I train just hoping someone will give me a shot. I just want a shot."

He says that a lot during our conversation, that he just wants a shot. He believes if he gets his foot in the door, he'll stick around. AFL, NFL. Doesn't matter. Stranger things have happened.

***

I watched him play that Saturday night. During the pregame walk-through, one of Jackson's teammates caught a long pass and Jackson immediately thrust his arms skyward, signaling a touchdown. During introductions, he ran out like he was playing on Monday Night Football.

Jackson caught two scoring passes in the first half, one a quick-hitter by the end zone, the other a nifty run-and-catch, dodging would-be tacklers. I watched him throw his body into a special teams block.

I ask him what his friends from OU think, the ones who gave up the ghost years ago.

"They think it's funny," he said. "They think I should just give it up. I don't blame them. I think it's funny sometimes, too. Sometimes I go to practice and think to myself: What am I doing? I'm in Hoffman Estates, and I'm from Harvey, which is an hour away. It's 10 at night and we don't get out until 12."

The team watches film after practice, including special-teams film. Special-teams film for a CIFL team? "That's why we're so good," Jackson said. "We take it seriously."

Jackson doesn't think he'll come back for another year. If the Rush come back? He'd listen. If the Bears give him a tryout, he'd run to Lake Forest.

Jackson's life isn't bad, and he doesn't want you to think any different. He calls himself a success.

"I'm happy," he said. "I'm still happy."

He married his high school sweetheart, Shamonta. He has a five-year-old son, Dontrell Jr., and a baby girl on the way. He teaches physical education and coaches football at his alma mater. And while he has this sadness about him when we talk about his college days, his outlook changes when he talks about his current job, and I start to think to myself that this is a guy who could change lives in a place like Harvey. I could see him becoming a big-time coach, maybe more. He's got that kind of charisma.

"Things have changed," he said. "A lot of kids, in places like Harvey, they're taking care of themselves. Literally taking care of themselves. They might stay with a granny here or a grandfather there, an aunt or uncle. But when it comes to living and learning about morals and values, they don't learn those. I try to take them under my wing and teach them what I learned on and off the field; how to be a person."

Jackson was lucky. Yeah, he came from a broken home -- his parents divorced when he was eight, and his mom worked three jobs to put his older brother through college. But Doris Hope-Jackson got her master's and then her doctorate and now works as a superintendent of a school district in Ypsilanti, Mich. His father, Troy Jackson, is a well-regarded basketball coach in Chicago, and he's now the head man at Thornton.

He talks about going back to grad school for coaching. (He's currently getting a master's in special education.) He thinks about calling Grobe at Wake Forest or Frank Solich at Ohio to inquire about working as a grad assistant.

But he hasn't done it yet. He probably never will. He's got bills to pay, kids to raise, a family to support. Life isn't just about chasing dreams. But for now, he still has football to play.

Stocked with ex-Rush players, and having watched plenty of special-teams film, the Slaughter is 8-0. The head coach is Steve McMichael, the former Bears legend just named to the College Football Hall of Fame. Mongo is looking for a shot to coach in the pros. We're all trying to get somewhere.

We talk about me a little. He asks me about my wedding ring. I tell him how I almost quit writing. We shake our heads at the time that has gone by, the decisions we made and those that were seemingly made for us. We're not old enough to be bitter, but we're not young enough to think fate is on our side.

It's getting late. Jackson has to pick up his son at school. We say goodbye.

It wasn't that long ago we had all the time in the world.