PISCATAWAY, N.J. – As a youngster growing up in Hazlet, N.J., Bennett Jackson would sometimes leave in the middle of his Pop Warner football games with the Hazlet Hawks and wander over to play with his travel soccer team.
"I would just leave at halftime and go to the soccer game. We would be up a by a lot. We were really good," Jackson recalled during the recent Big Time Football Showcase at Rutgers University.
Now that he's a 6-foot-1, 165-pound junior at Hazlet (N.J.) Raritan High, Jackson competes in three sports – football, baseball and track – but has given up soccer. A wide receiver on the gridiron, he caught 35 passes for 509 yards and three touchdowns last fall while rushing 35 times for 257 yards and three more scores.
"Jackson is the second best recever in the state behind Shakim Phillips," according to Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "He is one of the fastest rising recruits in the northeast and most schools who came to see him this spring eval came away impressed and offered."
Jackson lives with his mother, Grace, and credits her with being "the biggest influence on me." Yet his father has also played a pivotal role.
Bennett Sr. said he realized his son was special after he entered him as a 4-year-old in a 60-yard-dash against 5- and 7-year-olds in the Monmouth (N.J.) County Fair.
"He beat them in the 60-yard dash, and that's when I realized how fast he was," the father recalled.
After earning all-state honors as a wide receiver and defensive back at Keyport High School, Bennett Sr. ended up at Dean Junior College in Franklin, Mass. He said he was hoping to eventually play Division I football at Boston College, but he ended up becoming a father at a time when he wasn't prepared for it. (He fathered a child with a woman other than Grace Jackson.). Now he sometimes wonders what might have happened had he been able to play college football.
"I messed up my chances, but I'm not going to allow him to mess up his," the father said of his son. "It comes down to wondering what would've happened. I don't want him to ever have to go through life wondering if I would've [done] this, would I have made it? I want him to find out if he's good enough."
Said Bennett Jr.: "He wants to see me do me well in football."
So far Jackson's talents have attracted 11 scholarship offers from high-major programs. He lists Boston College, Pittsburgh and Rutgers among his favorites but says Notre Dame and West Virginia are also in the mix.
Raritan coach Robert Generelli has been quite busy fielding calls from coaches. Michigan State was the latest school to offer.
"Right now he's just trying to compile as much information as possible," Generelli said. "At the end of June he's going to sit down with mom and myself and identify three or four schools he'd like to visit. He's been on the Rutgers campus, Boston College, Pitt. He plans to take a Midwestern trip next week to see Northwestern, Notre Dame and possibly Michigan State.
"He's really trying to get on as many campuses, tour as many facilities and get around the players as much as he can before he commits to his official visits."
Bennett Sr. said Grace and Beverly Jackson, Bennett's grandmother, would like for the young man to stay close to home, but the father says Bennett should go wherever suits him best.
"Whether you go to North Carolina or Iowa then you go there, you handle your business as a man. I'll make it to the games," the father said.
Generelli said Jackson could play a number of positions, from kick returner to slot receiver to cornerback.
"Once he gets in a year-round college football program he's got a chance to really flourish where he works in a really good strength and conditioning program. He's got a tremendous upside," Generelli said.
"Strength and explosiveness are areas that he can get better at. That's going to allow him to enhance his speed and be a more physical player."
Jackson has a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he is ranked 26th among players in New Jersey and No. 57 at his position nationally.
"I think I'm way higher," he said. "I think I'm top five [in New Jersey]."
In the classroom, Generelli said Jackson has earned a 3.5 GPA for three consecutive semesters and has really helped himself.
"I'm happy with the way he's handling this process, especially with the momentum that's been created," Generelli said.