Willie Jackson lay on a bench along the Pierce College sideline, his right leg encased in bandages and his collegiate future in doubt.
As the final seconds ticked off in Pierce's 19-10 victory over East Los Angeles Saturday night in a season-opening football game for both teams, Jackson's teammates filed past and wished the injured defensive lineman well.
Sophomore defensive end Randy West, a team captain and Pierce's leading tackler last year, who has formed a close friendship with Jackson, bent over his teammate and tried to bolster his spirits.
"Hey, Willie, I can't do without you. You're my second half," he said.
Jackson, a 6-foot-4, 248-pound freshman, seemed too pained to notice. He had overcome substantial obstacles to earn his shot at college football, and now the injury to his right knee jeopardized that opportunity.
Jackson, who can bench press 450 pounds and is one of the strongest players on the Pierce team, has the academic development of a third-grader because of a congenital learning disability. Anything more complicated than simple addition and subtraction are beyond his ability. The sports pages are too difficult for him to read.
He will turn 19 this fall, but he doesn't have a driver's license.
At Taft High in Woodland Hills, he attended a "school within a school," with a curriculum aimed at his learning level because regular classes were too advanced for him. He remained eligible for athletics at Taft by earning grades in special education classes, but he did not receive a high school diploma. Instead, he got a letter of recommendation attesting to his attendance and effort.
Jackson's football skill might have earned him a scholarship to a four-year college, but his academic shortcomings precluded his participation at that level. However, community college has offered Jackson an opportunity he craves.
Pierce, like all state community colleges, does not require a high school diploma for enrollment. A school can accept state residents 18 or older if the school administrators believe the students can profit from the education or training offered at the school.
After Pierce officials met with Jackson and his teachers at Taft in May, they agreed to accept him for the fall semester and enroll him in at least 12 units to allow him athletic eligibility in accordance with state guidelines. The officials were swayed by those close to Jackson who claimed his academic performance improved once he joined the football team.
Pierce Coach Bill Norton emphasizes that as head coach he must treat all fallen players equally. But on a personal level, Jackson's injury hit hard.
"It hurts me terribly to see Willie get hurt," he said. "He wants this experience so badly, and he deserves it so much, you don't want to see anything delay it. This has made us all feel real bad."
The injury, which has been diagnosed as mildly torn medial and lateral ligaments in the right knee, will sideline Jackson for at least three weeks and possibly much longer, depending on how the knee responds to therapy.
If the injury forces Jackson to miss more than two or three games, Norton will recommend that he redshirt this year to preserve a full season.
"Willie is guaranteed one season, and we've got to protect that for him," Norton said.
When Pierce officials accepted Jackson, they made it clear they were providing him with an opportunity to play football and would address his continued enrollment one semester at a time. To gain a second season of eligibility, Jackson must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average in 24 units, a task that seems beyond him.
Jackson could withdraw from school and start over in the fall, but Norton advises against that, recommending that he continue to attend classes--even on a part-time basis if Jackson so chooses--to maintain contact with the football team.
Jackson has enrolled in a health class taught by Norton and a psychology class that stresses scholastic and personal development. Each class is worth three units, along with an African-American history class that Jackson will take for no credit. He also is credited with four units for participation on the football team and will earn up to six units for his work in the Greater Avenues to Independence (GAIN) program, a state and federally funded learning skills program.
"In Willie's mind, he's here to play football, but in my mind, he's also here to be with friends and take part in the college experience," Norton said. "We've taken a liking to Willie, and he's part of our football family. I don't care if he can't play football or if his career is over, we don't want anything to happen to him."
If his opening-night performance is any indication, Jackson has a bright future with the Brahmas. Against East Los Angeles, he played on all but a handful of Pierce's defensive plays and acquitted himself well. He assisted on three tackles and made three solo tackles, including one in which he threw East Los Angeles running back Hilario Espinosa for a seven-yard loss.
Jackson, who needed no special instructions from the bench to handle his assignments, contributed to a Pierce defense that limited East Los Angeles to 100 yards, including 34 yards and two first downs in the second half.
With 5:03 left in the game, Jackson was helped from the field after he suffered the injury assisting on a tackle.
"Somebody hit me on my knee with a helmet," Jackson said. "I felt it crack, and I fell down."
Defensive coordinator Danny Geyer called Jackson's performance instrumental to the team's success and lamented his loss to the defensive line.
"He doesn't know how to read a block real well, and sometimes he doesn't know what people are doing to him, but he's got real good football instincts," Geyer said. "The thing about Willie is you know he won't be afraid of anyone and he'll play hard. He's one guy we can depend on to be here every day and work hard. With him out, it could change our whole philosophy of defense."
Jackson showed particular improvement in technique, Geyer said. During a preseason scrimmage, Jackson often entered his stance late and was off-balance when the play began. Against East Los Angeles, he entered his stance while the Huskies were still in the huddle.
That earnestness has endeared Jackson to his teammates and coaches.
"There's a lot of joy in him," said West, his teammate who was an All-Western State Conference selection last fall. "He's got character. You don't notice his disability out on the field. He knows where he's supposed to be, and we have confidence in him. The team treats him like any other player."
Well, almost. Few other players inspire awe as Jackson does with his strength. Jackson expedited the acceptance process at an early practice session with a stunning show of strength. During a drill to develop pass rushing technique, linemen hit a blocking sled that featured a plastic model of a player's upper torso.
Jackson lifted the sled--a feat in itself--and twisted the dummy with a jerk, ripping it from the sled as two industrial strength metal screws popped from moorings.
"Everybody in practice, their jaws just dropped," assistant coach Dale Alderson said. "Willie threw the dummy to the ground and just walked away with a big grin on his face. He's just got great strength."
Alderson has worked closely with Jackson, and the coach's face lights up when he talks about him. He admires Jackson's work ethic and refusal to quit, and also sees ample intelligence underneath the well-developed body. Alderson has been helped in his understanding of Jackson by his wife, Julie, who is a special education teacher at Santa Monica High.
"Willie is very bright," Alderson said. "Willie knows what's going on. He understands the game of football well."
A.D. Sinha, a 6-foot-8 backup quarterback, has earned his spot on the roster if for no other reason than his friendship with Jackson. The two regularly drive to school together after Jackson spends the night--sleeping on couch cushions on the floor--at the Sinha residence in Granada Hills.
"He looked kind of mean and intimidating when I first met him, but I learned that he's a good guy with a good heart," Sinha said.
Some might wonder if Pierce is the right place for Jackson, who admits the campus is large and confusing at times. Still, he characterizes his collegiate experience so far as "wonderful," one of his favorite words.
Even the day after his first game, when he faced uncertainty about his knee, he expressed his enthusiasm for college life and membership on the team.
"I like Pierce," he said. "The coaches are good to me. If I can't play, I'll help the coaches out. I'll do whatever they want. I'll be the water boy. I don't care. Nothing is going to stop me."