COLUMBIA - After an 8-2 regular season in 2007, the Mansfield (Texas) Tigers were hoping for a nice first-round playoff game, possibly a team with a mediocre record that had barely qualified for the playoffs. Current Missouri safety Kenji Jackson and six other three-year starters had led the team to its first playoff appearance since 2000, and the Tigers were hoping to continue their senior year for weeks into the playoffs.
The first-round draw was anything but easy. The Tigers got Odessa’s Permian High School, an undefeated team and the school profiled in the "Friday Night Lights" book and movie. The game wasn’t pretty for Mansfield. Permian won 60-21.
“We were overmatched,” said Kirk Thor, Mansfield’s coach at the time. “Our kids played hard. It was just one of those games where if we had played them 10 times, we probably wouldn’t have won on the scoreboard 10 times.”
The team’s 8-3 season came after the team finished 3-7 in 2006.
One of the other seniors in Jackson’s class was Donavan Roberts, now a running back at New Mexico State. During his freshman year at Mansfield, Jackson played both running back and on defense. Due to the presence of Roberts and other running backs, Jackson was moved to safety before his sophomore year. Jackson said he was apprehensive about moving to defense initially.
“I didn’t have much confidence in myself,” Jackson said. “But I never played safety, so I’m thinking I had to be really tall and had to be really fast, so I was looking at all the different intangibles. But after I started playing it, I gained some confidence and started to like it.”
Whatever displeasure Jackson had, he didn’t express it to Thor.
“He was ‘Yes sir, no sir,’” Thor said. “I don’t remember him never getting into trouble. He was fun to coach, fun to be around.”
Jackson was the varsity starter at free safety his sophomore year, a position he held the rest of his high school career.
“He was aggressive,” Thor said. “I think he had an instinct for making tackles. Every time you’d see him play on defense, every time you’d see the ball on film, you’d see him."
Between Jackson’s junior and senior year, Thor began to realize he had a Big 12 caliber safety on his team.
“He really made some plays at the end of his junior year that we thought were special plays,” Thor said. “His closing speed on routes and on making tackles got a lot faster. We knew he was aggressive. But as he grew and got stronger, I just felt like we knew he was going to be a good player by the way he covered ground and how fast he moved.”
As his high school career progressed, Jackson began to appreciate the switch to safety.
“Changing to safety could have been the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d be here as a running back.”