Marcus Jackson, 26, is an assistant football coach at his alma mater Norcross after spending the past seven years playing and working for the University of Georgia. Jackson, a 2001 high school graduate, played one season at defensive end for the Bulldogs before blood clots in his brain ended his playing career.
In this installment of "Getting to Know..." staff writer Ben Beitzel talks with Jackson about living in Athens, the pain of a sudden end to his playing career and what players wished fans understood about playing football.
BB: This is your first year back at Norcross. What brought you back?
MJ: I had been out of the game for a while and I wanted to get back on the field. I decided to come back into coaching and called up coach (Keith) Maloof to see if he had a position for me. I am trying to come help out and make sure the program continues to be great. I want to contribute my knowledge of the game and what I have learned since I moved on.
BB: Have you enjoyed the grind of coaching?
MJ: It is great to be out there working with the kids and building young men into adults. I am trying to relay some of the knowledge and things I wish I would have known before I went to college. It's fun working with the guys. That is the highlight of my day.
BB: What do you wish you would have known?
MJ: I did my work in school, but I am trying to preach to them that football isn't forever. The biggest goal of mine is to preach that you have to get good grades. Education is something that they can't take away from you. Playing is not what is promised to you. Make sure you get your education in because that is one thing that will stick with you forever. You will always have the memories of playing football, but education is the one thing that will stay with you. I try to show them a few things, a few pointers and things as they move up if some of them are fortunate enough to get into college and even more in life. I try to hold them accountable. Do things the right way and not half doing it.
BB: Unfortunately, you understand about getting your playing days cut short. How dire did that situation get?
MJ: I had blood clots in my head. It was a freakish thing. We weren't on the field. It was the summer workouts of '04 and we were working out and lifting weights and it came down on me. I went two weeks with headaches. It was a freakish type thing. I never really found out what caused them. I thank God every day that I am alive.
BB: That's a really scary situation.
MJ: I went two weeks with them. I was close to having an aneurysm or a stroke before they brought in a neurologist who found them on an MRI. I am blessed that nothing really bad, like a stroke or aneurysm happened. It affected me, but it could have been worse.
BB: First the injury and then finding out you couldn't play anymore after just one season had to be tough.
MJ: They put me on blood thinners for six months. I had to be admitted to Emory. They told my parents that I probably wouldn't play again because of the risk with contact to my head. My parents didn't tell me until after the six months were up. I was trying to get my hopes up over the six months. It struck me hard. I drifted away from the game for a while. It was hard having all these aspirations and it ending so suddenly for me. It hurt being around my teammates. I found myself drifting away. Not from them, but from the feeling of being on the field and knowing that I can't suit up and help out the team and be out there with my friends and teammates. I was helping coach for a while, but that was hard on me.
BB: It is easier now, with time and at a different level?
MJ: After a couple of years, I found myself talking to older players that I knew that were still up (in Athens) and I was trying to say things that would help them. I came to realize that maybe I need to go down and try to reach out and team someone else, try to help them get ahead of the game because I did make it to that next level past high school. A lot of players don't. Maybe I could be an attribute and help out some of the guys that have that same dream I had. For these ninth graders coming into high school was like me going to college. It's a whole new world.
BB: What did you do in Athens after football and after graduation?
MJ: I started working with the athletic association at UGA, but it was sort of time to get out of Athens. It's a college town and it was time for me to move on from there.
BB: So living forever in your college town is not as great as it sounds?
MJ: Not really. You start seeing all the people you came in with leaving. All the new faces coming in and you start getting a little older and they are new and fresh. I have been there and done that. It's not thrilling for me anymore. It was time to move on.
BB: You moved on by moving back. How weird is it to see Norcross football from the other side?
MJ: It's a lot of the same faces I had around there. At first it was weird coming in and calling them by their first name and interacting with them on the coaching level. Coaching is a whole lot different than playing. The hours, the film work we do. Just trying to adjust from player to coach and trying to relay knowledge as opposed to me getting coached. It's fun. I really enjoy it.
BB: How long was it until you called Keith Maloof, "Keith"?
MJ: I still call him "coach" to this day. Every time he passes, I still call him "coach." He may be the one coach that coached me that I still don't call by his first name. It is still that adjustment I am trying to make.
BB: Aside from getting out of Athens, why pick high school to coach? You could have gone the college route.
MJ: I saw a trend of how the younger kids were acting and I wanted to reach them before they got to that level. Try to warn them. We had a couple of incidents where the young guys were getting in trouble once they were in college and on their own. I want to tell them what to expect when they get there. I believe I can help out a whole lot or at least attempt to try.
BB: Was coaching an option for you before you were injured?
MJ: As a player my whole goal was to try to make it to the (National Football) League, but once it ended I thought about trying to be an agent. Those thoughts just weren't consistent and I kept going back and forth. Plus, I would have had to go to law school. That goal sort of fell to the wayside. I knew I wanted to stick around sports.
BB: As a former player, are you a Georgia fan?
MJ: As a player you keep that fire inside.
BB: So are you in the "this season is over" camp of Georgia fans?
MJ: I hate that my Bulldogs aren't doing as well as we wanted them to. I am still behind them 100 percent. I am not giving up on them like a lot of the bandwagon fans.
BB: You know first hand how tough SEC football can be week-to-week.
MJ: Of course. There are a lot of things that go into spring and college football that most people don't see. They don't see the hours and the hard work and the things that it takes to be able to play on Saturday.
BB: What do you wish, as a player, fans understood?
MJ: The dedication and the hard work that is put into it. You can root, but there is a lot of countless hours once you get up there to a college team. It's like being in the league but you have to do your school work also. It's just like your job. Outside of school it's what you have to do on the field. It's like them getting up at 6 in the morning and going to work everyday. It's a lot of hard work that has to be done. I think a lot of people miss out on that and sometimes they just see the finished product, not the hours. Getting up every morning on the days off school we are up there all day from 8 to 11 at night. That is the stuff they don't see. I wish they could have something to get an idea of it. I know they believe, but they have no idea.