Thomas Jackson knows it surprised other people, but he wants to make clear that he wasn't caught off guard. The defense was, absolutely, and the crowd probably was, too. Later, his teammates admitted they didn't see it coming either, not until Jackson streaked into the end zone on a 34-yard reception, giving the Tar Heels a 34–28 lead over Florida State. How often does a former walk-on score a decisive touchdown, especially on the road in a hostile environment against the No. 12 team in the country?
UNC, then unranked, went on to win that day at Florida State, after a late field goal gave the Tar Heels a 37–35 upset over a team originally expected to contend for a spot in the 2016 College Football Playoff. Jackson, a 5' 11", 195-pound receiver who grew up dreaming of playing for the Tar Heels, isn't an obvious hero. But that's only fitting, he says, when you consider his entire walk-on journey.
"I've had some people reach out and say it's pretty inspiring, seeing a walk-on score but that's where I was supposed to be," Jackson says, referring to both his route run that day against FSU and the fact that he's found a permanent spot in the UNC huddle. "It was cool, seeing my teammates' reaction. Everyone was so surprised but me, I was on the sideline like, 'It's about time, I knew I could do that.'"
Jackson, from Charlotte, N.C., grew up a Tar Heel fan partially because he didn't have any other choice. His dad, David, a former defensive back, was captain of the 1969 team, lettering in '68 and '69. Thomas wears the same No. 48 as David because he was confident that despite his walk-on status, no one would ever try to take his dad's number away from him.
UNC receivers coach Gunter Brewer says now that Thomas was a "very dynamic" high school player. Stats back that up: In his final two seasons at Charlotte Country Day, Jackson totaled 1,023 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, plus 563 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Named MVP of his team, Jackson also played lacrosse all four years and basketball for two. Still Thomas generated little to no interest from local FBS schools. As a rising senior, he attended a summer football camp at Wake Forest, and was mistakenly placed with kids two years younger than him. UNC-Charlotte, a member of Conference USA, barely gave him a sniff. Brewer, who wound up offering Thomas a spot in Chapel Hill as a preferred walk-on, says that even in the era of YouTube highlights and middle schoolers who get scholarship offers, kids can slip under the radar.
"More and more, early offers are extended to a certain amount of people and (rosters) fill up before other people have a chance to develop," Brewer explains. "Then, when a kid becomes good their senior or junior year, those slots are already taken.
"That's why you see someone like a Marshall University every year—they land a great player and you say, 'Where did that guy come from?' It's not a science or an exact mathematical equation, but people get really overlooked because we're recruiting the cream of the crop as sophomores and it takes other guys time to mature."
Jackson joined the program in 2014, and immediately wondered if he'd been too ambitious is his quest to play ACC football. "Oh my god, the first couple weeks it was like, what have I gotten myself into?!," he says.
On the field, Jackson slowly earned respect—and confidence. In a one-on-one drill the first week of fall camp 2014, he beat his defensive back by "three or four steps," corralled a pass and thought to himself, "OK I can do this."
Courtesy of Jeffrey A. Camarati, UNC Athletic Communications
Off the field, he struggled. Jackson says the biggest difference between a walk-on versus a scholarship player are the relationships. Committed athletes often get to know each other well before they move into the dorms, forming bonds with others in the signing class through a series of text message conversations and official visit hangouts. By the time walk-ons join their class in August or September, friendships and cliques have been established. The fact that walk-ons are not permitted to eat at training table adds another layer of separation.
"I think it's lonely for everybody who goes to college, especially at first, when you're away from everything you knew," Jackson says. "The good thing is that because I had to be at the stadium every day for practice, eventually your relationships progress."
Turns out, those friendships grew even deeper than he realized.
One day last season, after a particularly bad practice that included quite a few dropped passes and a lot of screaming from the coaching staff, Jackson sat in the tunnel of Kenan Memorial Stadium and had a thought that he's sure runs through every walk-on's mind at some point: Do I even want to do this anymore? Then, Tar Heels trainer Kenny Boyd walked by. Malik Carney followed Boyd.
Boyd talked about how the Tar Heels program doesn't prioritize people based on their aid allotment and that, despite a rough day, he knew the coaches and players in the locker room believed in Jackson. Carney's words were even more personal. "We all have days we don't want to play anymore," he told Jackson. "But you've gotta hang in there, because we've all got your back. And you know you're one of my boys."
"That's something I'll never forget, that those guys went out of their way to make sure I was O.K.," Jackson says now. "That moment, I was so close to quitting but having those two people talk to me made me realize that even if football doesn't work out, the relationships I've built make it worth it."
The football part is working out now. Though he did not record any receiving statistics in 2015 after playing in just five games, Jackson proved himself to be a valuable commodity on special teams, and was put on a scholarship this fall in a moment he laughingly describes as "anti-climactic." Called into head coach Larry Fedora's office after practice early this fall, Jackson worried that he was about to get lit up for messing up a special teams play. Instead, Fedora told him, in a sort of nonchalant way, that he was going to give Jackson a scholarship. "Are you serious?!" the junior cried out. "Why are you being so calm about this?!"
"The general perception of any walk-on story is that they're not supposed to be there," Brewer says. "But Thomas found a way on the field because he plays with a lot of energy, always executes his assignments and plays with heart. He has a lot of talent that a lot people slept on."
Jackson instantly shared the news with his parents, calling home to tell them that after six years of private school tuition, he'd finally be able to take away the financial burden. David Jackson says that yes, he got a little teary when he heard that his son had reached "the ultimate benchmark."
"Being a walk-on, you're on the outside, you don't feel like you belong," David says. "Most of the walk-ons back in the day, they'd last maybe a year. Most of them didn't survive. But Thomas, he's thrived."
He's learned, too, that perseverance on the football field is transferable.
"I know now that if I want to accomplish something, I can," Thomas says. "I know when I eventually get a job, I'll face challenges, and I'll deal with it. Or when I really want to get a good grade in a class, I'll figure out a way. If I can play football, I can do anything. Really."
So far this season, Jackson has caught 11 passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns for the No. 18 Tar Heels (6–2, 4–1 ACC), who host Georgia Tech on Saturday. He is, he says, exactly where he's supposed to be, even if most people doubted him along the way. He hears the criticism and the haters, and ignores it … save for one thing that he relates to being a walk-on. If he hadn't been a walk-on, if he'd been a featured, premier player, this part probably wouldn't be true but right now, it is.
His touchdown celebration dances need a whole lot of work. And that will come with more trips to the end zone, a place that, Jackson says, walk-ons belong just as much as anyone else.
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com