Luke Jackson’s time at Tulane special on and off the field
NEW ORLEANS — Luke Jackson’s football career at Tulane could have ended before it ever started.
It was four years ago this month that the then-freshman linebacker was red-shirting and was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He not only sat out his first season but missed his second season as well while recovering from multiple surgeries and chemotherapy.
“I wasn’t going to give it up unless I had to,” said Jackson said, who received clean bill of health, began playing in 2015, endured a coaching change, became a starter and has turned into one of the Green Wave’s top players.
He and his fellow seniors were honored prior to their final home game Saturday, a 20-17 victory against Houston in Yulman Stadium.
“I had a small role two years ago, playing special teams,” Jackson said. “I played a little more last year. Starting this year was a huge goal for me to accomplish and it was exciting.”
Jackson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in finance in May and is headed toward a graduate degree in homeland security next year, leads the team in sacks (3.5) and is second in tackles for loss (six).
But Jackson’s career as a Tulane student-athlete has never been adequately defined by any gridiron statistics.
He was recently named one of 20 semifinalists for the inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year award, which is the first college football honor to focus primarily on a player’s leadership on and off the field.
“The respect for him in the locker room is unquestioned,” Green Wave linebackers coach Michael Mutz said. “Everyone looks up to him because he carries himself with a quiet dignity, always does things right, leader by example, not extremely vocal but it’s a quiet fire inside him.
“He’s pretty near and dear to my heart because of all the things that he’s overcome as a young person.”
Jackson, a native of LaPlace, competed in swimming and track and field as well as football at St. Charles Catholic. His high-school coach, Frank Monica, had recruited Jackson’s uncle, David, to play linebacker for the Green Wave when Monica was a Tulane assistant in the 1980s.
“Luke had a lot more speed than David because David couldn’t run out of the rain, but David had great instincts,” Monica said. “It took Luke a while, but I knew he was going to be a player one day.
“He’s not a yeller or a screamer. He just does his job. He would play hard. He was always where he was supposed to be. He was always doing the right things.”
Jackson was named River Parishes Defensive Player of the Year as a senior by RiverParishesFootball.com, an honor that got the attention of Destrehan linebacker Ray Juan Mobley, who was a year behind Jackson.
“I saw it and thought that’s a great honor to have, especially knowing how big football is in the River Parishes and being a defensive guy that was a goal I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be working toward,” said Mobley, who earned the same honor a year after Jackson, then followed him to Tulane.
Jackson said he “didn’t hesitate committing” when former Tulane assistant Lionel Washington offered him a scholarship. He not only had his uncle’s legacy luring him, but his mother’s side of the family featured several Green Wave fans.
Growing up, Jackson spent countless summer weeks at a family fishing camp in Dulac, some 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, The camp was owned by another uncle who was a big Tulane fan and named the place “The Big Wave,” which is announced by a big sign with green trim.
“It definitely sticks out,” Jackson said. “It’s pretty cool.”
A couple of months into his first semester at Tulane, though, Jackson started experiencing lower back pain. He’d wake up in his dorm room with night sweats and had pain in his groin.
“I woke up soaking wet sometimes,” he said. “It was crazy.”
Once the cancer diagnosis was made, Jackson underwent his first surgery in November 2013 to remove one of his testicles and he was treated with chemotherapy. Later a CAT scan revealed lymph nodes on his chest and doctors performed a second surgery in April 2014 to remove those as a precaution.
“He took (the cancer diagnosis) like a champ,” said New Orleans Saints wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson, Jackson’s first head coach at Tulane. “I remember having a meeting with the family. His Dad said, “we’re going to beat this.” He was confident Luke would come back and play. That family made me feel good about life.”
Jackson sat out what would have been his redshirt freshman season after dropping to 200 pounds. He now plays in the 230s.
“A lot of people would have given up football,” Monica said, “but coming back says a lot about Luke’s moxie.”
Mobley, who also was honored Saturday, was a defensive end who was recruited to play middle linebacker. When he arrived, Jackson was working with the defensive line and the linebackers and Mobley would hang out with the linemen, hoping his predecessor as River Parishes Defensive Player of the Year would “give me some pointers.”
In 2015, Jackson started working out on his own while his teammates had spring practice. In the summer he concentrated on getting back to his playing weight, trying to “eat as much as possible” and doing extra weight lifting with the redshirts.
He finally got on the football field during the 2015 season when the Green Wave finished 3-9, leading to the dismissal of Johnson and his staff.
When new coach Willie Fritz and his staff arrived, they got thorough scouting reports on all the returning players from the graduate assistants, who were retained on the staff. Jackson’s story stood out.
“I hadn’t met him,” Mutz said, “but I already liked him.”
Next it was time to see what Jackson had on the field. His athleticism and intelligence jumped out.
“We knew we had a real smart kid on our hands,” Mutz said.
They looked at him at inside linebacker, outside linebacker and defensive end.
“He was clearly one of the better 11 players that we had, so we had to figure out ways to get him on the field,” Mutz said. “He impressed us so much last year we actually created a defense for him because he was so versatile being able to play D end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker.
“He’s one of my favorite guys that I’ve ever coached. I love the kid to death because of all the things he does. He’s a completely selfless individual. Whatever it takes for the team to win, playing punt team, kickoff, whatever, he’ll do it.”
This year Jackson has been exclusively a linebacker, but has moved around just as much — playing all three positions, even doing so in the same game when Tulane played nationally ranked South Florida.
“That’s really difficult to do in this day and age with the tempo, with the alignment, with the volume of defense,” Mutz said. “He doesn’t bat an eyelash. You can tell him something and he’ll get it. You don’t even have to draw it up.”
When ti comes to reflecting on his experience with cancer, Jackson speaks matter-of-factly.
“A lot of people say they respect me a lot for it,” Jackson said. “I guess that means a lot. The doctors did a good job. My family and friends were there to support me so I can’t really say it was all that hard on me. Just seeing how many people care was a good experience.”
On Saturday, Tulane led for the much of the game before Houston rallied to take a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter. The Green Wave regained the lead, 20-17, and needed to hold on in order to keep alive their hope of a breakeven season.
The Cougars drove to the Tulane 32 and faced a fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter. Jackson dropped into pass coverage, leaped as D’Eriq King released a pass and Jackson nearly snared the ball for an interception before it fell harmlessly to the ground.
The Green Wave held on for their second consecutive victory.
“It wasn’t too emotional for me,” Jackson said afterward, “but after we sang the alma mater I saw all my family and my mom and my sister were crying. It made me realize how special the last game was. To finish my last home game with a win like we did — fighting and making it happen — it was big and it was fun.
“As seniors we knew we just had to have fun in our last home game. That’s what we did. We all stayed focused. We knew we had to have a playoff mindset to get through and make sure we won so we could go get the next one.”
If Tulane wins at SMU next week it will be bowl eligible.
And if anyone deserves a bonus game at the end of his college career, it’s Luke Jackson.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…