COLLEGE PARK -- Tony Jackson doesn't smile much these days.
A third injury in three years at Maryland has jolted his football career again and could result in a medical hardship season in what was supposed to be a breakthrough year for the promising junior strong safety from Wilde Lake.
"Sometimes, I think like maybe somebody doesn't want me to play," Jackson said yesterday as he stared down at his broken left ankle. "They say everything happens for a reason, and maybe the reason this happened is that somebody is trying to tell me I might get hurt worse if I keep on playing."
The break happened for the 6-foot-1, 212-pound Jackson while blocking on the punt return team in the third quarter of the season opener against Temple.
He will be eligible for a medical hardship if he doesn't play again this season, giving him two more years of eligibility.
"When the trainers release Tony, we'll make a decision [on medical hardship] based on the best interests of all involved," said Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden. "There are lots of possibilities. We can't address it until that time comes and we see where we are as a team, the position we're in, and how good Tony feels."
Vanderlinden said the best-case scenario is that Jackson will miss only three to four more games.
The 1997 Sun Male Athlete of the Year said he is trying not to think much about sitting out the rest of the season and hopes to return for the final four games.
The lure of playing on what may become the most successful Maryland football team in 14 years is enough to drive Jackson back to the field as soon as possible and wipe out many of the doubts about his future in the sport.
The Terps, off to a 3-0 start, would win the most games since the 1985's 9-3 team if they split eight Atlantic Coast Conference games to finish 7-4.
"I've really never thought about giving up football," said Jackson, whose size and speed will be missed against the top-notch ACC teams, beginning with No. 10 Georgia Tech on Thursday in Atlanta.
"It was a great team victory [33-0] against West Virginia, and when we scored 51 points against Western Carolina, that was the most points we had in a long time. It was satisfying to see my teammates having fun out there but disheartening to watch, because I wasn't involved. I had a left-out feeling."
Even if Jackson makes it back for the last four games, he still will have missed 12 games in three seasons.
As a freshman, he was out two games with a contusion and swelling on his left knee. He missed four games with a sprained left knee last season, and then came the freakish broken ankle on the artificial surface at Philadelphia's Franklin Field.
"As soon as I planted the foot, it just went down," said Jackson. "It's like a stress fracture and like one of those things that never is supposed to happen."
Jackson said one of the saddest parts of that Sept. 2 night when he broke the ankle was meeting his parents, Richard and Vernetta Jackson, after the game.
"We all looked at each other, and our eyes said, 'Why me?' " he said. "They were also at Clemson when I sprained my knee last year, and they've been at every game I've played except the one in Tallahassee [Florida State] my freshman year. My parents and people around Wilde Lake were excited for me, because I was coming off an outstanding spring and had come back from the knee injury to [start] at strong safety." Now, the high expectations for this gifted, two-sport athlete have been put on hold again. "Injuries have slowed me down," said Jackson, who also starred on the Maryland baseball team last spring, hitting .353 with no errors in 20 games in center field. "I don't know what my complete potential would be if I wouldn't have been hurt three times."
Vanderlinden said he hopes Jackson has "gotten all his injuries out of the way now."
"I know he's down about not playing," said Vanderlinden. "He told me it's hard to feel a part of our team when he's not out there. But he's certainly a part of it. He's a great team guy. I like him, because he's a football player with great awareness, is smart, has good ball skills, makes plays, is a gamer, and is fast enough to get the job done."
So what about baseball?
Jackson was drafted in the 32nd round by the Cleveland Indians in 1997 and has been cleared by Vanderlinden to play baseball, if it doesn't interfere with spring football practice.
"That is part of the partnership I struck with Tony when I recruited him," said the coach. "In his senior year, I'm going to allow him to play baseball full time. Tony's parents realized the odds against him making the major leagues, so they wanted him to get an education first."
NOTES: Starting defensive tackle Kris Jenkins twisted an ankle in practice yesterday and is listed as day-to-day for Thursday's clash in Atlanta with Georgia Tech (8 p.m., ESPN). Starting fullback Matt Kalapinski (bruised sternum) has missed two days of practice but is expected back tomorrow. Backup inside linebacker Reggie Lewis (knee ligaments) will miss the Georgia Tech game, but backup nose tackle Todd Bradley (inflamed thigh) should play. The Tech game in Atlanta will be a homecoming for freshman quarterback Latrez Harrison, who is third on the depth chart but has received more reps than usual in practice this week. "We're just giving Latrez more work," said Vanderlinden, adding that he doesn't plan on playing Harrison more than usual in his home town.
Pub Date: 9/24/99