JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After more than a decade of struggles, Jackson is contending again. If the Tigers beat Raines a week from Thursday, they’ll clinch the district title for the first time since 2009.
It would mark a huge step in the turnaround under third-year head coach Christopher Foy.
After struggling for most of the last decade, Jackson has returned to contender status. How did a program with 11 wins over a six-year span, including a 25-game losing streak, become one of the best in the city so quickly?
Leadership from Foy, but more importantly, leadership from the players, in particular a senior class that endured a coaching change and embraced a change in culture.
Foy played at Jackson under Kevin Sullivan, the most successful coach in the school’s history. But when he took the head coaching job, the program Sullivan had built was in tatters.
“My old school was in just a lot of broken pieces,” Foy said. “A lot of remnants of things that Coach Sullivan had built. And I knew what they were for, but nothing was working. And you just took the approach that the kids deserved those things, to work to have those things. And so that’s, that’s the approach we took.”
Part of Foy’s approach was to reach out to his circle of coaches and mentors, football men who he had worked for and respected. Sullivan was one. Others like Joe Reynolds and Kevin Brown at Fletcher and Marty Lee at First Coast. He contacted coaches at Terry Parker and other schools to ask for help rebuilding the program. He needed weights for the weight room, equipment, including practice jerseys and helmets. They also found a huge boost from the Jaguars Prep program.
“The Jaguars Prep program helped us in every way,” Foy said. “They were key for us getting enough safe helmets. Adriel Rocha of the Prep program saved Jackson football. They gave us a platform to volunteer and give.”
Foy’s first year was a slight improvement over the team’s previous 3-7 mark. Amid the pandemic, the Tigers went 4-5. Then last season, a 7-4 mark and a trip to the playoffs where they lost in the first round to Gadsden County.
This year, with a senior class that has lived through the coaching and cultural transition, the Tigers lost their opener to undefeated Brunswick and haven’t lost since. The defense has led the way behind senior linebacker Grayson Howard, one of the top recruits in the area. Howard has committed to South Carolina and has put up monster numbers this year. While he is a major talent, he credits his teammates with doing the dirty work in front of him.
“One big thing is selflessness,” Howard said. “For example, on the field on Friday nights, sometimes the defensive end is not going to make a lot of sacks. He’s not going to get the glamour of rushing the passer and getting sacks. But he’s going to take on the lead block when they pull. And we have two incredible defensive ends that do exactly what they’re supposed to do. Not for their self-glory, but because it’s going to bring us a W. There are many examples and Coach Foy did a great job of teaching us and building leadership on the team.”
The cultural change happened in the offseason before it bore fruit on the field on Friday nights. Offseason weight training was the perfect setting for the player to motivate each other to improve.
“It’s always been win the day. We’ll go in the weight room you want to win it instead of lagging behind each other and falling behind,” said senior defensive end Jeremiah Lovely. “We’re all together now. So before, I believe we weren’t together. We were always apart, always talking down on each other. But now, since Coach Foy came, we’re all bringing each other up.”
The change in results has come after the change in culture. Foy earned the trust and respect of his team in the first years. Now, it’s paying off on the field.
“It just shows the love that he has for all of us,” said senior wide receiver Terrance Holland. “Some coaches won’t even go out of their way to do as much as they can. He does everything he can from having us in the best way, putting us in the best uniform, making sure everybody has the same mission, everybody looks the same, and not make everybody feel different.”
Before traveling to the Graveyard to face Raines on Oct. 27, the Tigers will host Baker County in a non-district game. It could be the Tigers’ biggest test of the year since the opener. A win against the Wildcats and the team would match last year’s mark for the most wins in the past 12 years.
There is plenty of confidence among the seniors. When asked what the Tigers can accomplish this year, Fred Gaines was blunt with his assessment of Jackson’s potential.
“Win state. That’s what we want,” said running back Fred Gaines. “We are stronger than everybody. Faster than everybody, coached better than everybody. So, we just love it.”