Leon Jackson limped off the practice field on Monday, favoring his left knee, when a voice stopped the 6-foot-2 senior dead in his tracks.
"You should have practiced today," Merced football coach Rob Scheidt said. "You know, to keep it loose."
Jackson spun, bent his bum knee gingerly for his coach and offered him some reassurance.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'll be ready to go tomorrow."
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There was a time -- not too long ago -- that Scheidt would have second-guessed his star defensive lineman.
Jackson wasn't always Mr. Dependable.
A rash of poor decisions beginning in the summer before his junior year had left the 263-pounder feeling like the smallest kid on campus.
"Like all the other players, he had a choice to make," Scheidt said, "and it wasn't up to me, the other coaches or the players to make it for him.
"It was his decision: Did he want to do the work to make this team or not?"
Jackson chose the latter, brushing off summer workouts, the football program and eventually school.
"It was a lot of things," Jackson said. "I just wasn't focused. My mind was in another place."
It showed, too.
He was ruled ineligible for his junior season for poor grades, and spent most of the fall trying to avoid the football team at all costs.
Game days were the worst.
He shied away from teammates on campus and hated being in the stands at home games.
So he stopped going.
Instead, he watched Merced's run to the Sac-Joaquin Section final from his living room on METV.
Jackson was angry, disappointed, and at times, alone in a world he had created for himself.
"It gave me a taste in my mouth that I didn't want anymore," he said. "They did some really good things last year and I was mad that I had no part in that.
"Now I'm hungry -- hungrier than I've ever been before. That's what is pushing me this year. I didn't get to play in the section title game, so I'm trying to get that back."
Jackson can make up for lost time Friday when Merced hosts Grace Davis in the first round of the Division I playoffs.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Don Odishoo Field.
Jackson has tapped his potential in his first and final season on the varsity team, becoming a key cog on one of the section's best defenses.
Merced has held opponents to seven or less points six times this season, including three shutouts.
Though Jackson's numbers aren't staggering, Scheidt insists that his value isn't measured in tackles or sacks.
"He's a guy who can take or demand a double-team," Scheidt said. "What that does is free up our linebackers to make plays. Really, that's what our defense is set up to do."
Jackson's teammates have reaped the rewards of those crowds in the middle of the defensive line.
Linebackers David DeLaTorre and James Sulhoff lead the team in tackles, while defensive ends Kameron Huddleston and Nathan Mayfield own a bulk of the team's sack total.
"He keeps people off of us," Sulhoff said. "If he's getting blocked, you can bet we're making the tackle."
Sulhoff has taken a keen interest in Jackson's return.
The two share more than just an affinity for crushing tackles and three-and-outs.
The former neighbors were close friends and car pool buddies as sophomores on the junior varsity team.
Together, they sculpted the blueprints for today's success as 15-year-olds.
"For years, we were pretty close. I was probably the closest teammate to him," Sulhoff said. "I'd pick him up and drop him off after practices and workouts.
"When he didn't come back to play, you could say it was pretty disappointing."
Jackson believes the year away was a blessing -- a hard-knock lesson in the sport of life.
He realized the role academics played in his long-term goals, and how far he had set himself back.
Jackson took English and world history courses over the summer to make up his missing credits, and re-dedicated himself to Scheidt's program.
He didn't miss a single summer workout after January.
"It really helped me grow up," Jackson said. "It showed me what I have to do for myself. No one's always going to be there to help you.
"I really want to play at the next level," he added. "It's going to be hard, but I'm willing to fight for it."
That, Scheidt says, has been Jackson's best decision yet.
"You never want to see someone go," Scheidt said. "With the compassion we have as coaches, we don't want
to lose any of our kids because you never know if you'll see them again.
"We're glad because Leon made the right choice. He's a better player now and a better human being, too."
James Burns is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2417 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.