Thursday, June 21, 2018
Sports

Leto's Jackson flawlessly steps from the diamond to the track

The 100-meter event at high school meets typically get stacked with the county's elite football talent, but at the Hillsborough County American Division meet last month, a flash of red and white sprinted into the spotlight.

And he had no ties to football.

Leto senior Rodney Jackson, a baseball player for the Falcons, blew past University of Florida-commit and Jefferson standout Deiondre Porter and edged Steinbrenner's Kevin Merril to win the 100 final in 10.90. Cracking the 11-second barrier is a rite of passage for any sprinter looking to make a name for himself. Jackson would go on to lead Leto's 4x100m relay to a first-place finish in 43.70.

At the countywide championships the next week Jackson simmered back down to claim fourth in the 100, but the statement had been made with district meets coming up this week. Jackson looks like a strong candidate to make the state championship meet, something that hasn't happened for a male Leto track athlete in 14 years.

It almost never happened for Jackson.

• • •

Things never seemed quite right for Jackson. As a youth he was plagued by dizzy spells, headaches, even blackouts. It took years of doctor visits and treatments before Jackson's mother, Lydia, finally had him examined for an Arnold-Chiari malformation.

And she was right. Jackson was diagnosed with a Type II Chiari malformation. According to WebMD, Chiari malformations are structural defects in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance. In Jackson's Type II malformation both the cerebellum and the brain stem extend into the formamen magnum, cutting off blood flow to the brain.

At 13, Jackson had surgery to relieve the pressure, a scar that starts at the back of his neck and disappears into his hairline is the only remaining indication.

Nearly so, at least. He still suffers from traditional Chiari malformation symptoms: numbness, vision problems, headaches and blackouts.

"They're just less frequent," Jackson said. "I know how to deal with them now."

Jackson's ESE case worker and track coach Robert Pizzio knows just how to deal with it when the symptoms emerge.

"(When it happens) I let the teacher know or just call coach Pizzio," Jackson said. "They will usually just let me sit or lay down in a dark room and just relax."

Jackson had a minor flare-up of symptoms at the county championships on April 1. In a baseball game against Spoto the night before, Jackson was caught in a rundown between second and third base. He dove into third base but the throw hit him in the back of the helmet. After the game, the symptoms started and carried into the next day.

"We didn't even know if we were going to let him run (at county)," Pizzio said. "We had him sitting in an air-conditioned car, we took him out of the 200-meters, but he said he was ready to go by the finals so he went."

• • •

Another factor nearly kept Jackson from competing in track in high school: baseball.

Jackson is the star centerfielder on the Leto Falcons baseball team. He's the second-leading hitter on the team and is 17 for 18 in stealing bases this season. He was perfect stealing, in fact, until the Spoto game.

"He's fearless," Pizzio said. "Anything hit in the outfield he has a chance at and with his speed and aggressiveness on the bases, he's a force to be reckoned with."

Pizzio and brother JJ Pizzio have what they call, "shared custody" of Jackson. For years, they shied away from bringing Jackson out for track, despite knowing how fast he was.

Track and baseball have nearly parallel seasons and compete for practice time.

"JJ and I sat down and spoke about it because Rodney was so important to baseball," Robert Pizzio said. "It wasn't an easy decision but we worked out the schedules around each other. It took a lot."

When Jackson did finally take to running track, it was an easy transition.

"That same aggressive nature he has on the baseball field, he brings to the track," Robert Pizzio said. "He (Jackson) is held to a higher standard, we want him to be an example, a role model (to other student athletes)."

• • •

The ceiling for Jackson this season is high. He has the potential to run in the low 10-second range; his 10.82 is his best time recorded on a computer this season. But hand times from smaller meets have Jackson as low as 10.69, even 10.40.

He ran a 10.69 hand time in a dual meet with Chamberlain last Wednesday and claims he slipped out of the starting blocks.

Jackson clipped Leto's 100-meter school record from 1984 set by Vic Jackson in a hand timed meet from earlier in the season. The Falcons are putting Rodney Jackson's name up but leaving Vic Jackson's up, considering it was a hand time.

Jackson will join some elite company when he gets his name up there on the school record board. If he can forge his way to the state meet, he will join more elite company. The last Leto Falcon to reach state was Mike Jenkins, who was drafted in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons out of Ohio State, and recently signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Right now, Jackson is talking to colleges about playing baseball, Warner Southern being one and he plans to run club track this summer.

"He (Jackson) is going to be a two-sport kid in college," Robert Pizzio said.

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