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Despite shoulder pain, Panthers' top rusher plans to play

Make no mistake, Lovell Jackson is hurting.

The Plant junior gingerly unwrapped the bandage around his right shoulder, blades of grass still hanging from his shirt and shorts, hiding his pain the only way he knows how - by wearing his customary smile.

The Panthers' leading rusher was initially hurt while returning a punt during the region final win over Armwood two weeks ago. A hit during the first half of the state semifinal victory over Miami Washington on Friday aggravated the injury. Jackson carried the ball just five times against the Tornadoes for 15 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown.

But rest assured, Jack-son will play in Saturday's Class 4A final against the defending champ, Ponte Vedra Beach Nease.

It would take more than a bum shoulder to keep Jackson, who has rushed for 786 yards on 77 carries this season, out of the biggest game of his career. He has waited for this moment.

Undersized at 5 feet 10, 165 pounds, he was told years ago he would be a better fit as a cornerback than in the backfield. He bided his time last season behind Kenny Allen, a battering ram of a back.

"It basically is a dream come true," Jackson said after Monday's practice at Dad's Stadium. "I get to play with a great group of guys. We all love the game. It's just beautiful to be here under the lights still practicing."

This season has been Jackson's chance to shine. While Plant's passing game, anchored by quarterback Robert Marve, receives most of the kudos, Jackson gives the Panthers a dangerous balance with his game-breaking speed.

Jackson has gained 10.2 yards per carry with six touchdowns of 30 yards or longer. None was more important than his 69-yarder against Armwood.

Playing behind Allen, a 230-pound back, he learned to run hard and stay low and that he didn't always have to be shifty. But it wasn't long ago when Jackson was told he was too small, despite his 4.4-second 40-yard speed, to be an impact running back.

"That just made me work even harder," Jackson said. "It made me run even faster. It made me want to prove them wrong and show them that even though I may not be the biggest man, I can play with some of the biggest men."

Jackson's personality is even more important, said coach Robert Weiner, who said his starting running back has an uncanny charisma and an innate ability to rally his teammates.

"He always picks the right moments," Weiner said. "If something's going wrong, he doesn't need to say anything. He'll just walk into my office and pound his chest and point to me, and it's all okay. He's got a good sense of what's going on. And that's what it means to be a teammate and to be one of the superstar guys and have a touch that's meaningful to everyone.

"Whatever 'it' is, he's got it."

And Jackson will show it off Saturday.

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at