In minutes Saturday night, University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque went from deep anxiety to bewildered amusement.
Linebacker Rojae Jackson, one of the Bears’ top defenders and an emotional leader of the team, lay motionless on the turf at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
Conque rushed out to closely observe the scene and the analysis by the UCA athletic training staff.
After a couple of minutes, Jackson moved in pain, then was helped off the field.
“He’s laying there and I’m thinking compound fracture or worse,” Conque said.
A few minutes later in the game against Nicholls State, a member of the athletic training staff walked up to Conque and told him that Jackson was cleared to play.
“What?” Conque said.
The athletic trainer told him Jackson had been checked out and that he was OK. Conque still erred on the side of caution and Jackson did not re-enter the game.
“He’s really wanting to go back in,” Conque said. “I’m worried about his well-being and he’s mad at me for not letting him play.”
But coming off the mat ready to attack another challenge has become a part of Jackson’s “MO.” He’s become one of the icons this year for the Bears’ program and what it is trying to become.
He may not be the face, but he’s part of the heart.
He was a standout high school player at St. James Parish in Louisiana, leading the state in tackles his senior year.
He loved football, didn’t care much for school.
Grades? He paid attention to them when they related to what his coaches told him after evaluating film.
Wanting to play college football and gaining a new perspective on life after Hurricane Katrina, he got his chance at Arkansas Baptist, where coach Richard Wilson and president Fitz Hill welcome reclamation projects.
He paid his own way to enroll at Arkansas Baptist. He paid his own way to walk on at UCA.
He got his academics in order. With a new focus, he got his chance last year for the Bears, appearing in 10 games as a defensive back. He also learned there was more to life than football. The athlete-only became a student-athlete, earned a scholarship and he’s on track to graduate.
“One of the great stories on our football team,” Conque said.
But if Jackson is telling his story, he may be difficult to follow.
“He talks fast and he’s as Cajun as Cajun comes,” Conque says. “I’m from Louisiana, been around that most of my life and I don’t understand him half the time.”
Jackson is listed from Vachere in southwest Louisiana.
“It’s actually ‘Back Vachere.’ There is a ‘Front Vachere,’” Conque said. “That means he’s back there on the levee, about as far out on the bayou as you can go. Sometimes folks on ‘Front Vachere’ can’t even understand those on ‘Back Vachere.’”
Conque recalled a moment when UCA and Montana were warming up before last year’s NCAA Division I FCS playoff game at Missoula, Mont.
Jackson was carrying on a friendly conversation with one of the Montana players.
“Now, I’m laughing because that young man was from Idaho,” Conque said. “And I’m thinking this guy is trying to carry on a conversation and probably hadn’t understood a word that Jackson has said.
“So, I go up to the player and asked him if he understood what Jackson said, He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I didn’t understand a word he was saying.’
“I knew there would be a cultural difference there.”
But Conque relished there experience. He saw one player from about as deep in southern Louisiana as one could go (one who had grown up in Cajun culture) who was trying to relate to a player whose home was not far from Canada and had an entirely different backgroud in the northwest.
“That’s one of the great educational parts of this game and a playoff experience,” Conque said. “Two players from entirely different areas of the country, who would probably never meet each other, get to talk to each other and share a little of their culture.”
Perspective. It can be a stealth element of education.
Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or email@example.com