More than two decades after the University of Tampa played its last game, the city returned to the Saturday football stratosphere when USF played its inaugural contest on Sept. 6, 1997. That 80-3 rout of Kentucky Wesleyan, before a Houlihan's Stadium crowd of 49,212, occurred nearly two years to the day after the Florida Board of Regents officially endorsed a football program for USF. In observance of the 20-year anniversary of that ground-breaking contest, the Tampa Bay Times is looking back at the first Bulls' football team.
Initially, Charlie Jackson doesn't want to talk. Even rudimentary questions about himself — where he lives, his occupation — are met with a reticent brush-off.
Then, the Bulls' former special-teams spark plug turns on a dime. Suddenly, the conversation resembles one of Jackson's punt returns: He stumbles, changes direction, gains steam, then he's off.
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"Life will drag you and take you in different directions," said Jackson, still USF's career leader in punt return yards (1,053). "But only if you let it."
Today, life has led Jackson, 39, to Savannah, Ga., where he cuts meat at a Sam's Club, looks after his mom and teenage daughter and dotes on his fiancee. After a near-disastrous early adulthood that included a bout with alcohol addiction, he says he's "content."
"(Life) can humble you," he said. "I've got a daughter (Nyah) that's going on 16 in October. She wants to come to USF, be an alumnni like her dad. Life has taken me through a lot, not to say I didn't put myself in that situation. … God's still got a plan for me, he's still got me kicking."
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The original Bulls football team, which played in the school's inaugural game 20 years ago next month, is sprinkled with cautionary tales. The fact that Jackson lived to tell his seems improbable considering his self-infliction that included a couple of DUI arrests in 2002 and '03.
He says he essentially went to pieces when his grandmother, Constance "Connie" Wilson, passed away at the dawn of his senior year in September 2000. He said he ultimately earned a liberal-arts degree from USF, but struggled to cope with the loss of the woman who helped raise him in Miami's rough Liberty City district.
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"My granny was my heart," said Jackson, still ninth in school history in career receptions (104) and eighth in career receiving yardage (1,373).
"From there to 2005, before I woke up and realized my daughter needed a dad, a positive role model and figure in her life, I'd say those five years were the roughest in my life."
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But here's where the conversation segues into a lecture of sorts: Jackson makes no excuses for the trajectory his life has taken. Though he earned a degree, he says he wasn't totally ready for his post-sports life, which included a series of odd jobs preceding his arrival in Savannah.
The result isn't so much a storybook ending as a textbook one — for the current Bulls.
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"I would want the younger generation that just thinks they're superstars and this and that, that it can't happen to them, to realize life is bigger than football," he said. "Even when you finish football, you've got to have something to fall back on."