JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Grayson Howard knows how important it is.
He sees it in the hallways and at pep rallies. He sees it when people ask him where he’s going to play college football at. There’s pure excitement at Jackson High School. There’s pride.
And Howard is a big reason why.
He’s one of the area’s top recruits in the Class of 2023 and represents the face of the 180-degree pivot done by Jackson over the past 12 years. The Tigers have turned things around under Howard and coach Christopher Foy, sweeping years of struggles and tragedy away to become one of the better stories entering the 2022 season.
At the forefront of that renaissance is Howard, who has helped pull major college recruiters and expectations and attention back to Main Street for the first time since 2010. Howard’s humble demeanor and respect (he never fails to addresses authority figures with the “yes sir” or “yes ma’am”) belies his wicked production at linebacker.
Howard had 157 tackles, 14 for loss in an All-News4JAX junior season that saw Jackson qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and he’s been on it from the outset to see the changes from the very beginning.
“It’s definitely been a blessing that I’ve been able to see it through from my freshman year,” Howard said. “All I’ve got to say is no hard work pays off. Do everything you’re supposed to do in the classroom. Stay prayed up and you know, everything will work itself out.”
Winning football games on Friday nights is big for the program and the kids who walk the halls. Recruiting attention from Power 5 programs adds a national visibility to the mix and that stretches far beyond the 904. Howard has a final five that includes Clemson, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M. He said his final decision could come as early as July or as late as December’s early signing period.
Foy arrived at Jackson at the end of 2019 and immediately noticed the football potential in Howard. It was difficult not to. Athletic director Kevin Sullivan had seen the major upside in Howard as a freshman and told him then that major college football was in his future.
Foy also saw the other side of Howard — the hard work, the respect, how he handled things during the pandemic — that he knew there was something special. Foy had coached some of the top area players in middle school (De’Andre Johnson, DeMarcus Walker to name a couple) and saw similar leadership and talent traits out of Howard.
“That’s been huge for us to have a guy who it didn’t just happen for him overnight,” Foy said. “It’s just not because of his ability, but he’s got a process as well that is second to none. And that’s what makes him so special.”
On paper, Howard is the program’s third-biggest recruit of the 21st century. He’s rated a four-star prospect by three of the four major recruiting services (On3, ESPN and 247 Sports).
Running back Leon Washington is the benchmark, a five-star who won the Mr. Football award in 2000 and was essentially a top-10 recruit by the major services in 2001. Defensive tackle D’Angelo McCray in 2007 was a national top 100 recruit by both ESPN and 247 Sports.
The major difference comes in the era that both McCray and Washington played in. Jackson went through a significant adjustment period after coach Kevin Sullivan stepped down in 2009 to help build the program at Atlantic Coast. Quinn Gray led Jackson to the playoffs and finished 5-6 in 2010 before resigning.
“He’s been a great guy, just a great leader for us. A great ambassador, not just for Andrew Jackson, but for this community,” Foy said.
The Jackson community needed it.
The Tigers went through a barren stretch from 2011 to ‘19, a combined 15-70 under six different head or interim coaches. Foy, who coached middle school at Landmark and later served as an assistant at Fletcher, saw the Tigers fade from across town. And last year, Jackson suffered two significant losses with the deaths of offensive coordinator Donald Rocker Jr. and assistant Lin Shell. Howard still references “Coach Rock” in routine conversation as a major influence on his life. Shell and Rocker died nearly three months apart.
The big change for Jackson came in 2016, the Duval County School Board voted to convert Jackson into a technology-centric magnet school. That shifted the student body from mostly a neighborhood school into one that drew students from across the county.
That was great for academics and was done to unlock more of Jackson’s potential. But magnet schools aren’t typically identified with as having headlining sports programs across the board.
Howard credits Foy with bringing the infrastructure to Jackson to succeed after the magnet transition.
“I think the change is the culture that Coach Foy brought here. We don’t we don’t play anymore,” Howard said. “He brought culture, weights, discipline, and all that good things that turned some decent players into really good players.”
Foy said the foundation he and the staff brought has led to something else.
“I think the word we’re looking for is pride. It’s just having pride back in your school. I mean, we have a team room and our first rule is to love your school,” Foy said. “That’s so large because, I mean, a football season only lasts maybe three months. Now, the other nine, what do you want your student athletes to be engaged in?”