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UW football: Vonte Jackson comes back stronger after knee injury

2012-08-22T05:00:00Z 2013-07-17T17:13:41Z UW football: Vonte Jackson comes back stronger after knee injuryTOM MULHERN | Wisconsin State Journal | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 madison.com

It was everything Vonte Jackson thought it would be — and then it was over.

Jackson was undoubtedly the best backup running back in the state as a junior at Kenosha Bradford, sharing time with senior Melvin Gordon, who was regarded as the best player in the state.

When Gordon left for the University of Wisconsin, Jackson finally got his chance last fall.

In the season opener against Milwaukee Riverside, Jackson had 12 carries for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He also caught a pass for 38 yards.

"It was crazy, sick, how good he was," said former Bradford coach Jed Kennedy, who is in his first year at Pulaski. "Unbelievable."

With 16 seconds left in the half, Jackson took a pitch on a hook-and-ladder play before being taken down along the Bradford sideline.

"I wasn't thinking ACL, but I knew something happened," Jackson said.

Jackson, who is now a freshman for the Badgers, ended up tearing the ACL in his left knee and just like that, his senior season was finished.

"I have never had a kid take an injury as hard as he did," Kennedy said.

It wasn't just missing almost his entire senior year, but Jackson had waited so long for his chance.

"He was in such a unique situation, to have a state player of the year at the same position," Kennedy said. "Vonte never got that year to be the guy and show people how special he is. He got it for a half and he showed people in that half, in my opinion, hands down, he was the best football player in the state."

Jackson had a wistful smile as he recalled the half and the hard work that went into getting ready for the opportunity.

"I felt great," he said. "I fit my pads nice. I was running people over."

Even though Jackson had already committed to the Badgers, who stuck with him the whole time, he was devastated.

"It would be late in the season and he was in tears on the bench," Kennedy said.

Jackson called UW running backs coach Thomas Hammock the night of the injury. Hammock knows the pain of having something ripped from his grasp. His college football career at Northern Illinois ended prematurely due to a heart condition.

"Things happen for a reason," Hammock said he told Jackson. "We all have to face adversity. My adversity was, I couldn't come back at all. You have the opportunity to get surgery, rehab and come back and still play college football."

It took Jackson a few weeks to process what happened to him. But then a remarkable transformation occurred.

Bradford went on to finish 14-0 and won its first state football title. And the guy who was in tears on the bench ended up giving halftime pep talks, even though it was totally out of character.

"If we had a tough game, I'd try and give them a speech," Jackson said. "I'm not really a talker, I did what I could."

He also never missed a practice, according to Kennedy, and helped coach the running backs.

A good student, Jackson was able to enroll at UW in January. He fought against wearing a knee brace in preseason camp, although the trainers won out. Jackson estimated recently his knee is about 90 percent healthy. Even though he is the fourth or fifth tailback at a stacked position, he flashed enough athleticism and speed that UW coach Bret Bielema talked about playing him on special teams this season.

Jackson responded to that with a post on his Twitter account Sunday, saying he didn't want to waste a year on special teams. It would also probably make sense to keep Gordon, who redshirted last year, and Jackson in different classes.

Bielema said he allows the player to have the final say, after discussions with coaches. In an interview prior to his tweet, Jackson sounded open to playing special teams.

"The coaches really stress special teams is how you start your career off in college and the NFL," he said. "I'd be happy to play special teams."

Kennedy is asked all of the time who is better, Gordon or Jackson, and his stock answer is they are different.

"Melvin's just a freak athlete," Kennedy said. "He's a long strider, a one-cut-and-go kid. Vonte's more of a shake-and-bake power guy. They're both great, but they're different."

Jackson believes the injury has made him mentally stronger and ready to deal with whatever comes his way.

"I can take on challenges I probably couldn't before," he said. "I'm just a better person because of it."

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