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Detour turns into blessing for EWU’s Gabriel Jackson

Offensive lineman Gabriel Jackson has managed to escape the injury epidemic at Eastern this fall.  (Dan Pelle)
Offensive lineman Gabriel Jackson has managed to escape the injury epidemic at Eastern this fall. (Dan Pelle)

Gabriel Jackson never really had a solid backup plan for his college football career.

So when his dream of playing for the Air Force Academy was squelched by a family-related kidney disease while he was attending the academy’s preparatory school in Colorado Springs, Colo., the 2007 graduate of Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma High School was understandably upset.

“They told me the last week before we graduated and headed to the academy,” he recalled. “I was devastated.”

And once he returned to Tacoma, the lightly recruited Jackson simply didn’t have much in the way of football options – beyond Eastern Washington University, that is.

Former Eagles coach Paul Wulff and his staff had expressed a passing interest in securing Jackson’s talents during his senior year in high school, but backed off when the Air Force Academy made its offer. So Jackson contacted Wulff’s defensive coordinator Jody Sears and was told he could walk-on as a member of the Eagles scout team.

It was modest offer, at best, but the only one he had to consider, so Jackson accepted.

And on Saturday the 6-foot-4, 280-pound offensive lineman will make his 34th career and 26th consecutive start for the Eagles (4-4 overall, 4-2 in the Big Sky) when they face Portland State (4-3, 4-2) in a Senior Day showdown that kicks off at 1 p.m. at Roos Field.

Jackson will be one of at least 13 seniors playing their final home game, and when he looks back on the five years he has spent at Eastern, he marvels at how quickly they’ve passed.

“A blink of an eye, and its over,” he said of the pending end to his college career. “I know when you’re younger, it can seem like kind of a grind going out there every day to practice. But now that it’s my senior year, it doesn’t seem that way at all.

“It’s gone by way too fast, and I’m trying, now, just to savor every moment of it – every practice, every game, every play.”

And he’s doing so with “absolutely no regrets” about the events that led him to Cheney.

“I really believe that everything happens for a reason,” said Jackson, who was second team All-Big Sky selection last year after starting all 15 games in the Eagles’ run to an NCAA Division I championship. “I think God sent me to the Air Force Academy, and I was supposed to be there for year and then come here to Eastern to play.”

During the year he spent in Colorado Springs, where the elevation is over 6,000 feet, Jackson played 10 games, mainly against junior college opposition, on the academy’s prep school team – an experience he considers invaluable, and a main reason he was able to make such an early impact at Eastern.

“At the academy, they focus on getting your academics up, but also on training you in the military aspects of things,” he said. “I had to go through basic training and do all of that stuff.

“So I trained all year long at a high elevation, and I came to Eastern in really good shape, which I think gave me an edge on the other incoming freshmen.”

After redshirting in 2007, Jackson was awarded an athletic scholarship. He lettered as a backup offensive lineman in 2008, before moving permanently to left tackle.

That he has managed to stay relatively healthy – especially this fall, while watching six of his fellow offensive linemen go down with injuries, four of which were season-ending – mystifies Jackson.

“I guess I’m just blessed to have been able to stay healthy,” he said. “This has been a different kind of season, for sure, with so many of our starters doing down. I’ve never experienced anything like it in football, or any other sport I’ve played.

“But all of the credit (for our comeback from an 0-4 start) goes to our coaches, because as soon as a guy does go down, we have someone trained, ready and willing to step in and take over for him.”

Jackson also feels fortunate to have dodged any major problems from the kidney ailment that derailed his initial plan.

Jackson was first told about his family’s history of polycystic kidney disease, which can cause multiple cysts to form on the kidneys and, in some cases, cause severe abdominal pain. But he never really considered his potential for contracting the disease until experiencing lower back pain near the end of the school year in Colorado Springs.

Jackson initially figured he had simply pulled a muscle, but an ultrasound treatment would later reveal two cysts on one of his kidneys. Jackson tried to obtain a medical waiver so he could follow through with his plan to enroll at the Air Force Academy, but was denied.

Surgery was never performed to remove the cysts, but since arriving at EWU, he has suffered only a couple of minor flare-ups from the disease.

“It’s something I live with, and something I’m reminded of every time have a little back pain,” Jackson said. “But I’ve never had any major issues with it.

“I guess I’m kind of blessed in that regard, too.”

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