By Brian Paglia
Here came Clarence Jackson's chance. Finally. It came steam-rolling ahead with shoulders squared for impact. It came with eyes on the end zone and legs like tree trunks moving him there. It came with hype and pomp, this Griffin Bears running back, a prized thing in his town and coveted by colleges throughout the region.
Here came a freshman looking for a chance, a chance to make a name for himself, a chance to endear himself to teammates on a team he never imagined he'd play for.
So Clarence Jackson steam-rolled ahead on that late September night in 2006, eyes on that Griffin running back, using legs like tree trunks to move, and plowed into his opponent.
On the first play of an eventual 36-6 loss three years ago, on a thundering tackle of a more lauded player against one of the state's marquee high school programs, Clarence Jackson finally began to feel like a North Clayton Eagle.
He stuck to his role then - just a freshman linebacker with more talent and body to grow into than few people might have imagined.
But now, as Jackson leads No. 6 North Clayton (6-0, 4-0) against No. 1 Griffin (5-0, 3-0) in a game with monumental consequences for the Region 4-AAAA title, he maintains the mentality he had three years ago. Just sticking to his role.
"For a long time I've just wanted to be a real good player," Jackson said. "Now that I'm finally here, I just want to be a role player for my team. Make good plays and be a playmaker at times."
Few in Clayton County's history have displayed the playmaking ability Jackson has the past two seasons. The senior rushed for over 1,800 yards and 32 touchdowns last season, earning All-Southern Crescent player of the year honors. Oh, and he had 13 sacks on defense.
So far this season he's maintained that performance. Through six games, Jackson has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns.
In perhaps his best game this season, with region positioning at stake against Mt. Zion on September 25, Jackson rushed for over 100 yards, scored two touchdowns on offense and returned an interception 90 yards for a touchdown on homecoming night.
And as Jackson has emerged, so has North Clayton again as a top-10 high school program in the state. The Eagles haven't been ranked this high since 2004. They've won 16 of their last 18 games, including the playoffs. Last season, they broke a 19-game losing streak to Griffin, beating them 23-20 and winning the school's first region title in five years.
With Jackson, the Eagles' goals are lofty once again.
"First, we want to try to get the region championship," Jackson said, "and then after that try to do bigger things, which is the state championship. I think we've got a real good shot. We've got a couple young guys, but they seem to be maturing real well. So I think our chances are pretty high right now."
Jackson had never imagined playing for North Clayton. Growing up, his neighborhood was zoned under Riverdale's district. He started playing in 5- and
played all through middle school and on his father's travel team assuming Riverdale awaited.
Then, the summer before his freshman year, the districts were redrawn. Jackson's neighborhood became a North Clayton neighborhood.
"When I was young, I never really looked at North Clayton," Jackson said. "I never saw myself coming here. I didn't think they were going to accept me.
"But they took me in pretty well. And they liked me as a player and I was starting ninth grade. I got in good with the varsity."
Fast forward now. Past the breakout junior season; past his verbal commitment to Ole Miss over the summer; past the one tackle that gave Jackson his first thrill of varsity football; and to a game with as more hype and pomp than North Clayton may see the rest of the season.
How does arguably the county's best player approach arguably the county's best game this season?
"Really, we're just going to approach it like ti's another game, as if it was a Forest Park game or a Mt. Zion game," Jackson said. "We're not going to look at them as a big team. We're just going to go out, match their intensity and play our game."