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USC

USC’s Adoree’ Jackson never forgets the 618 area code

USC’s Adoree’ Jackson never forgets the 618 area code

USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (2) celebrates his punt return for a touchdown against UCLA with a teammate last Saturday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Adoree’ Jackson heard the train coming, felt the vibrations in his feet.

And so, like he did most days while growing up on South High Street, he took off running.

Friends looked on as the 8-year-old raced down the block toward his home, located just on the other side of the railroad crossing. Some screamed and begged him to stop as the warning gates dropped. Then, realizing he was determined to make it to avoid being late getting home, they cheered him on.

“I knew I was going to get in trouble,” Jackson says, chuckling. “It’s either I make it, or just get hit by the train because I’m going to be in trouble anyway.”

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Jackson sped over the asphalt, found an extra gear and leaped across the tracks, beating the locomotive.

“I have never seen a kid run as fast in my life,” says Chris Thompson, who grew up on High Street and now works around the corner at Imo’s Pizza. “He shot right in front of the train!

“He’s like, ‘Did you guys see that? I beat the train!’ I’m like ‘Oh … my … God!’”

Jackson never attempted a repeat, but the speed and daredevil mentality that made it possible have been on display nearly every time he has stepped onto a football field since he was 10.

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USC football fans caught glimpses last season when Jackson returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a freshman. Those qualities surfaced again the last two weeks on punt returns for touchdowns against Oregon and UCLA.

On Saturday, Jackson will have his biggest stage yet when USC plays Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

It’s another star-turn opportunity for a player who became a highly sought recruit at Gardena Serra High.

Just don’t call Jackson a West Coast product.

Christopher and Vianca’s youngest son is unfailingly polite, but he noticeably recoils when characterized as a Californian.

In his heart, Jackson never left Belleville, located just up the road — via one of the longest Main Streets in the United States — from struggling East St. Louis, where he spent many joyful hours at his grandmother’s former home and where his family still attends church.

Jackson speaks often of parlaying whatever success he enjoys in the future into giving back to the community that helped raise him.

During games, he wears eye-black emblazoned with “618,” the area code for Belleville and East St. Louis.

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“I always wanted to be a hometown hero,” he says.

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As motorists leave St. Louis and drive above the Mississippi River heading east, they eventually pass a sign to the left that reads “Welcome to Belleville.”

To Jackson, 20, it’s more than a gateway marker.

“I always used to say I want my name on it or under it,” Jackson says.

Jackson left Belleville after his freshman year in high school, encouraged by his older sister and her husband to come to California, face better competition and take advantage of athletic and educational opportunity at Serra.

It was not easy to leave.

Not after growing up on a street of tightknit families and more than 20 kids, who hung together and played outside from sunrise till well after dark.

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“Coming up on High Street, everybody was like a unit, a family,” says Santoro “Flip” Underwood, one of Jackson’s closest friends.

The kids, old and young, played touch football on a vacant lot. Basketball in Jackson’s yard. Tag, ding-dong-ditch and hide-and-seek all over the block.

They rode “Frankenstein” bikes cobbled together from junkyard parts. They headed, en masse, to a store around the corner for giant bags of candy, and to a laundromat for a vending machine that featured RC Cola.

Mostly, they ran up and down the block. All day long.

“Sometimes the boys would get tired of us girls,” says Neacie Thompson, 18, “but we were always together.”

When the street lights came on, the crowd often congregated at the Thompsons’ house, where their mother Mary always had food cooking.

“If their parents couldn’t find them,” Mary says, “they knew to come to my door.”

On the weekends, friends slept over at the Jacksons, drawn by the camaraderie and his mother’s Saturday breakfasts.

“A pound of bacon, rice, eggs,” Vianca Jackson says, recounting her son’s morning staples, “and don’t forget the pancakes.”

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Vianca Jackson named her second son Adoree’ based on a suggestion from her sister.

“It sounded like adorable,” says Vianca, who also calls him Sweet Pea.

The Jacksons noticed their baby boy’s athleticism early. He constantly mimicked the stunts he saw during what they describe as near-endless viewings of the movie “Space Jam,” which starred Michael Jordan.

“We had a California king bed and he jumped over the bed without touching it,” Christopher, a cement mason, says during an interview in the family’s living room. “He takes a running start and there he goes. Just straight over, like Michael Jordan.”

Jackson performed similar stunts after he watched Reggie Bush play for USC on TV, or when he played video games as the Trojans.

Friends of his older brother Chris initially were not thrilled when Jackson tagged along outside.

“Before we let him play with us, he would take the ball and throw it and then go run after it,” recalls Elgin Johnson, 27. “He’d make all these little cuts and curves and no one could catch him.”

As Jackson got older, it also was difficult to keep pace on the basketball court.

“In the seventh grade he said, ‘Big bro, watch this’ — and he dunked,” Chris says. “He did it with ease. I’m going, ‘Oh yeah, he’s got talent.’”

Jackson was 10 the first time he played organized football for the Belleville Knights. He was the first player selected in the draft and played running back and middle linebacker.

Brian Buehlhorn, his coach, said he still uses a play that he named after Jackson. The offense would line up with three receivers to one side, and Jackson would take a pitch and run behind them, more often than not to the end zone.

“We always call it the Adoree’ play,” Buehlhorn says.

Jackson has lasting memories of that first football experience and the teammates he played with.

One, Jeremiah Radford, died from cancer before his sophomore year in high school. To honor him, Jackson wore Radford’s No. 21 throughout his own high school career at Serra, thousands of miles away.

“We were a duo,” Jackson says. “They called him Thunder. I was Lightning.”

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Friends and coaches say Jackson appears at ease in any situation, a byproduct he says, of where he grew up.

He fondly recalls the time he spent in East St. Louis, which is 98% African American. In Belleville, he attended Westhaven Elementary School and Central Junior High, where about 60% of the student population is Caucasian.

“I’ve always been the type of guy who can hang out with anybody and want to make friends,” Jackson says. “Skin color and whatnot didn’t make a difference to me.”

At Westhaven, teachers still recount with excitement the day Jackson came by before he left for college.

“He is exactly why we go into teaching,” Marie Davis, his sixth-grade teacher, says outside her classroom.

Jackson was a bundle of energy who could not wait to participate as a fourth-grader in the annual districtwide Field Day competition, which featured track and field events.

The first time he lined up for the standing long jump, he flew over a taped line marker and into a crowd of stunned parents.

“He’d go run and do a flip and I’d say, ‘We’re not really supposed to do that…. OK, do it again,’” Michelle Lindsay, Jackson’s fourth-grade teacher, says laughing.

Trisha Maddox said Jackson was never late with homework in the fifth grade because the penalty was no recess.

“He had to go to recess,” she says.

Jackson also was a bright student, if one who needed occasional motivation.

“He was always in the front row,” Beth Junker says in the hallway outside her eighth-grade classroom. “He’d stretch and look at me and shake his head and say, ‘I’m not going to need this. I’m going to the NFL.’

“I’d say ‘I don’t care…. You’re going to be educated.’”

Bill Wright was Jackson’s eighth-grade basketball coach and also helped introduce him to organized track and field.

Wright saw a gifted young athlete who was as much a leader as a performer.

“I felt like he had been told, ‘You’re great, you’re awesome,’” Wright says in his office. “I said, ‘Hey, you know how good you are. You probably don’t understand how good you can be.’”

Jackson says the teachers and coaches kept him “on the right path.”

“They wanted to see me do better for myself,” he says, “because they thought I had potential.”

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Jackson attended Belleville East High for a year before he moved to California to live with his sister and attend Serra, which produced USC players such as All-American receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

He starred in football and track and field, and also played basketball for the Cavaliers on his way to becoming a jewel in USC’s 2014 recruiting class.

Last season, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Jackson was named a Freshman All-American after starting at cornerback and also playing receiver and kick returner for the Trojans. He punctuated his first season by scoring two touchdowns against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, one he finished with a flip into the end zone.

Jackson has scored five touchdowns this season: two on pass receptions, two on the recent punt returns and one on a spectacular interception return.

“He’s like the Tasmanian Devil,” childhood friend Neacie Thompson says. “Once those legs get to moving, there is no stopping him.”

Jackson, with no boastfulness, has said that he wants to win the Heisman Trophy, the Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back and make the U.S. Olympic team as a long jumper.

After the season, he will return home periodically, stay with his parents on High Street and meet his friends at Imo’s Pizza. They will make him a Canadian bacon pie and talk easily about what’s new in their lives.

But first, Jackson will try to help the Trojans to their first Rose Bowl appearance since 2008.

His friends, family and former teachers follow him on social media, and they will be watching him on television on Saturday against Stanford.

“Even when I feel like I don’t do anything in the game, they just see my face, always wearing 618 on my eyes, so they’re excited about that,” Jackson says.

“That’s the main thing I want to do. Just let people know I’ll never change, and never forget where I came from.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein


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