Parental Perspective: Kahleil carrying on the Jackson family Florida legacy

by Inside the Gators Staff
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In sports, one of the most personal things a player can have is the number they wear on their jersey. Some wear it to honor a favorite player. Some wear it because the number has some sort of significance in their lives. Others wear it simply because it’s the one they were assigned.

However, a select few wear a number to honor a family member by carrying on the legacy of their last name.

In Gator football history, one of those examples is the Jackson family, where four members have now worn the number 22 across three generations.

It started in 1968 when Willie Jackson Sr., signed with the program as one of the two first Black scholarship football players alongside Leonard George. In 1970, he became the first Black player to appear in a game for the Gators.

Over the course of three seasons, he starred as one of the Gators’ go-to receivers with 75 catches for 1,170 yards and eight touchdowns.

The legacy continued in 1990 when his son, Willie Jackson Jr., joined the Gators, and helped the Gators win two SEC titles. His 2,172 career receiving yards and 24 career touchdown catches now rank as the ninth and sixth-most in school history. His name was enshrined among other Gator greats with his 2008 induction into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame.

In 1995, Terry Jackson, Jackson Sr.’s younger son, followed his father’s and brother’s footsteps and joined the program, helping the Gators win its first national championship in 1996.

And now, there’s a fourth Jackson playing for the Gators and wearing the same number that his grandfather, father, and uncle donned in their college days.

Kahleil Jackson, Jackson Jr.’s son, is with the Gators as a receiver and poised to make an impact in 2023.

The most-recent Jackson joined the program in 2020 as a walk-on quarterback wearing the number 17 and has since switched to receiver and now wears the number 22. However, this wasn’t always according to plan, his father said.

Jackson Jr. explained that the plan for Kahleil was to remain at quarterback, the position he excelled at while playing at Hawthorne High School. They also didn’t anticipate having to walk on, but circumstances changed.

Eventually, Kahleil was able to earn a walk-on opportunity at the school where his grandfather, father, and uncle rose to prominence, and he embraced it with open arms. In fact, Jackson Jr. said they never anticipated that Kahleil would go to any other school.

“I don’t think there was a doubt in either of our minds whether we wanted to go to Florida or not. It was just whether it was a scholarship or not,” Jackson Jr. said. “That didn’t bother me too much and him neither, so that wasn’t a big deal about being a walk-on.”

The newest Jackson spent his first two seasons mostly on the sidelines, but under a new staff in 2022, he saw the field more often and even caught the first pass of his career, a 23-yard diving reception along the sidelines against Eastern Washington.

“In our family, you want to keep continuing to do what the person in front of you has done. I think that’s true in almost every family. It just so happens that ours is on a big stage.”

Willie Jackson Jr. – father of Kahleil Jackson
Photo courtesy Florida Sports Information

After a plethora of injuries in the receiving room late in the season, his role began to expand.

“That’s one thing as a player that you really can’t plan is how much playing time you’re actually going to see,” Jackson Jr. said. “We just do the work. Try and keep getting better. Just be prepared when you do get the opportunity.”

And now, he’s poised for a much larger role in 2023. Gator fans were given a sneak-peak during this past spring’s Orange & Blue game, where he caught a touchdown pass from Graham Mertz during a two-minute drill to end the first half.

This past spring was just a brief introduction to what Kahleil is capable of doing, his father explained.

“The thing with Kahleil is people don’t actually know how good he is,” Jackson Jr. said. “He’s almost like a freak of nature when it comes to athleticism. It’s just a matter of how a program wants to use him.”

In fact, Jackson Jr. explained that Kahleil might be the most athletic of the four Jacksons. The 6-foot-3, 216-pound receiver has blazing speed, tremendous ball skills, and an overall athletic ability that separates him from other players.

“He’s the best athlete I’ve seen since me,” Jackson Jr. explained. “I wasn’t as fast as he is. I wasn’t as big as he is, but that’s only part of it. The thing that makes him special is his great ball skills. He can move. Of course, we trained him to be fast and explosive.”

Not only is Kahleil’s opportunity at Florida an opportunity to continue the Jackson legacy with the Gators, but it’s also a chance to continue a family legacy within Alachua County.

Both Jackson Jr. and his brother attended nearby P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School before attending Florida. Jackson Jr. continued to impact the local community as a coach. Most recently, he helped turn around a struggling Eastside High School program as an assistant coach and is now the new head coach at P.K. Yonge.

Previously, Jackson Jr. was the offensive coordinator for Hawthorne while his son was the quarterback. The Jacksons shined in their respective roles under head coach Cornelius Ingram, a former Gator tight end.

“It was a great opportunity for both Kahleil and I. They allowed him to become the player that he is,” Jackson Jr. said. “We have a great relationship, Cornelius and I, and it was a great opportunity for Kahleil to be able to play in that program.”

In two years with the Hornets, Kahleil threw for 4,214 yards and 66 touchdowns against only nine interceptions, according to his MaxPreps stats. He also ran for 740 yards and 11 touchdowns during those two years, which included a 12-1 record and state semifinal appearance in his senior season.

Now as a receiver with the Gators, Jackson has an opportunity to continue adding to his family’s legacy while writing the next chapter in his own story.

Most recently, he was one of four walk-ons to be placed on a spring and summer scholarship. And after a strong spring performance, where he was one of eight recipients of the Danny Weurffel Most Improved Players Award, Kahleil specifically has an opportunity to earn a full scholarship, head coach Billy Napier said during a spring speaking tour appearance.

“Hopefully we find a way to get him involved so we can use him because he can definitely be an asset and create an electric effect in that stadium,” Jackson Jr. said. “He’s that type of player that if we can get him used the correct way and utilize his ability, he can break it open. He can give them something to cheer about.”

And the Jackson family, as they have for four generations, will be in the Swamp watching.

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