Prep Football

Looking in the mirror: QND coach, son enjoy special season

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 12, 2017 9:25 am Updated: Oct. 12, 2017 12:15 pm

QUINCY - Maybe no player has ever been destined to play football at Quincy Notre Dame more than Jackson Connell.

The only son of Raiders coach Bill Connell, Jackson grew up around football. He was at his dad's side during games and sat alongside him for numerous Friday night bus trips. On some nights, he was the ball boy. On other nights, he helped the managers make Gatorade for the players.

"All I remember is that Mom would pick me up off the school bus, and then she would take me to the field," Jackson said. "I'd be down in the south end zone, wearing my Notre Dame jersey, and I'd cheer them on."

Being at the games on Friday night, cheering for Dad's team, doesn't top getting to play for Dad. Nor does getting the chance to coach your kid.

Bill still remembers the day when he first thought Jackson might be pretty special.

"He would have been in third or fourth grade, playing flag football at the YMCA," he said. "A kid broke loose on a play, and Jackson whacked that kid. Mike Giles (Jackson's coach) and the other coaches talked to him, and they told him what he did was wrong."

Bill then chuckles to himself.

"You know, for me, it made me smile," he said. "He made a play. It was a pretty good little play.

"I knew then football was in his blood."

Playing both ways

Jackson, now a senior linebacker and running back, has been a starter at linebacker for the Raiders since his sophomore season. He turned heads in his third game on the varsity in 2015 when he intercepted a pass against Vashon and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown in a 31-20 victory.

Bill made sure that Jackson's promotion to the varsity was earned rather than handed to him.

"My philosophy has always been that if I'm going to put a kid out there as a sophomore, you better be pretty special," he said. "Mentally, can he take it? Physically, does he have it? Especially when it's your kid. There will be skeptics who will say the decision was made because it was your kid, but as a coach, I expect more out of my kid than anybody. It's probably not fair, but that's the way it is.

"He made some tackles and made some plays his first few games, but when he intercepted that pass against Vashon, and he juked a couple of people to make it happen ... that one play, I think that's when people could say, 'This kid might at some point might be a pretty decent player.'"

Jackson earned second-team All-Area recognition last season at linebacker, and he's been the Raiders' best defensive player this season. He leads the team with 68 tackles (44 solos), and against Breese Mater Dei, he returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble in the end zone for another touchdown.

He's also played well in a new role as the tailback on offense. He has rushed for a team-best 470 yards in just 51 carries, and he's scored five touchdowns. He also averages 39 yards per punt.

Jackson's best game offensively came in the opener against Hannibal. He caught a 65-yard touchdown pass on the first play, and he rushed for 112 yards and scored two touchdowns on 11 carries in a 39-20 victory.

No one was more surprised to see Bill give a game ball to Jackson than Jayme Connell, Bill's wife and Jackson's mom.

"I thought, 'Oh, the coaches are going to give out those game balls, and Jackson is going to get passed over,'" Jayme said. "He's just harder on Jackson, and I was worried he wouldn't give his own kid a ball. So when he got one, I think Jackson was shocked. He expects to work harder than anybody else and get less recognition, and he's OK with that."

Bill is happy to see his son have such a successful season.

"Jackson's doing his own thing," he said. "He's making his own plays and having his own memories."

So much alike it's scary

Bill says when the practices end and the games are over, football is rarely discussed in the Connell home.

"Jackson's a pretty quiet dude," he said. "We're not going to sit around and talk about a game for 30 minutes.

"(On weeknights) we're not home that much. He probably gets home at 6, and I don't get home until 7:30 ... unless there's another game, which means I might not get home until after he goes to bed. Then he gets the wakeup call from me or his mom at quarter 'til 7, and we hope he gets going. Other than 'Did you watch play 17 versus Breese Mater Dei?' or 'Did you see that one crazy formation they had?', we just don't talk a lot of football."

If they do talk about football, it's not about the Raiders.

"Dad still claims he knows a lot about pro sports and college sports, but he really doesn't watch that much any more," Jackson said. "He knows a lot of other stuff about things other than football."

In fact, he might talk about football just as much with his mom.

"Either he's super chatty or not," Jayme said. "If he is, I just let him open up and go. When he walks into the house, he might ask when Bill is coming home, and then he'll say, 'All right, listen to this story,' and then he'll gauge my reaction before he decides to tell his dad.

"But Jackson really likes his own time. Sometimes, he just wants a little free time to play Xbox. But when it comes to something serious, he's got Bill's focus."

Well, according to Jamie, Jackson has more than Bill's focus.

"They're so much alike, it's scary," she said with a laugh.

Anyone who has been around Bill during his 26 years knows how superstitious he is. It appears his son has followed in his footsteps.

Jackson's routine before a game always is the same. He sits on the tailgate of his truck and packs his bag on Thursday night, and then he goes to McDonald's on Friday mornings to get the same meal -- two sausage McGriddles, a hash brown and an orange juice. After a game, he always returns to McDonald's to eat.

"I'll probably turn out to be a lot like my dad," he said. "He's stubborn, and I'm stubborn, too. I think I inherited that."

Many players who have worn the blue and gold have developed their own imitations of Connell's slow Southern drawl, his quirky mannerisms and his down-home sayings. Jayme says Jackson's impersonation of his father is pretty good.

"I think every kid thinks they can imitate Bill," Jayme said. "Bill just has some funny things he does. He crinkles his eyes, and he's got that one eye that squints when he's getting frustrated. He'll take a deep breath, and he'll flare his nostrils. Jackson can nail it."

"It's OK," Jackson says of his imitation, "but some people's are better."

Jayme just laughs when she thinks about the idiosyncrasies of the men in her life.

"Two weeks ago, I had to take lunch to Bill on Friday from a different place than the week before, because we lost," Jayme said. "If we win, then I'll bring him lunch from the same place. Bill and Jackson weren't shaving last week. I have to make sure they're wearing the exact clothes and socks they wore the last Friday. They like to fish and hunt, and it's cute to watch them get ready, because it takes them three days. It's what makes them who they are.

"We've been married for 22 years, and when I was first married, I didn't get it. I was thinking, 'You have got to be kidding me.' Now, I realize that's who Bill is, and that's who Jackson is. All I can do is support them."

Ready for Senior Night

Jayme says there's not much difference between the football coach who stalks the sidelines on Friday night and the husband who has raised Jackson and their daughter, Shelby.

When asked about raising his son while serving as a football coach, Bill is quick to say he's helped raise young men for the past 26 years.

"I've had marks in a lot of people's lives, and they were mostly good," Bill said. "Finally, after 25 years of a lot of seniors, it's my kid's time."

The seniors on this year's team will be recognized on Friday night before the game against Charleston. This class owns a special place in Bill's heart, since he says he's known many of them since they were "itsy-bitsy."

"(Senior lineman) Mitchell Maas and Jackson went to a babysitter named Miss Vicky," Bill said.

Bill will make sure to shake the hand of every parent and embrace every senior as he does every year, but he also wants to have the honor of walking side by side with his son and wife.

His family is the reason he's still coaching at 10th and Jackson. He resigned after the 2006 season when Jackson was 6 and Shelby was 9, but he chose a month later to come back.

"It was a crucial part of my kids' lives, and I knew they were going to start playing sports," Bill said. "At the end of the day, they were the ones who convinced me that's not what they wanted. They wanted me to continue do what I'm doing."

He may not do it for much longer.

Jackson has talked with coaches at six Midwest colleges -- Northwest Missouri State, Central Missouri, Illinois State, Western Illinois, Quincy University and Culver-Stockton College.

"I don't have a clue where I want to go," he said. "I just want to go to the program where I will play and where I will win and be successful."

"If colleges want a competitive guy, I think he's capable of playing at a Division 1-AA (now FCS) school or a Division II school," Bill said.

Jackson's decision will have an impact on the future of the QND program. Bill says he's ready to go be a dad and watch his son on Saturdays.

"But we'll figure all that out in a timely fashion," he said. "Am I tired? I'm tired, but I gave the school my blessing that I would fight until it's over. At this point, I'm not saying it's over. I don't know if it's over."

Could he coach the Raiders on Friday nights and watch Jackson on Saturdays?

"I think I could for a period of time, but I don't know how long that period of time is," he said.

Before that decision is made, there's a football game Friday night, and Bill promises he has prepared for it no differently than the hundreds of games he's coached in the past.

There's no time to get sentimental about the last game he'll get to coach his son at QND's home field.

"Maybe when the season is over, we'll sit back and talk about it," Bill said. "You know, the best part of coaching my son is I'm with him every day, but he's just another number. He's part of the team. I can't treat him any different.

"But football has allowed us to follow each other."

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