Growing up, Willie Jackson Jr. couldn’t wait for Friday nights during the fall. Whenever P.K. Yonge football played, he was there.
However, he rarely watched the games. Instead, Jackson and his friends would head up to the top field behind the action. He would play pickup tackle football games — running and leaping for touchdowns as the Blue Wave faced off against their opponents.
All of his pickup games on the top field were just the start of the Gainesville native’s football career.
Now 51 years old, Jackson is heading back to where it all started to run the show for P.K. Yonge. The Blue Wave introduced Jackson as their new head coach May 8, where he will have the chance to bring success to the program he grew up playing for.
“I know what the P.K. way is,” Jackson said. “So that means a lot. It just makes sense for me to be able to have the opportunity to give back and build a legacy as a head coach.”
His legacy at P.K. Yonge started when Jackson made the junior varsity team in seventh grade. He quickly established himself as one of the premier players in the area, where he played quarterback, running back and defensive end.
He loved to have the ball in his hands.
Jackson went on to play wide receiver at the University of Florida after he graduated from P.K. Yonge in 1989. He earned All-Southeastern Conference honors three times during his four years at UF. He had a stellar career with Florida, with 162 receptions, 2,172 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. All three categories rank him in the top 10 in program history.
He wore No. 22 for the Gators just like his father, Willie Jackson Sr.
Jackson Sr. was one of two Black players to first earn a scholarship at UF.
“I had a built-in role model with my dad,” Jackson said. “I wanted to go to UF; he went to UF. He wore No. 22; I always wore No. 22. I didn’t have to search outside too far for [a role model.]”
In 1994, Jackson was selected in the fourth round of the 1994 National Football League Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He would go on to play for seven different teams across a nine-year NFL career before he retired in 2004.
It was a dream come true for him to reach the NFL, Jackson said.
“Not many people get to actually live out their dreams,” Jackson said. “It was a lot of work, but that was the only thing I ever wanted to do. That’s how you do your storybook. You do exactly what you wanted to do, what you thought you were going to do growing up.”
In 1991, Jackson’s father founded the Willie Jackson Foundation, and Jackson Jr. took over when he made it to the NFL. Additionally, Jackson Jr. runs a youth football program and coaches hundreds of kids on the fundamentals of football, he said.
His coaching career started during his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars. His dad was coaching a semi-pro team and he ran the offense, he said. He then went on to coach his son’s team at the boys’ club in the area.
“I’ve had the opportunity to learn from a lot of great football minds,” he said. “It seems fitting that I’m able to spread some of that knowledge I’ve been so honored to have received.”
From there, Jackson became the offensive coordinator for high schools in the area, including Hawthorne and Eastside. He also spent time with the Orlando Apollos, a former XFL team, where he coached under legendary former UF football head coach Steve Spurrier.
Jackson loved to throw the ball on offense, said Hawthorne head coach Cornelius Ingram. Ingram would have to ask Jackson to get his running backs carries during games.
“He would throw the ball every single play if he could,” Ingram said.
Jackson’s attention to detail is what makes him a strong coach, said Eastside head coach Harold Haskins.
He had Jackson by his side last year as his offensive coordinator, and it was a pleasure to work with him, he said.
“He was very reliable,” Haskins said. “He was always at every single practice on time. He’s very organized. He always had his stuff together ready to go. He was a great coach [for us].”
Jackson and his family are very close to the P.K. Yonge community. Jackson, his brother, sister and his daughter are all “P.K. Lifers,” a designation for students who attended the school from grade school through high school graduation.
Jackson’s son, Kahleil, also went to P.K.Yonge for a short time, but he graduated from Hawthorne. Kahleil now plays at UF. He redshirted his freshman year in 2020, and he played in six games in 2022.
He got the chance to coach his son as the offensive coordinator for Hawthorne.
“They really worked each other,” Ingram said. “If Kahleil had a bad play, he’d chew him out, and he’ll pick him right back up. Just seeing him on the sidelines with his kid was something that I admire.”
Jackson is now responsible for 11 students on offense and defense with the Blue Wave. The team had a 4-8 record last year, and Jackson looks to improve that. He has one goal: to build something special.
“I know how to do it. I’ve been groomed to do it,” Jackson said. “I love everything about being a head coach, about football. I love the organization. I love getting ready for practice. I love just everything about it.