First, a Subway run to snag a turkey sandwich and juice box, followed by a nap and then listening to a hip-hop mixtape. This is the pregame formula for William “Turtle” Jackson’s success.
A freshman guard for Georgia’s men’s basketball team, Jackson is the first Georgia signee from Athens since 1992. Prior to playing for UGA, Jackson experienced immense trials such as knee surgery and the deaths of two relatives, a best friend and his high school coach — all within three years.
However, none of these things have dismantled Jackson’s resilience.
“He’s funny at times, but when it comes to his business he’s strictly business,” said Terence Crawford, Jackson’s best friend.
As a high school freshman, Jackson came to Athens Christian and played under Hall of Fame coach Ron Link. During his first season, Jackson led the team to the state championship against Whitefield Academy alongside then senior Zach Lillie.
“I would describe Turtle as the most hard working, humble teammate I have ever hooped with,” said Lillie. “He quickly elevated his game and helped me as a senior contend for a state championship.”
One of the first big trials for Jackson occurred at the end of his sophomore season when he tore his meniscus in the region championship game. This injury occurred in the same knee he broke during a game (which he finished) in fifth grade. Following his old patterns, Jackson continued to play and helped Athens Christian win another region championship.
Jackson finally received the necessary knee operation before the start of his junior year.
“I was devastated,” said Jackson. “I cried every day. I couldn’t play basketball. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror.”
Jackson did not allow this disappointment to get in the way of his training. After about a week of rest, he started doing upper body workouts.
He was not alone on this road to recovery. Accompanying Jackson was his friend and fellow classmate Johnny Morgan who was battling throat cancer.
“When Johnny was in the hospital fighting, he [Jackson] had knee surgery and they were both kind of down and out and making plans about what they were going to do when they got healthy again,” said Jackson’s mother, Lorry Jackson.
Morgan died September 9, 2013.
“It really hurt me,” said Jackson about Morgan’s passing. “He was always happy when he saw me and told me I was going to do great things so I always felt like why not get up every day early in the morning and sacrifice for him.”
Due to his knee surgery, Jackson missed more than half his junior season. However, his performance did not reflect this absence. During the state playoffs, Athens Christian was down more than 21 points going into the fourth quarter. After being told to “do him,” Jackson scored more than 20 points in the final four minutes and scored the tiebreaking free throws to win the game.
Jackson does not remember anything from these final minutes.
“God just came down and just — I blanked out,” Jackson explains.
March of his junior year, Jackson’s uncle passed away. Further tragedy occurred for Jackson and his family when his brother was shot and killed that following August. His brother’s last conversation with his mother was about Jackson’s switch of his verbal commitment from Connecticut to Georgia.
“I think it [the deaths] has made him even more determined to reach his ultimate goals,” states Mrs. Jackson about these three tragedies.
His brother’s passing became Jackson’s newfound motivation to create a better life for his family after seeing the pain they went through.
“I sit back and look at that picture of me and my brother and think about how far I’ve come and how much the game [basketball] has changed my life,” said Jackson about how he prepares his mind for each day.
The final major hardship Jackson faced: Link’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) diagnosis. In Link’s office, one could find a wooden turtle sitting on his desk and a picture of Jackson as his desktop’s background.
“He’s made me a better person more than anything,” said Jackson about Link. “He’s taught me a lot. He was there for me too when I went through a lot of things. I could come to his office and talk to him. He’s a good person.”
The two made it to the Final Four together to finish up Jackson’s high school career. Shortly after his retirement, Ron Link passed away May 21, 2015.
Jackson was in Houston, Texas, when his father told him Link died. The immediate emotion felt was disbelief. Link’s death didn’t sink in for Jackson until he returned to Athens and visited his high school’s gym.
“I just broke down and couldn’t speak,” said Jackson. “I can never really shake his hand, tell him I love him and talk to him about basketball anymore.”
Link, fully aware of his pending health, prepared a message for Jackson. He wrote an email to a fellow coach telling him that if he passes away to give that email to Jackson.
“It was saying how proud he is and that he loves me to death,” said Jackson, fighting against his emotions. “And that he’s gone to a better place and don’t get negative if this season doesn’t go well because he thinks great things will be there. ‘Keep respecting the game and loving your parents.’”
Jackson tries not to read this letter too often for the fear of crying all over again.
He believes that Link, although not physically present, will be watching every game he plays.
“I’ve lost a lot of people and really it’s just motivated me to not take life for granted,” said Jackson about moving forward. “I’m still here able to play basketball. In a way, I’m living a dream.”
— By Kendra Hansey, Special for DawgNation