Sometimes, leadership arises out of necessity. Other times, it comes from wanting to achieve a goal.
For Middle Creek senior Daniel Jackson, it’s a little bit of both. His Mustangs went to the East regional final a year ago, but his leadership wasn’t necessary. But for 2016, Jackson knew he had to step up.
“This year, it’s the last ride, the last go-around,” Jackson said. “You have to be on top of everything and make sure everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do.”
And what a ride it’s been so far. Middle Creek (13-0) is the No. 1 seed in Mideast and ranked No. 1 in The News & Observer football poll. The Mustangs play Garner (12-1) for a chance to get back to the East regional final and perhaps play for the N.C. High School Athletic Association state championship.
Jackson has been a vital part of a dominant Mustang defense that has allowed only seven points in its last four games. After intercepting 11 passes in 2015, Jackson has six picks this year. Two of those were returned for touchdowns and a would-be third was called back.
Jackson had a crucial interception that he returned for a TD in the second round of the playoffs against Sanderson, sensing a screen pass and darting in front of the receiver before taking it back 22 yards for a score. That helped Middle Creek take a 17-7 lead into halftime, and the Mustangs dominated the second half in a 45-7 win.
“He has a nose for the football,” Middle Creek coach Randy Ragland said. “If the ball goes in the air, D.J.’s going to find the football. That’s through his hard work, not only through what he does on the field but off the field. He watches a lot of film on his own, and he spends a lot of time getting better.”
Middle Creek beat Garner 30-10 in the third game of the season, but Jackson knows the Trojans will be tough to beat again.
“The emotion of the rivalry: They don’t like us, and we don’t really like them,” Jackson said. “Seeing that it’s a rematch, and this one is more important, it’s like, ‘Oh, you beat them the first time, but you have to beat them the second time.’”
But Jackson hopes he and his team won’t succumb to that kind of pressure.
“The game’s a war, and if you win each individual battle, there’s no way you can’t win the war,” Jackson said.
That’s an apropos description for Jackson, who has verbally committed to the United States Military Academy. Jackson believes the doors West Point can open will help in the future, whether he makes a living with football or not.
“He’s disciplined enough to where he could handle their discipline,” Ragland said. “He’s got that work ethic to where he’s going to be successful at whatever he does in life.”
For now, though, the focus is on Garner. But the dream of celebrating a 4AA state title at Carter-Finley Stadium on Dec. 17 is enticing.
“The idea of a state championship is always looming over your head,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to take one day at a time, but there’s always that ultimate goal you want to reach.”