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One More Season Is on His Wish List : Football: Willie Jackson hopes to play again for Pierce College, although a congenital learning disability has prevented him from meeting academic standards.


Days before Pierce College's last game of the football season, defensive tackle Willie Jackson solemnly approached the coaching staff at the end of practice, extended his hand and thanked the coaches for all their help.

As he worked his way among the coaches, his chin dropped lower. With the Pierce program on the upswing and the team preparing for its first junior college bowl game in six years, Jackson acted as though his world were ending. And at the start of the month, he had good reason to feel that way.

The 6-foot-4, 248-pound defensive lineman enjoyed a solid freshman season for the Brahmas and earned second-team recognition on the All-Western State Conference team despite having sat out two early games because of strained knee ligaments. Jackson, 19, can bench-press 450 pounds and is one of the strongest players on the team, but because of a congenital learning disability, he has the academic development of a third-grader.

He attended a "school within a school" at Taft High in Woodland Hills and instead of a graduation certificate received a letter of recommendation, attesting to his attendance and effort. Because regular classes were too advanced for him, he remained eligible for athletics at Taft by earning grades in special education classes.

His football skills might have translated into a scholarship offer from a four-year college, but his academic shortcomings precluded that. Instead he was granted the opportunity to continue his playing career at Pierce, which like all state junior colleges does not require a high school diploma for enrollment.

Jackson gained instant athletic eligibility at Pierce when he enrolled in 12 units this fall. However because state rules require student-athletes to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average in 24 units to earn a second season of eligibility, Jackson's career seemed destined to last no longer than one season.

During Pierce's 35-16 loss to Moorpark in the Western State Bowl Dec. 7, Jackson was uncharacteristically subdued. He played with a bruised shoulder and hip and said afterward that the injuries had been only part of his distress. The thought that he might be playing in his last game weighed heavily.

"I had a wonderful season," he said. "I want to do it again."

As Jackson worked part time during the holiday season at a Christmas tree lot, he awaited his own special holiday present: A second year of eligibility. There's reason to believe now that Jackson's wish might be granted.

Pierce Coach Bill Norton has vowed to do anything within state regulations to get Jackson a second year of eligibility. A vocational education program awaits Jackson sooner or later. Why not make it a year later, Norton asks.

"I believe that if Willie has the will to do it, we can put together a program for him and make him eligible to play," Norton said. "It's going to take some physical education classes and some fundamental math and English classes. But I believe if I can help make Willie's dream of playing football come true, then the junior college experience will be a good thing for him."

Jackson probably will earn nine units this semester, four from his membership on the football team, three from a health class taught by Norton and two from a pair of learning-skills classes in English and math. Two weeks ago, Jackson dropped an African history class because he couldn't handle the reading assignments.

Norton hopes Jackson can accumulate nine or more credits in the spring semester and reach the required 24 during summer school. Many of Jackson's classes will be one-unit physical education classes.

"Willie might be the tiredest guy on campus next spring," Norton said. "He'll be running to all kinds of classes. But Willie will have a lot of work to do. It's not like he's going to be running around playing tennis all day. He's willing to put in the time, and it will be tough for him. He'll be making sacrifices to play football."

Norton's plan raises concerns among Pierce administrators, who worry about the school's academic reputation. Bob Garber, the acting dean of student services, wants to meet with Norton and other school officials before Jackson begins his second semester at the end of January.

The school had similar concerns when Pierce accepted Jackson as a student last fall, but has received no complaints from faculty or community members this semester, Garber said. Still, the prospect of a student earning 24 units with Jackson's academic shortcomings leaves the school open to charges of exploitation, Garber said.

"I would hate to see a student complete 24 units and not be able to read," he said. "I don't want to be rigid or hard-nosed. We're sympathetic to Willie. But we don't want to make him eligible in a way that compromises Pierce's standards as an academic institution."

Norton says that his plan emphasizes the community rather than the college aspect of the community college experience. Jackson lives about two miles down the street from the school in Woodland Hills.

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