Look closely at this type and you will see the gaps between the words.
That’s where this story begins. In the spaces.
The intervals between the letters may seem small, innocuous.
They are not.
They are big and powerful enough to swallow a 6-foot-3, 245-pound lineman named Bryce Jackson.
Jackson, who helped Santa Margarita High in Orange County to the Southern Section Division V football championship in the fall, has a reading disability as well as an attention disorder that he recently has begun treating with medication.
After years of struggle, Jackson finally has found success in the classroom. His grade-point average was 3.0 for the fall semester, and last week he signed a letter of intent to attend Fresno State.
But Jackson is still trapped.
He is caught between the NCAA’s countless forms and codes and the fruitless efforts of Santa Margarita High to explain its curriculum to the NCAA Clearinghouse, which decides every NCAA athlete’s college eligibility.
At issue are several slower-paced English courses Jackson took at Santa Margarita. The NCAA has not approved the courses as “core” English courses, which are required by the NCAA for freshman eligibility.
If the courses are not approved before he graduates, Jackson might not be eligible to play during his freshman year at Fresno State and his scholarship offer could be revoked.
Santa Margarita has been fighting this ruling since 1995, saying the English courses Jackson took, designated with the initial “B,” use the same syllabus but simply go at a slower pace than the mainstream English classes.
“My question back to [Santa Margarita] is, ‘If you teach it at a slower pace, but you’re using the same syllabus, how can you teach the same amount of material?’ ” said Calvin Symons, director of the NCAA Clearinghouse.
Symons further said Santa Margarita has never filed the requisite paperwork to appeal the clearinghouse’s ruling.
Mary Beth Dougherty, Santa Margarita assistant principal, said she has never been able to get anyone at the clearinghouse on the phone to explain the procedure. Further, she said the NCAA should be required to accept the courses for Jackson. Federal law mandates that certain accommodations be made so the disabled--including the learning disabled--can have equal access to all public institutions, including NCAA athletics.
“For them not to take those courses for Bryce is totally discriminatory, as far as I am concerned,” she said.
If Jackson were not interested in athletics, none of this would be an issue. He probably could gain admission to a number of colleges based on his grades and test scores. But Jackson has asked to play sports, a request that often carries with it the burden of higher scrutiny.
As the school and NCAA sort things out, Jackson waits to hear if he will play next season. Across from Jackson sits the monolithic NCAA Clearinghouse, charged with upholding the academic standards that college presidents have mandated for incoming athletes.
In the air above their heads is the fog of misunderstanding that often surrounds learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.
Jackson was the big kid in elementary school who sat in the back of the classroom and ducked his head so the teacher wouldn’t call on him.
For years, whenever Jackson wrote a phone number that included an eight or a nine, he wrote both numbers. As soon as he finished, he would look at the eight and nine again, try to remember what the person had said, and then count in his head until he found the number that matched:
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . eight. That’s it.”
Jackson’s disorder commonly is called dyslexia, a generic term encompassing a number of disabilities in the area of language. Specifically, Jackson has difficulty reading.
“I would never tell anybody I got my eights and nines mixed up,” he said. “I just thought I was stupid.”
Jackson’s mother, Valerie Deveraux, noticed that Jackson’s writing skills were not at the same level as other children his age.
Deveraux, a single mother who was putting herself through law school, blamed herself.
“I thought, ‘Maybe he needs me to spend more time. . . . It must be me because I’m working and going to school.’ ”
Jackson’s reading disability was discovered after his second trip through fourth grade, when Deveraux took him out of public school and sent him to Prentice Day school in Santa Ana.
Prentice Day, an independent school for students with language learning differences, gave Jackson some of the skills he needed to combat his reading disability and he was accepted to Santa Margarita, a private school in Rancho Santa Margarita.
At Santa Margarita, for the first time in his life, Jackson found an activity where a big kid can belong: football.
“All the other players were nice to me because I was so big,” he said. “I really grew to love it.”
Jackson had never been able to play youth football because he always exceeded height and weight limits for his age group. In eighth grade he was about 5-11 and nearly 200 pounds.
As much as football provided Jackson with a sense of belonging, it also was a double-edged sword. On the field, there would be no “special” treatment. Football requires discipline, focus and, above all, uniformity. Sometimes, Jackson could not toe the line.
“There were times when I was frustrated with him and he was frustrated with me,” Santa Margarita Coach Jim Hartigan said.
In the hard times, Jackson leaned on his brother, Shaun.
For the last two seasons, Shaun, a junior, and Bryce could often be found standing next to each other on the sideline. Once, when Bryce was injured in a game, Shaun hovered over the attending trainers, then walked off the field with his brother. Shaun wouldn’t return to the game until he made sure his brother was OK.
"[Shaun] has been the one that kind of looks after everybody,” Deveraux said.
Jackson got his big break when Hartigan inserted him at defensive end against El Toro this season. A few weeks after the Eagles’ 42-21 victory, Fresno State coaches were watching the game film in the El Toro football offices.
The Bulldog coaches were there to look at El Toro players, but then they saw Jackson fly across the screen, running from the opposite side of the field to tackle El Toro star Murle Sango and save a touchdown.
A few days later, Jackson got a call from Fresno State.
When Santa Margarita’s auxiliary studies program was established in October 1995, at the beginning of Jackson’s junior year, it was like a godsend.
Jackson had been struggling at Santa Margarita the previous two years and was admitted to the auxiliary studies program. A few months later, Michael Elliott, a psychologist and the founder of the program, diagnosed an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, in Jackson’s case after a clinical interview and a battery of tests.
Although the word hyperactivity is in the official name of the disorder, it is not always a symptom. Jackson is not hyperactive, but he has problems sustaining attention or keeping information in his mind in the face of distractions.
For instance, math word problems are difficult for Jackson because they require completing calculations while keeping other information in mind. Jackson may understand the calculations, but he can’t keep the original question in mind while performing them.
There are about 104 students in the auxiliary studies program at Santa Margarita, one of the only programs of its kind in the area. Through the program, Jackson was granted special accommodations in his classes such as extended time on tests and books on tape. Jackson also received a prescription for the drug Cylert, a psycho-stimulant, from his physician.
The results were astounding.
“It feels like I took some pill that makes me smart,” Jackson said.
Jackson immediately began to notice an improvement in his ability to concentrate.
A school counselor called Deveraux at home to tell her that Jackson had climbed from an F to an A in geometry and the girl he was tutoring in the auxiliary studies program also was receiving an A.
“She learns the same way I do, so I put it in terms she could understand,” Jackson said. “People can read a book about Hawaii and learn a lot about Hawaii, but you’ll never really know about it unless you were there.”
Jackson was allowed to take an untimed Scholastic Assessment Test through the SAT’s Services for Students With Disabilities. He received a score of 1090, including 600 on the math sections. His combined score was well above the mandatory 820 the NCAA requires for certification from the clearinghouse.
Santa Margarita was notified in 1995 that the NCAA had not yet approved the “B” series courses, yet Jackson continued to be placed in the “B” series classes. Since the problem was discovered with Jackson’s eligibility last month, Jackson was placed in three English courses this semester to make up for his deficiency in the subject.
“This is the first time this problem has come up,” Dougherty said. “What they’ve got to realize is that our academic program is dealing with the top 50% of the high school kids in Orange County, so our academic program is going at an honors-level pace [compared to] the public school.”
The NCAA, however, defines a core course as one that goes at the regular academic pace of that high school. If it is slowed down, it could be considered remedial.
“I’m sure every high school is going to feel like what they do is better than any high school down the street,” Symons said. “I think what the NCAA is trying to do is not try to compare high school A to high school B. Otherwise, you’re really going to do 20,000 different types of evaluations and I don’t think that’s practical.”
Dougherty said she is still trying to convince the NCAA that the “B” series courses should be considered core courses. If the courses are not approved, Fresno State can appeal to the NCAA on Jackson’s behalf.
Peter Simis, Fresno State faculty athletic representative, said the school has appealed to the NCAA on behalf of many learning disabled students. Fresno State must wait until after the NCAA has made a final determination on Jackson’s eligibility this summer before it appeals.
So far this academic year, the NCAA has received 1,300 appeals over eligibility status has granted 60% of them.
“What if he had a hearing impairment and had to take a special class?” Deveraux wondered. “It’s the same thing.”
Look closely and you will see the gaps between the words.
It’s the spaces that set the words apart, give them meaning.
“I don’t think it’s a learning disability, it’s just a different way of learning,” Jackson said.
Added Elliott: “Einstein had difficulty in languages, but he was superior in physics. What would the NCAA have said about Einstein?”