Willie Jackson lay on a bench along the Pierce College sideline, his right leg encased in bandages and his collegiate future in doubt.
As the final seconds ticked off in Pierce's 19-10 victory over East Los Angeles Saturday night in a season-opening football game for both teams, Jackson's teammates filed past and wished the injured defensive lineman well.
Sophomore defensive end Randy West, a team captain and Pierce's leading tackler last year, who has formed a close friendship with Jackson, bent over his teammate and tried to bolster his spirits.
"Hey, Willie, I can't do without you. You're my second half," he said.
Jackson, a 6-foot-4, 248-pound freshman, seemed too pained to notice. He had overcome substantial obstacles to earn his shot at college football, and now the injury to his right knee jeopardized that opportunity.
Jackson, who can bench press 450 pounds and is one of the strongest players on the Pierce team, has the academic development of a third-grader because of a congenital learning disability. Anything more complicated than simple addition and subtraction are beyond his ability. The sports pages are too difficult for him to read.
He will turn 19 this fall, but he doesn't have a driver's license.
At Taft High in Woodland Hills, he attended a "school within a school," with a curriculum aimed at his learning level because regular classes were too advanced for him. He remained eligible for athletics at Taft by earning grades in special education classes, but he did not receive a high school diploma. Instead, he got a letter of recommendation attesting to his attendance and effort.
Jackson's football skill might have earned him a scholarship to a four-year college, but his academic shortcomings precluded his participation at that level. However, community college has offered Jackson an opportunity he craves.
Pierce, like all state community colleges, does not require a high school diploma for enrollment. A school can accept state residents 18 or older if the school administrators believe the students can profit from the education or training offered at the school.
After Pierce officials met with Jackson and his teachers at Taft in May, they agreed to accept him for the fall semester and enroll him in at least 12 units to allow him athletic eligibility in accordance with state guidelines. The officials were swayed by those close to Jackson who claimed his academic performance improved once he joined the football team.
Pierce Coach Bill Norton emphasizes that as head coach he must treat all fallen players equally. But on a personal level, Jackson's injury hit hard.
"It hurts me terribly to see Willie get hurt," he said. "He wants this experience so badly, and he deserves it so much, you don't want to see anything delay it. This has made us all feel real bad."
The injury, which has been diagnosed as mildly torn medial and lateral ligaments in the right knee, will sideline Jackson for at least three weeks and possibly much longer, depending on how the knee responds to therapy.
If the injury forces Jackson to miss more than two or three games, Norton will recommend that he redshirt this year to preserve a full season.
"Willie is guaranteed one season, and we've got to protect that for him," Norton said.
When Pierce officials accepted Jackson, they made it clear they were providing him with an opportunity to play football and would address his continued enrollment one semester at a time. To gain a second season of eligibility, Jackson must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average in 24 units, a task that seems beyond him.
Jackson could withdraw from school and start over in the fall, but Norton advises against that, recommending that he continue to attend classes--even on a part-time basis if Jackson so chooses--to maintain contact with the football team.
Jackson has enrolled in a health class taught by Norton and a psychology class that stresses scholastic and personal development. Each class is worth three units, along with an African-American history class that Jackson will take for no credit. He also is credited with four units for participation on the football team and will earn up to six units for his work in the Greater Avenues to Independence (GAIN) program, a state and federally funded learning skills program.
"In Willie's mind, he's here to play football, but in my mind, he's also here to be with friends and take part in the college experience," Norton said. "We've taken a liking to Willie, and he's part of our football family. I don't care if he can't play football or if his career is over, we don't want anything to happen to him."
If his opening-night performance is any indication, Jackson has a bright future with the Brahmas. Against East Los Angeles, he played on all but a handful of Pierce's defensive plays and acquitted himself well. He assisted on three tackles and made three solo tackles, including one in which he threw East Los Angeles running back Hilario Espinosa for a seven-yard loss.