BELLEVILLE — At his first youth football practice, Merrick Jackson quickly learned what it was like to be bigger than everyone else around him.
Placed on the second row of the kickoff return team, the 5-foot-9, 200-pound seventh-grader suddenly found the ball in his hands and headed upfield. With players going down all around him like scattered bowling pins, Jackson reached the end zone.
"I was just like running kids over," joked Jackson, now a 6-foot-3, 340-pound senior defensive tackle and University of Illinois recruit who has helped Althoff High reach the Class 2A football quarterfinals. "That was pretty fun. I always knew I was going to be a lineman, but it would be fun to get the ball every once in a while."
Ironically, Jackson sometimes lines up in the Althoff backfield now --but only as a blocker.
"Its pretty fun," he said with a smile. "A lot of teams have started to watch film on that and they start to get out of the way now whenever I come through. That would be even more fun if I got the ball."
Again, the pleading to become Althoff's version of William "The Refrigerator" Perry, the beefy defensive lineman who scored a touchdown for the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX.
"He's about as quick any guy I've ever seen that size," said Althoff coach Ken Turner, who doesn't hesitate to play Jackson on the offensive and defensive lines and even in the backfield. "We put him in the backfield to play fullback in some of our sets. I would give him the ball if I could, but he'd have to switch jersey numbers. You know he's asking for it and he wants it."
Althoff (8-3) plays host to Casey (11-0) in the 2A quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lindenwood Stadium.
Big man in the middle
Check the tackle totals for the Althoff linebackers the last few seasons and a good portion of those were made possible at least in part by Jackson.
The giant defensive tackle clogs the middle, occupying blockers while freeing up Erik Furmanek (138 tackles, three interceptions), Zach Donaldson (87 tackles, four interceptions) and others to make plays.
"He clogs everything up and he can shoot the gaps," Turner said. "He allows our linebackers to play free a lot because you've got to worry about double-teaming him. He doesn't have to make a tackle to make a big impact on a lot of those plays."
Jackson and Furmanek have developed a tight bond. They are so close that Jackson nearly committed to Iowa because he thought Furmanek might be headed there as well.
Furmanek was asked about the most impressive things he has seen Jackson do.
"He got off the ball so quick that he knocked the ball out of the center's hands before he could get it to the quarterback," Furmanek said, recalling a game last season against Mount Vernon. "Now everybody knows who he is and they're sending three people to block him."
Jackson is third on the team with 59 tackles and two sacks, including a team-leading 15 tackles for loss. He also had a memorable interception return for a touchdown in the season-opening win over Collinsville.
"For a guy that size, that was one of the most athletic plays I've seen," Turner said. "He not only picked the ball off, he ran the thing back like a running back and stiff-armed a guy. That was a great play."
On another impact play this season against Cahokia, Jackson went through three players to sack the quarterback.
"He's just a powerful kid and a person that you really want to watch every play," Turner said. "He's good with his hands and just so strong."
Jackson draws a crowd no matter where he lines up.
"(My size) is an advantage, I just have to learn to use it all the time," he said, noting the pressure to dominate that comes with being so big. "Other people don't tell me that, but I feel that way."
Jackson placed himself on the Division I recruiting map as a junior with 65 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries and 13 tackles for loss.
He is well aware of the lengths teams will go to trying to get him blocked.
"Double-teams and chip blocks, that's normal," he said. "I'm used to it. After the year that I had last year I just accepted the fact that it was going to come."
Learning to fit in
What is it about football that excited Jackson?
"Getting to hit people ...and the family that you create, that you become part of," he sad. "It's like brothers that you'll always have for life."
Jackson rated his No. 1 hit as one that came during his junior year.
"They tried to run a reverse and I tackled both the guys at the same time and made them fumble," he explained.
Jackson recalled how he got involved with football for the first time.
"I used to get a ride home from school with this kid I knew," he said. "One day I went with them to football practice because they didn't have time to drop me off at home. I went over to where the bigger kids were practicing and they asked me if I wanted to play football."
Jackson grew up in East St. Louis and Cahokia and played youth football in Dupo, where a cousin was coaching. His brother is East St. Louis High standout linebacker Markese Jackson.
The brothers have the same father, but live in different towns.
Merrick Jackson has become more comfortable with his size over the years, but it wasn't always the case.
"I accept the fact that I'm a big dude, so I really don't care," he said. "Especially being the size I was in grade school and playing football. There were always parents yelling. I played a game vs. Centreville and one parent was yelling 'He should play for the Rams' or something like that."'
Now Jackson is headed for Division I football, a world where his size won't turn heads unless he's making plays.
"He's probably going to have to shed some pounds and be in the best shape he's ever been in at that next level," Turner said. "You're going against lot larger guys than you did in high school."
Jackson knows that all parts of his game must improve to have success with the Illini. That includes diet, fitness and academics.
"They want me to be down to a manageable weight so whenever I get up there they can get me down to a better weight," he said. "I'm nervous just to see where I stand, but I'm pretty excited too."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.