Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Brookwood graduate Josh Jackson, just graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he also played football. Jackson will be coaching the defensive backs at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School this fall.
The doubts sank in more than once.
Josh Jackson remembers the first time it happened, not long after his 2008 Brookwood graduation. On his mother's birthday, he was dropped off by his family in Fort Monmouth, N.J., then the site of the United States Military Academy Preparatory School. He laid in bed, unable to sleep as he questioned his college choice.
Two of his high school teammates, Jarrett and A.J. Mackey, joined him that first evening of basic training but were in other dorm rooms. Like Jackson, they also chose to play college football for Army.
"I was thinking, 'What have I gotten myself into? Can I do this?'" Jackson said. "Jarrett and A.J. were there, too, and I was thinking, 'What's going through their heads? Did they quit already?' At 4 in the morning, they bang on your door and you've got one minute to get ready, brush your teeth, get dressed, make your bed and be on the wall. At that point, it was like, 'What am I doing?'
"But I stuck it out."Another moment of reflection came after the 2009 football season, Jackson's first with the Army team after a year of USMA Prep School. He started a few games as a freshman cornerback and played more regularly as a nickel back, but he wanted to be on the field more and the rigors of military life took their toll, which led to thoughts of leaving the academy.
One final chance for cadets to quit comes after their second year at West Point. It's the last opportunity to leave without a military or financial commitment to the Army, but when Jackson faced that decision, he erased all of those previous doubts.
He was all in for the academy life.
"With the training I went through, I decided to stick it out," Jackson said. "I'm doing something that not a lot of people do and I'm doing something that will pretty much set me up the rest of my life. I didn't do three years to quit and go do something else. I wanted to finish this out. That's when I really kicked it into gear."
Jackson excelled on the football field, starting his final three seasons for Army, but also embraced the other aspects of academy life since that final moment of doubt. He took his training seriously --just last month he was one of two seniors to earn the Lt. Eugene Evans-Lt. Col. Eli Page Howard Jr. College Football Leadership Award --and graduated May 23 from West Point as a commissioned second lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery branch.
One tough year at prep school and four more at the academy behind him, the 23-year-old now has one of the nation's most prized educations.
"I don't think I've been able to capture the feeling (of graduating West Point) in words yet," Jackson said. "I really don't think it's hit me yet, honestly. ... What I was able to finish is something prestigious, people constantly remind me that it's a blessing and something that not a lot of people have been able to do."
Those years of trials, Jackson said, have made him tougher.
The academy is taxing in countless ways -- academically, physically, emotionally --but it is designed that way. It's a process to weed out the weak, leaving just the strongest cadets standing at the end.
"The hardest part is time management. I never feel like I can just sit down and relax," Jackson said. "There's always something. West Point, they push you into situations and scenarios to purposely cause stress to see how you respond and make you manage it. Because in the Army there are going to be stressful situations and you have to manage it. I don't know how they do it, but they plan it to where they throw so many things at you at one time.
"You just feel like you can't do it, like it's impossible. But somehow you find a way to do it. One big thing is sleep deprivation. Some people go off of three or four hours sleep every day, all week. There are times during the week where you'll have four exams in different classes, two papers, a couple of quizzes, a couple of labs all in the same week. ... Time management is tough, especially playing football. That really puts a crunch on your time. I probably averaged 5, maybe 5 and a half hours of sleep."
Because Jackson knows the difficulties firsthand, it makes him the ideal candidate for his first post-graduation assignment.
He was one of the few selected Army football players for duty this summer and fall as a coach at the USMA Prep School, which is now located on the grounds of West Point after moving from New Jersey. He will be the school's defensive backs coach this season, teaching the latest batch of West Point recruits football while more importantly preparing them for what lies ahead at the academy.
"Josh is a good leader," Army cornerbacks coach Tony Coaxum said. "I know that seems like simplifying it since he just graduated from West Point, but he has a love for the game that's going to come through. And immediately he will have a lot of equity and credibility with the guys because Josh played from Day 1 when he got here. He started three years straight. He even started some as a freshman. All those (prep school) guys know Josh Jackson. They know he played here and what he did here. They will believe him because he's done it.
"He's a guy where it wasn't always roses, which will be good for him working with those kids. Everyone goes through the struggles here. ... He can walk down that road with them and since he went through the prep school, too, he knows what the prep school program can do for them. He's passionate about what he does. He can get those guys to understand the football things and the exact experience here, things he did, the mistakes he made, the things he didn't capitalize on."
The semester of coaching will be followed up by Jackson's first duty as an officer. He spends January through May in the Basic Officer Leader Course in Fort Sill, Okla., which will focus on skills specific to his chosen path, air defense artillery.
From there, it's off to his first duty station in South Korea.
"(South Korea's) a little different side, a whole new culture," said Jackson, whose only previous time out of the country was a 2010 trip to Germany for a day and to Rwanda for four days. "I kind of chose that because I wanted a different experience, to see what the rest of the world looks like. South Korea offers a lot of traveling opportunities as well. South Korea is a place where I can get some really good training, especially now with what's going on with North Korea. I'll become very proficient in my job while I'm over there. All you do is field work and training there."
After two years of service, Jackson hopes to return to the football field, this time as a player.
The 6-foot, 182-pounder aims to give pro football a try, much like Wesleyan grad Chad Hall has done in recent seasons. Hall completed his Air Force commitment, then earned a spot in the NFL and was on the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl team last season.
Some Army players also have made that same jump the last few years, players like Caleb Campbell, Collin Mooney and Josh McNary. If those situations work out, typically the team either pays out the remaining years of a player's five-year service commitment, or the player serves as a branch recruiter in that area for the final three years of his service.
Jackson was evaluated recently by Bill McPherson, who coached with the 49ers from 1979 to 2005, and their conversations have led to keeping the football dream alive.
"(McPherson) analyzes film. He looked at my film and had nothing but good things to say," Jackson said. "The only thing I asked of him was to keep it 100 percent with me. If I have a chance, great. If I don't, I want to know. But he said I do have the potential to play. He likes my style of play and he could see me playing in the league sometime. It's still a dream. The cleats aren't quite hung up. They're just on the floor."
Jackson played in 41 games at Army as both a cornerback and punt returner, and his position coach understands his desire to try pro football in two years.
"You never know when it comes to (pro football)," said Coaxum, a former Army player who now recruits Georgia for the academy's football team. "It's one of those things where guys at that level you never know how it will play out. There are guys who are stars at major colleges who don't make it. There are guys at the Division III level who become all-pro guys. If that's something he wants to pursue, I'm going to support him.
"The good thing is for a lot of guys, it's pro football or bust. For him, if it doesn't work out, he's in a pretty good spot. That's good for him, so (pro football's) not weighing on him mentally, not causing stress. He'll have a great career no matter what happens with football."
For now, Jackson is excited to be around football for one more season when he reports back to West Point this week.
In addition to coaching and mentoring prep school students, he will have his share of military duties, from planning to briefings to details like funerals, recruiting and VIP visits. He will work on the same campus where he toiled for the last four years, but is living with other USMA athletic interns in a house off campus.
For the first time, he will view the prestigious academy from the outside looking in. With each passing year, Coaxum said, the West Point graduates love their alma mater more and more. After desiring so long to get out the academy, they find themselves wanting to visit the majestic campus, situated in the mountains overlooking the Hudson River.
"It's beautiful from the outside looking in," Jackson said. "People always visit and say how beautiful it is. From the inside looking out as a cadet, not always. When it's winter, they call it the gray period. All the buildings are already gray stone. In the winter, it's cold and snowing. Everything's gray. The sky's gray. That's when a lot of cadets go through depression in the winter time. You barely see the sun and the surroundings don't help at all. But it is a beautiful place.
"I couldn't always see it, but I can definitely see why people say that when they visit."