When Kearis Jackson was two years old, he ran a full, 400-meter lap around a track for the first time. That was the moment when his mother, Kimberly McGhee, knew that her son had a future in athletics.
Now, the 18-year-old Jackson has enrolled early to play wide receiver at Georgia after posting 4,382 all-purpose yards over the course of his four-year career at Peach County High School in Fort Valley, Georgia, according to MaxPreps.
A four-star recruit in the Class of 2018 according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Jackson played four years of varsity football for the Trojans and was also a standout track and field athlete throughout his youth. Even before he started competing in both football and track and field at age six, Jackson was expected to thrive athletically.
"At six months, he actually jumped out of his crib,” McGhee said. “At eight months, he was already walking and running. And when he turned two, he ran a full lap, 400 meters, around the track. That's when I knew that he had athletic ability."
After displaying his athletically ability to his mother dating back to his days in the crib, Jackson began to thrive in competition at a young age, as well.
While also playing football, Jackson was traveling all over the country competing in track, the same sport that his mother competed in at Peach County High School years ago. And at age nine, Jackson finished second nationally in the 100-meter, according to his mother.
That speed carried over to the football field and allowed him to dominate the game at the youth level. And all along, Peach County head football coach Chad Campbell had his eyes on Jackson, whom he has known since Jackson was “knee high” because of McGhee’s ties to the school.
"He was running track at an early age, competing all over the country running track when he was little,” Campbell said. “We knew early on that he was an athlete. It didn't take long to figure it out."
Jackson would begin playing for Campbell during the 2014 season and earned playing time as a freshman because of his natural ability to make plays as a receiver, rusher and return man.
"We knew early on as a freshman that he was going to be a special player,” Campbell said. “Not only was he a fast kid but he had that deceptive strength. He is hard to bring down. People don't understand how strong he is."
But his strength did not remain deceptive for too much longer.
Jackson continued to balance two sports at the high-school level and was starring in track and field while also bringing in Division I offers for football. And after Jackson suffered a broken tibia and fibula during his freshman year in football, his ability to run in the following track season was compromised.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines for the entire track season, Jackson trained heavily in field events such as the shot put and discus.
"He put all kinds of holes in my yard every day throwing the shot put,” Jackson’s mother said. “I had all kinds of dents in the yard from him practicing. He would go on YouTube and watch videos and almost trained himself to throw a shot put and a disc...He is just a natural talent."
Jackson continued to compete in the throwing events throughout the remainder of his high-school career and would go on to win the GHSA Class 3A state shot put title as a junior.
And as he began to mature physically and as a football player, his strength has become one of the more pronounced aspects of his game.
"He's a strong kid,” Peach County assistant coach Todd Cooper said. “Some wideouts have that perception of being skinny and not strong but that's not his deal. He's a very powerful, explosive kid."
When Campbell was asked how he would describe Jackson after coaching him for four years at Peach County, he used two words: “dependable” and “tough”.
The broken tibia and fibula that sidelined Jackson during his freshman season at Peach County occurred while he was fielding a kickoff in a state playoff game. And after suffering such a serious injury, Jackson showed Campbell the trademark toughness that helps define him as a player.
"His freshman year, when he broke his leg, he fielded a high pooch kick and he caught it and a kid just dove straight into his shin,” Campbell said. “He broke his tibia and fibula. He's just tough. He didn't want to lay on the field, he wanted to walk off. He wanted to get up."
Jackson scored 36 total touchdowns in 48 career games at Peach County, according to MaxPreps, and was a star contributor on offense, defense and special teams, even serving as the team’s punter during his senior season.
But Jackson’s decorated career came to a premature end after the injury bug struck again in the state playoffs of his senior campaign.
He suffered a season-ending injury to his left wrist on Nov. 17 and was forced to watch his team pursue a state title from the sidelines.
"He was a good teammate [after the injury],” Campbell said. “He could have just ridden off into the sunset and said, 'Hey, my career is over and I'm not playing. I've already got my scholarship.' But he's a team guy. And he was right there for his teammates helping out."
While Jackson’s production on the field was an obvious part of the trust that his coaches had in him, the “dependable” label that Jackson was given goes beyond football. And he helped set an example for not only those on his team, but the younger players in the Peach County community as well.
"Kearis was never a problem, as far as a discipline problem,” Cooper said. “You never had to worry about Kearis being somewhere he didn't need to be. So he is a great example of how to handle your business. And those kids saw it."
Building a legacy
Jackson still has another piece of his legacy that he is waiting to leave behind at his old high school.
At Peach County, there is a wall dedicated to former football players that have gone on to the collegiate level. On the wall hangs the collegiate football pictures of the former Peach County players, a longstanding tradition that Jackson is eager to be a part of, as he will be draped in red and black for everyone to see.
"He is very excited and is ready to find out what number he is actually going to be so that he can get back to his school and have his picture on the wall,” Jackson’s mother said. “And that wall has been there since I was in high school. It is a big thing, going back and seeing all the guys that went to Peach County and went off to college."
The most pressing issue for Jackson is to get healthy and acclimated in Athens.
He enrolled early, getting to campus in January to get a step ahead in his collegiate career. He is also inching closer to being back at full strength. Jackson is expected to make a full recovery and his close friend Braxton Golden said that he is “close” to being back to 100 percent.
And if he does complete his recovery soon, Georgia could have a sneaky weapon in its arsenal right away.
"The things [Georgia] did with [D'Andre] Swift, like speed sweeps, we did with Kearis,” Cooper said. “Just getting the ball out and getting it into his hands quickly. The year before [Georgia] did it with Isaiah McKenzie. Kearis is good at that stuff. We played him in the slot, outside by himself, so he's had a chance in our offense to move around and be in different places."
Jackson is one of many talented players that Georgia will gain from the Class of 2018.
But the thing that sets Jackson apart is the range of his talent, his toughness and the way that his coaches were able to trust him. Those aspects all make up a legacy at Peach County that will not be forgotten anytime soon.
And if the difference that one makes in his school and community is any measuring stick, Jackson could turn out to be as special as any other player that the Bulldogs bring in from this recruiting cycle.
“He is an easy, go-lucky kid,” Campbell said. “He was brought up right. He has never been a problem in the school, all of the teachers love him. But he is going to be missed in that he did a lot of things for our program and that he was one of the guys that never missed anything. He was always here."
This article originally ran on redandblack.com.