Oct. 30, 2013
By Lauren Chval `13
Bennett Jackson is in the business of taking care of things.
The senior cornerback steps out onto the field of Notre Dame Stadium every Saturday looking to protect the Irish end zone. If you want to know his primary goal for the rest of the season, he'll look you right in the eye and tell you.
"I don't want to allow any team to score on us," he says quite bluntly.
The fact of the matter is, taking care of things was a part of Jackson's personality long before it meant keeping opponents from scoring. As a child of divorce, he saw that as his job as the man of the house.
"I grew up in a house full of women. So that was fun," he jokes. "It gave me a respect for women. My mom always had high expectations of me. So I always wanted to be successful and be `that guy,' just so I could provide for them down the way. Especially my mom."
Aside from football, what comes up most in conversation with Jackson is his mother, Grace. His face lights up when he talks about her--the woman who encouraged but never pushed him in anything. Football, he says, is a means to make his family proud. His father. His grandmothers. His sisters. But primarily, his mom.
Playing football, especially at Notre Dame, has been all about being able to provide himself and his family with opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise had. Jackson has known plenty of fellow players who chose a school based on the social scene and found it hurt them later.
"I just felt like I had worked too hard," he says. "Going in, no one expects the football field not to work out. But going to Notre Dame, even if football didn't work out, I'd still have that education and meeting all those people and having connections. There was no negative to it."
The opportunities were not limited to Jackson. His mom makes it a priority to come to South Bend to see her son play for every home game, and Jackson says what he loves most about this is that it gives her a chance to get out of their hometown, Hazlet, N.J.
"I'm happy that I give her a chance to come out and have a great time," he explains. "It makes me proud that I'm able to provide those things for her."
His instinct to be "that guy" translated well to being a member of a football team. Jackson is one of three captains this year, and the only one on defense. Captainship has always been one of his goals for playing football, and his recognizes the title as a tremendous honor.
But still, he doesn't want to give it too much weight.
"The thing is, I may be the only one on defense who has a "C" on their jersey, but I'm not the only captain on the defense, if that makes sense. I rely on other guys to get me going and other guys rely on me to get them going. It's not like I have way more playing experience than other people--I don't."
He says this with an unmistakable intensity, as if standing up for teammates who aren't in the room. To Jackson, football is about brotherhood more than it is about seniority. Being a captain means being a big brother.
That's what attracted him to Notre Dame in the first place. Other recruiting visits didn't allow for much interaction with players, but Jackson recalls how he fit right in with the boys he met in South Bend. And as a freshman student-athlete, stressed because he wasn't starting and still playing wide receiver, he found support in his older teammates, particularly Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton.
"Blanton was the loudest, craziest, most confident kid and Harrison was the quietest, hardest working, most confident kid. And I was just kind of somewhere in the middle," he remembers with a smile.
In the blink of an eye, it became Jackson who was stepping into that leadership role. Now he is the one showing the new kids around, and as that seniority sinks in, he can't help but realize that it's all coming to an end.
He's excited to graduate--he'll do so in December with a degree in film, television and theatre from the College of Arts and Letters. But the cornerback confesses that emotions hit him at unexpected times, and he knows some big ones are coming up.
"I'll just miss playing in the Stadium," he sighs. "I'll miss the team atmosphere of things. In the league, it's a lot different. It's more businesslike. It's businesslike here, but not really amongst the players. So I'll miss the family kind of feel."
Once again, it's all about family. But you can't say the National Football League doesn't weigh on Jackson's mind. He won't admit it, but he laughs and talks around the subject in a way that suggests he monitors his draft prospect rankings online. He knows the fickle fluctuations of the web are outside of his control, and that just makes him all the more determined in the things he can determine.
"I think I'm the best cornerback in the nation," he says, showing off some of that confidence that he admired so much in Blanton and Smith. "I think I had a slow start, but there's also a lot more football to play. I'll take it as that. Wherever I get drafted, I'll get drafted. That team will see how I play."
But before the NFL, as he says, there are still plenty of quarters to be played. His focus right now is to put a W next to each of the remaining games on their schedule, and then to win a BCS bowl game.
This desire is about more than sheer competitiveness or going out on top. As a sophomore, Jackson competed on the Irish track and field team as well and took home a BIG EAST Championship.
"I just want to get a ring. We're not in a conference, so we went 12-0 last year, so we would have had a ring if we were any other school. But the only way we can get a ring is if we make it to a BCS game and then win it. I've never gotten a ring for football--I got one for BIG EAST track. But obviously I want one for football. I really want to get a ring."
He says it again: "I really want to get a ring."
Jackson cites the Stanford goal line stand of 2012 as his best moment at Notre Dame, but it's hard for him to think of a favorite memory at Notre Dame that isn't tied to football.
"Outside of football?" he asks incredulously.
He thinks it over for a minute, no doubt replaying memories from the last four years in his mind. One of them makes him chuckle.
"I'd just have to say going to the dining hall freshman or sophomore year with Louis and TJ, Kendall Moore and some of the other guys, and we'd just kind of fool around. Dining hall visits. That was always a good time."
Whether it's joking around in the dining hall with his football brothers or his plans for the future, for Jackson, it's always about his family. It's about taking care of the people in his life. On the football field, but more importantly, off it. Someday, whenever his life after football may be, Jackson looks forward to running his own business and providing for another family--his own.
"Just have a bunch of kids. Get them into sports. I'm not going to make them play football," he insists. "If they want to play football...I'm going to lean toward football. But I'm just looking forward to being able to provide for my family, and having great relationships with teammates from here, from the league, from high school.
Jackson says taking care of people is how you build relationships. It is also, no doubt, how he has helped build a football team.