Clemson University

Clemson kicker digs himself out of hole

Clemson Richard Jackson (19) celebrates his 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter during the Tigers game against the Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Thursday, September 10, 2009.
Clemson Richard Jackson (19) celebrates his 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter during the Tigers game against the Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Thursday, September 10, 2009.

CLEMSON - Richard Jackson gave his coach a knowing nod, confirmation the Clemson junior kicker at least wanted the chance.

Dabo Swinney hadn't asked Jackson if he could make the 53-yard field goal at Georgia Tech - with the added pressure of a tie score early in the fourth quarter.

Swinney inquired if Jackson was going to make it.

"Pretty tough question to answer," Jackson said. "But he had some confidence in me."

Jackson rewarded the faith, nailing the Tigers' longest field goal since 1992 with plenty of distance to spare.

"You saw the celebration," Jackson said. "(Holder) Mike Wade high-kicked me in the back of the head. That just shows we're having a good time out there."

The sight of Jackson smiling has encouraged friends that, hopefully, his darkest days are in the past, regardless of whether Jackson sustains his initial successes as the Tigers' starting place-kicker.

Wade and senior tight end Michael Palmer, Jackson's roommates for all four of their collegiate years, vividly remember the depths to which he had sunk last fall when both his playing and academic careers were spiraling toward extinction.

A fragile shell of his former kicking self, Jackson hit bottom and was ruled academically ineligible for the Gator Bowl. He discussed dropping out and returning home to Greenville.

"Sometimes it seemed his will was kind of gone," Wade said. "But that was the turning point. We all talked, and it was, 'Do you give up, take your losses and go home?' We weren't talking about football, we were talking about life. What are you going to do?

"I think he realized there's only one place to go. You can't give up, and he took that to heart."

Football had ceased being fun for Jackson. The former Parade All-American had failed through three years to live up to recruiting expectations - and his problems with accuracy ate at him. He was caught in a cycle where discouraging practice production fueled a diminishing work ethic, and so on.

That, in turn, carried over off the field, where the finance major made poor decisions regarding his study habits and often found himself brooding about his bad kicks throughout classes.

"I was in a hole - a hole that I dug, but it was still a big hole," Jackson said. "It was probably about as bad a situation as I've seen with anyone. It was deep enough to where I couldn't see the top in January or through spring ball, couldn't imagine myself out of it.

"The academics was one thing. But if I was eligible, how much trust could they put in a guy who just burned them?

"Looking back on it, had I looked at the big picture, I don't know if I could have gotten to where I am now. I basically had to take it day by day. I had some of my best days, I had some of my worst. Academically, athletically, there was no room for error."

Palmer said he and Wade urged Jackson to figure out how to relax and relieve the self-imposed pressures that had proven so burdensome.

Jackson switched his major from finance to economics - "same material, just a different way of looking at it," he said - and began his cavernous climb.

In order to have a chance at restoring his eligibility, he had to take 18 hours in the spring - combined with participating in all the mandatory football workouts and meetings.

"To go through what he went through and to bounce back the way he did - it would be easy for a lot of guys, with everything crumbling down, to say the heck with it and quit and just fall off the face of the earth," Palmer said. "But he fought back."

Palmer and Wade said they noticed a change in Jackson's disposition early in the spring semester, and it showed in Jackson's improvement during spring practice.

Yet with redshirt freshman Spencer Benton appearing more reliable, Jackson exited the spring as the projected backup.

He fulfilled his academic responsibilities during the summer and caught a break at the beginning of August practice when Benton became hampered with a groin injury.

Jackson strung together a procession of strong practice and scrimmage performances, and Wade said he began to hear a noticeable difference in the sound of the ball coming off Jackson's foot.

Jackson was now making solid contact with nearly every kick, eliminating most of the ugly sidewinders, hooks and slices that had characterized his inconsistency the past few years.

He was named Clemson's starting kicker before the opener and has made 5-of-7 field goals, barely missing from 45 and 48 yards against Middle Tennessee.

Now Swinney contends he wouldn't be afraid to let Jackson try from 60 to 65 yards if the circumstances merited the risk.

"I'd already bought him a ticket to put him on the first bus out of here, and really told him that last spring," Swinney said. "Gave him the bottom line, drew the line in the sand, you won't be here unless you accomplish this, this and this.

"It's a great lesson to a lot of people. It's never too late to turn things around. I'm glad he's been able to do that, and I hope he continues to."

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