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From basketball court to football field, Archbishop Wood senior Robert Jackson’s odd path to stardom

Once a sturdy role player for the Vikings' basketball team, the two-way lineman has emerged as one of the most intriguing college-football prospects in the state.

Archbishop Wood's Robert Jackson decided to try football for the first time last season as a junior. Now he has 23 scholarship offers and projects as one of the state's top defensive linemen.
Archbishop Wood's Robert Jackson decided to try football for the first time last season as a junior. Now he has 23 scholarship offers and projects as one of the state's top defensive linemen.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

It’s not true that Robert Jackson never tried organized football before his junior season at Archbishop Wood.

“I played a practice,” Jackson said of his brief appearance with the Northwest Raiders youth program.

One practice.

That was the extent of Jackson’s football experience before he joined the Vikings program in the spring of 2019.

Fast forward to today: As Archbishop Wood prepares to open the shortened season Saturday against Philadelphia Catholic League opponent Bishop McDevitt, Jackson has emerged as one of the most intriguing college prospects in the state.

The 6-foot-6, 270-pound lineman and converted basketball player has 23 scholarship offers from far-flung programs such as Arizona State, Pitt, Boston College, Virginia, Nebraska, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Iowa State as well as nearby schools such as Temple and Rutgers.

And here’s the thing, per Archbishop Wood coach Matt Walp: Jackson has just scratched the surface of his potential, given his late start in the sport, physical capabilities and desire to improve.

“The one thing you can’t teach is measurables. He’s 6-6, 270, with an eight-foot wing span,” Walp said before a practice this week at the school in Warminster. “I look at him not playing as a positive because he has zero bad habits. He is off the charts in terms of being coachable, attentive, and wanting to learn the game.”

With the blessing of Wood basketball coach John Mosco, Jackson decided to try football after his sophomore season on the hardwood.

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Jackson took to football right away, emerging as a force at defensive end for a team that won the PIAA Class 5A state title in 2019. He made one of the biggest plays of the regular season, blocking a late extra-point attempt in the Vikings' 21-20 win over La Salle in a PCL game.

“I thought I would try it because of the program itself, great coaching staff, great tradition,” Jackson said. "I thought it would be good, be a two-sport athlete, help me condition, help me stay in shape.

“It turned out to be more than that. Two games, three games in, I started to like it more than basketball.”

Jackson remains a key role player for the Wood basketball team, which won the PCL regular-season title in 2019-20 and was cruising toward a shot at a state title when the PIAA tournament was shut down in March because of the coronavirus outbreak.

But he quickly noticed a key difference between the sports, especially with regard to his style of play.

“I liked it because I was more of a physical basketball player. and they couldn’t call a foul on me in football," Jackson said.

It wasn’t long before college recruiters started noticing Jackson. He hoped to generate more interest in football but was stunned by the way his stock kept rising through the offseason.

“It was definitely shocking,” said Jackson, who lives in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. “That was what I was looking into, the main goal, getting to college for free. But it was a big surprise to me, how many colleges were interested in me."

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As a senior, Jackson will play both ways, lining up at tackle on offense. Walp thinks Jackson’s future might be on that side of the football.

“Imagine if, after a year in college, he’s 6-7, 300, with the way he moves his feet,” Walp said.

Jackson acknowledges that he has a lot to learn about football. He’s taking a more active role in studying film, watching other games, observing other players.

“I just want to learn more about the game and just evolve all the way,” he said.

Jackson is so new to football that he still labors a bit when donning and aligning his pads.

“Every day,” Walp said of Jackson’s struggles with the sport’s equipment.

Jackson said his basketball background is to blame.

“I was used to basketball. It’s just a jersey and some shorts,” Jackson said. “The hardest part about it [football] was the equipment. After that, it was pretty simple.”