Enterprise senior quarterback Jackson Darlington committed to accept a scholarship offer to play football at the United States Air Force Academy this week.
Air Force had been interested in Darlington for some time but didn’t pull the trigger on an official offer until after Enterprise’s win over R.E. Lee.
“Going into the Lee game they hadn’t offered me but they said they were interested,” Darlington said. “I talked to my mom about it all because I was kind of frustrated with football, the recruiting process and we were struggling at the time.
“I said if God allowed Air Force or another (military) academy to take a chance on me, that’s all I would ask for. It became something I really wanted and I didn’t think it was going to happen. After we won the Lee game, Air Force decided to offer me and I just felt like God was answering my prayers.”
Jackson Darlington is the son of Enterprise coach Rick Darlington, who said that he always felt Jackson would be a great fit at one of the military academies.
“I’m exponentially proud of him,” Rick Darlington said. “I always felt like one of the (military) academies would be a great fit and we were just kind of waiting to see if one of them would offer him.
“He’s always been the guy that wants to run the flag out onto the field and he’s very patriotic. So, it’s just really a good fit for him. Down the road, he’s excited for what that degree can do for his future, too.”
Following the offer, Air Force began to turn up their recruiting of the Wildcat signal-caller.
“I started talking to their coaches a lot after that,” Jackson Darlington said. “They heavily recruited me and I think I talked to one of their coaches at least three times a week. It was nice to feel wanted.”
Air Force is going to give Jackson Darlington the opportunity to play quarterback in the Falcons’ triple-option offense, which is something he wanted, but he also found a sense in pride in joining a military academy.
“Yeah, it’s going to be hard because it’s a different kind of college lifestyle,” he continued. “I’ve never been about the partying or anything, though. Yeah, I can have fun and all but that’s just not me. I just love the idea of being a part of something special and something bigger than myself.
“I’ve always been interested in the military, too. I could be a part of something great and also play major Division I football, which was my dream. I can fulfill my dream as a Division I athlete and then also be able to do something really cool with my life outside of football.”
Another thing that seemed to fall into place is that Jackson Darlington’s aunt and uncle recently moved to Colorado Springs, Col., where Air Force is located.
“He’s pretty close to them and just recently they moved from Oklahoma up to Colorado Springs and you can see the stadium from their house,” Rick Darlington said. “Air Force has a ‘host family’ (for each player) where you can go and stay with that family on weekends on breaks, and now Jackson will have his family right there already.
“We can also go and watch him and just stay with them, too. It’s just one of those things that just made it feel right. It goes to show you that God takes the details of our lives and puts us places where it all works together.”
Jackson Darlington will be Rick’s third son to play FBS (Division I) football after Ty Darlington played center at Oklahoma and Zack Darlington played quarterback and receiver at Nebraska.
Rick Darlington said that having his son with him as the longtime Florida football coach transitioned to the new head coach at Enterprise has been invaluable.
“I can’t even imagine doing it without him,” Rick Darlington said. “He’s almost like having another coach out there. He knows all the intricate details of not only his positions but really everybody’s position.
“He’s been with me for so long growing up doing it he was able to really help with the other guys, especially the ‘single wing.’ On the field, I can’t even imagine doing it without him.”
Off the field, the younger Darlington may have had an even bigger impact.
“He understands what we’re trying to build here culture-wise with the program,” Rick Darlington continued. “It’s not always easy being the coach’s son and it can be lonely when you’re a leader.
“Eagles don’t fly in flocks and I think that’s true of leaders, but I also think he’s seeing the reward in it, too. The last three games I think he’s felt more satisfied than anything we ever did at Apopka. To come back from where we were to beating three really good teams in dramatic fashion, he’s been really excited about that.”
Jackson Darlington said the experience in coming from Apopka to Enterprise to help his dad meant a lot to him, too.
“I think it was really special for me,” Jackson Darlington said. “I learned a lot about myself through this. At Apopka I was another Darlington, we had legacy already set there.
“I had to uphold that legacy and honestly I don’t think I was doing a great job because we were losing. I was struggling to find my own identity. I knew when we got here it would be a challenge coming here - just me and my dad back in the spring – to a group of kids that I’ve never met in my life and in a city that I never even knew existed, but I found more love for the entire high school experience here.”
Helping lay the foundation of what Jackson Darlington and his father believe will be a special program meant a lot to both of them.
“I was struggling at Apopka with everything – the friends and all – and coming here I was able to help start something,” Jackson Darlington said. “I still think we can make a run in the playoffs right now but regardless I can say that I helped lay a foundation with this group of seniors that I think will help catapult this program into something amazing and I’m really proud of that.
“I think it’s amazing that I came here and I made some really great friends through it, too. Being here has helped grow me as a man spiritually, mentally and especially as a football player and leader. It’s just been a positive thing in my life.”
Jackson Darlington was also receiving attention from various colleges on the defensive side of the ball. Though he expressed his desire to play quarterback in college, Jackson Darlington believes playing defense this season has only helped him as a quarterback.
“I’ve always been an offensive minded guy and have always loved offense; if I’m playing a video game, I’m always going to pick offense,” Jackson Darlington emphasized. “So, playing defense I think it’s helped me a lot to show that I’m a versatile player but it’s also taught me how a (linebacker) or defensive back thinks and how a defense functions that will help me long-term as a quarterback.
“I don’t really have to guess at what a (defender) is thinking now because I can relate to it because I’ve played those positions.”
In his senior campaign, Jackson Darlington has completed 62-of-125 pass attempts for 905 yards and five touchdowns with five interceptions, while also rushing for 428 yards and eight more touchdowns. On defense, he’s also totaled 21 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, 0.5 sack, three pass breakups and eight quarterback hurries.
After starting out the season 2-5, the Wildcats have won three consecutive games and earned a spot in the playoffs. Those three wins were all comeback wins and Jackson Darlington said the experience has meant more to him than anything else he’s done in his football career thus far.
“I’ve gone 9-0 in the regular season and I know what it feels like to win but some of the wins we’ve pulled off this season are some of the most satisfying wins I’ve ever felt,” Jackson Darlington said. “All the talk was ‘y’all are going to be 2-8 just like the other teams (before) and going into the Lee game we were not supposed to beat them.
“We got down big at the half and I was thinking to myself that we’re not going to the playoffs and my senior season is pretty much over. We came out in that second half, though, and played without a care in the world. We just came out and decided personally we are going to fight and we pulled off an amazing comeback.”
Jackson Darlington said that win over Lee helped propel the Wildcats into the playoffs.
“It sparked some hope in us and showed us we can win,” Jackson Darlington emphasized. “We didn’t play our best game against (Jeff Davis) but we still fought and found a way to win and slowly continued building that momentum.
“Playing Theodore, we were supposed to lose that game, too. We were down something like 27-7 in the fourth quarter and it was kind of the same thing as the Lee game. We took it personally and played without a care and just played for pride and turned it into something amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say I came back from a deficit like that again. These three games (lit a) spark inside us and it’s been so incredible. It’s just a great feeling.”
The Wildcats will get to try and continue making lasting memories this Friday, as Enterprise faces off against McGill-Toolen in the opening round of the Class 7A State Playoffs.