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Title of hero fitting after Armwood football player saves woman from a burning vehicle

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Fri. May 28, 2010 | Joey Knight | Email

TAMPA — In the most literal sense, Justin Jackson is one of the biggest heroes Seffner has known.

Even if he doesn’t know it.

Ask the 6-foot-2, 311-pound Armwood High junior about the feat of courage that landed him on the local news and Tropicana Field mound, where he tossed the first pitch at a recent Rays game, and Jackson chalks it up to mere instinctive reaction.

“It was just adrenaline,” he said.

Others insist they know better. Jackson, after all, is an Eagle Scout, and by all accounts, a darned noble one. Contrary to the stereotype, those guys do more than help elderly grandmothers across the street.

Sometimes, they pull a middle-aged mother of five from a burning vehicle moments before it is consumed by flames.

“I just had to do what I did,” he says.

• • •

An 18-year-old offensive lineman for Armwood, Jackson, the youngest of Gloria and Gregory Jackson’s two children, is described by his mom as a “football addict” with a passion for her meatloaf and mashed potatoes, church, helping others and “Oreo anything.”

An active member of Unity AME Church in Seffner, he earned Eagle Scout status a couple of weeks ago following a lengthy service project in which he cleaned plots, planted fresh shrubbery and did some painting at the church cemetery.

On the evening of Feb. 3, he had just picked up Gloria from choir practice at the church in her beloved silver Chevy Equinox SUV. They were headed north on County Road 579 when, according to Justin, a Honda Odyssey ran a stop sign at the corner of 579 and Old Hillsborough Avenue, ramming into their passenger’s side.

“The next thing I knew, the truck was spinning around and the airbags popped out,” said Gloria, who sustained only a wrist injury. “When she hit, she hit on the passenger’s side and he looked over at me and said, ‘Momma, you okay?’ I said, ‘I guess I’m okay.’ I couldn’t show the emotions.”

Navigating the airbags and dust, Justin got out on his side and ran to the passenger’s-side door that had been jammed by the collision. After forcing it open, he helped his mom out. Then he peered over to the Odyssey.

The hood was in flames.

Justin ran over to find the driver, 42-year-old Ameena Shabazz, crying. Justin remembers her having little mobility because of recent knee surgery. He shook the door loose, tried to help her out and grabbed her as she fell to the ground.

“It happened so fast and I just pulled her out as quick as I could,” Justin said. “I didn’t have time to think.”

Literally dragging Shabazz, Justin got her to a safe distance from the vehicle. Moments later, it was almost entirely ablaze.

“By the time (police and paramedics) got down there the whole van was burned from front to back,” Gloria said. “The policeman and everybody couldn’t believe he risked his life to get her out. If it was just me and her she probably wouldn’t be here today. But my son, I mean, he just got this adrenaline from nowhere.”

Shabazz didn’t return phone messages. A woman who answered the door at Shabazz’s home Wednesday afternoon in south Riverview said she wasn’t home. In a recent interview with news station WTSP Channel 10, she declined to appear on camera but, with a tearful voice, expressed thanks for Justin.

“Words can’t express the gratitude in my heart,” she told 10Connects.com.

• • •

Justin started at center in last week’s spring jamboree, a one-half, 40-14 rout of Plant City. According to coach Sean Callahan, Justin performed well. Three springs before, Callahan said, he “wasn’t very strong, wasn’t very fast, way too soft.”

“Everyone wonders whey we always have big offensive linemen,” Callahan said. “We baby them the first year then push them more, push them more, and he’s handled it well.”

The only thing he still seems to be struggling with is the nickname given him by coaches and teammates: Hero.

“That’s what we call him,” Callahan said.

“He’s like, ‘Momma, I just did what everybody else would’ve done,’ ” said Gloria, now driving a new candy-apple red Equinox. “I said, ‘Baby, everybody wouldn’t do that.’ ”

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com. Video courtesy of WTSP Ch. 10.

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