ATHENS — Her office is covered in neon sticky notes from some of the highest-rated football recruits in the country. She can rattle off the names of players’ moms and tell their family stories with ease. She’s a pageant queen and a recruiting coach for the Georgia Bulldogs.
She’s penning a note to Katharyn Richt just down the hall from Katharyn’s husband’s office just a few days before she’ll relinquish this space.
Jenna Jackson has served as UGA football’s recruiting relations coordinator since February. But Saturday’s rain-soaked season opener marked her last day as a staff member before she moves to a new position in the University of Georgia Law School.
“Jenna is a great example of how women in sports should carry themselves,” said Nicole Baker, game-day host and student worker in the recruiting office. “She showed the women in the office how to stand up for ourselves in a field dominated by men. She was also a confidant and at times a protector. For everyone she was an example of class and determination.”
Of the 30 full-time employees in the Georgia football office, Jackson is one of the four female staff members. She’s also the only black female on the football support staff in UGA history.
Jackson says she is reminded every day of that imbalance of representation. But Jackson knows she has earned the respect of her coworkers and superiors.
“I just look at people as people, and she’s a quality person,” head coach Mark Richt said.
Jackson was hired by former defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner to enter the world of Georgia football while she was still in law school. She had set her sights on landing a job in UGA athletics and “jackpotted with Georgia football.”
She began as a student worker in the game-day host program and worked her way into a leadership role before being hired as a recruiting intern.
“I think I proved I was really organized and proactive,” Jackson said. “You can’t be reactive in sports. You have to be proactive.”
Jackson was promoted from recruiting intern when Connie Connelly, the recruiting program coordinator from 1997 to March 2015, announced her retirement. She got the call as she was on the way to take the Georgia Bar exam.
Connelly, who had worked in Georgia football in some capacity since 1988, shared some advice with Jackson soon after Jackson took the reins.
“She didn’t want me to get stuck in football,” Jackson said. “She wanted me to grow and be bigger than what it is. And that was something that … I didn’t face it until recently when I got the job offer. There is more out there than Georgia football.”
Jackson earned two major accomplishments in 2015: She helped land a nationally-ranked recruiting class that was entirely formed of players she hosted official visits for; and she landed the title Miss Georgia, United States.
“I think it’s a nice dichotomy to have because at any time I can go down with all the smelly pads and watch them hit each other and bring the best out of each other,” Jackson said. “And then I can leave and go get hair and make up done and put on a crown.”
With her recruiting position often requiring more than a full-time commitment, Jackson had to juggle her pageant prep and commitments. And while time constraints were a big obstacle to overcome, they weren’t the only ones.
Diets often suffer during football season. Whether you’re a fan piling wings on your plate for a tailgate or a high school coach sneaking in concession- stand food before a game, fall brings out a different set of food standards.
“That’s probably the only struggle I had was eating healthy and trying to win a swimsuit competition when I’m eating the same thing that the D-linemen are eating,” Jackson said. “That’s tough.”
Being a female lead in the dominant male cast that is Georgia football and recruiting was tough. But Jackson enjoyed the perk being a role model for young girls, from John Lilly’s 4-year-old daughter Allison to college-aged, game-day hosts.
“I want women to know there’s a place for them in sports,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s comfort in her position hasn’t always come so easily. Between the extended hours and the sacrifices she made, she has worked hard to find a balance without exhausting herself — and without showing her exhaustion.
“I think people look at me and think I have this glamorous life because I’m on the field on Saturdays and that night I could be wearing a crown on a stage,” Jackson said. “But from the inside it’s not very glamorous. With my recruits I’m always on. There’s no bad day to a recruit. To people who think Miss Georgia is some sort of royalty, there’s no bad day.”
While the previous job whardly gave her time to visit her family in Fayetteville, her new position will be full of travel. Within the first two weeks she will jet off to Chicago, Miami and Virginia.
“When they called me about the job they said they were looking for a J.D. with recruiting experience,” Jackson said. “It’s like this little niche that I have that I never knew anybody would want. I’m excited to see my love of Georgia and selling Georgia and Athens to the cerebral side.”
She won’t be quitting Georgia football cold turkey. Jackson will still be on the sidelines during game days, helping the recruiting program with any logistics and keeping in touch with the 2016 and 2017 families she’s already established relationships with.
But tailgating for the first time during a Saturday in Athens is on the horizon.
Jackson has slowly told people around the program— coaches, game-day hosts, staff members— about her new job. When she told the host program, gasps and aw’s of sadness could be heard in the room.
“I was really bummed, but knew she was doing what’s best for her,” game-day host Ellie Kaplan said. “We will miss her more than she’ll know, but I know she wouldn’t be leaving the program if she wasn’t confident in her decision and how much she’s improved the program.”
Jackson has been more than just an improvement but a constant in Georgia recruiting, which has seen turnover every year since her hiring.
“With all of the personnel changes she’s really meant stability to us,” Baker said. “She was the last person left from the recruiting staff when I got here so her leaving kind of represents a different time in Georgia football.”
Just before she told the Georgia game-day team that the UGA vs. ULM game would be her last game as a full-time recruiter , Jackson sat outside the team meeting room and kicked off her wedges. As the clock ticked past 6 p.m., current Georgia players flowed in and out of the adjacent locker room. She said hey to each one. She asked Mirko Jurkovic how his mom was.
“I get called ‘Coach’ all the time in emails,” Jackson said. “I’m going to miss that.”