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A 'Man' worth a chance

SEFFNER — Armwood's Sean Callahan has one of the top football programs in the state.

This year's team is nationally ranked, will make its season debut on ESPNU on Friday against Plant and is expected to win a state championship.

He has talent at every position, with future Division I-A players carrying out his plays.

He might have his best team ever.

Clearly, Callahan is not a man who needs to take a chance on a talented player with a checkered past and a questionable future.

So why is he?

• • •

Theodore Jackson is 6 feet 2, 225 pounds and runs a 4.4 40-yard dash. He will start Friday on one of the best defensive lines in the country and looks to be every bit as good as the Hawks say he is.

He spends Monday's practice working over the center and guards, sometimes splitting them, sometimes running them over.

They can't stop him.

They call him Man-Man.

"Two men,'' says star defensive end Ryne Giddins with a chuckle.

"A monster,'' says Callahan.

Jackson has also been arrested three times, in 2002, 2003 and in October (for battery).

He missed more than 200 days of school as a freshman and sophomore.

Still, when he showed up in April and asked for a chance to play for Tampa Bay's premier football program, Callahan listened.

"I told him, let's start with you going to school for a whole week,'' he said. "Then come talk to me.''

• • •

Jackson says football is his life, but it's just a cliche he heard somewhere. Because truth is, he could only be so lucky.

Life is his life, and for most of his 18 years, it has stunk.

He's not proud of his past. There are all kinds of reasons he has missed so much school.

"Sometimes lights be cut off or the water off or I missed the bus or I missed my ride or (my mom) gotta go somewhere and I gotta stay home,'' he said.

Sometimes, his family had no place to live. When they do, he often stays home, to watch his baby sisters and brothers. There's man, and mini-man and 'lil man, all nicknames given by their mother.

• • •

Jackson was earnest about football in the spring. He wanted to change, even if excuses kept him from the first two practices.

By the end of the second week, Jackson was showing up and practicing with the second team. He was destroying the first-team offense. He wanted to be with the starters.

More than 100 Division I-A schools sent coaches to Armwood's campus in May. They came to see stars like Giddins and Petey Smith and Mywan Jackson. Theodore Jackson caught the eye of almost all of them, and some of his teammates as well.

"Everybody wanted him on the team, everybody was saying all these great things so I said, well, then let's all get together and do it,'' Callahan said.

Giddins helped Jackson in school and made sure he was showing up, even if that meant picking him up and dropping him off. Mywan Jackson made sure he went from class to class. The coaching staff, especially line coach Ron Johnson, made sure he got the tutoring he needed.

"There's a lot to his background you don't know, more than you think. He's not a normal dude,'' Giddins said. "We had to get him right. If he's going to do his part on the field, then we told him he's got to do his part off the field. We still bump heads with him … but we're helping him.''

He has missed one day of school so far and remains a work in progress. Monday, he missed his ride to practice from teammate Alton Bailey, so Callahan had to go fetch him.

"I'm not going to lie to you, it's been a battle every day,'' Callahan said. "It's not as big a battle today as it was, but I think we have the switch almost flipped.''

• • •

Callahan is taking a huge risk, though he doesn't see it that way.

Yes, he says, his football team doesn't need Jackson. But Jackson needs his football team.

At the core, this makes perfect sense, really. Callahan is in the business of turning boys into men. Even Men-Men.

"I don't feel like this is going to be a failure,'' he said. "Have I ever been wrong? Yes. But why would I go against my gut feeling? I'm not in the business of firing kids, I'm in the business of trying to make them better.''

Even if sometimes it backfires. And it has backfired.

"I won't get hurt by Man-Man,'' Callahan said. "He's a good kid, he really is.''

For the record, Callahan admits he wouldn't be putting in this effort, and asking his team to do the same, for just anyone.

"Would I do this for a kid not playing football? Probably not. But I'm a football coach,'' Callahan said.

"You should know this though: Man-Man shows a very high level of appreciation for this. If he treated us like trash, it would be a different story. He wants to be here. He's just asking for a little help.''

Jackson isn't comfortable discussing his past. He answers with words, not sentences, staring straight ahead.

But the future?

It makes him smile.

"I never thought I'd have this many people on my side,'' he said.

"Things are changing. I don't wanna go back to how it was. I never wanna go back.''

John C. Cotey can be reached at johncotey@gmail.com.

A 'Man' worth a chance 09/02/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 10:54pm]
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