Last Thursday was a cold, windy, overcast day in Columbus, Ohio,
and the players and coaches in town for the College
Cup--soccer's version of the Final Four--were dreading the
prospect of having to square off in such inclement conditions
during the weekend. One player, however, was feeling the
opposite. "I love it," said North Carolina senior defender Danny
Jackson. "I love this kind of weather."
Jackson is an Englishman, and a wet pitch under gray skies makes
him feel right at home. Playing in a blustery wind with the
temperature in the 40s on Friday evening, the Tar Heels defeated
Stanford 3-2 in quadruple overtime. Jackson played all 136
minutes of the semifinal, though he was barely conscious for the
final five. An inadvertent elbow to the head from a Cardinal
defender momentarily knocked him out cold just before junior
midfielder Mike Gell got the match-winner. Ten minutes into
Sunday's mud-spattered final, Jackson took another shot to his
head. "That knocked the sense out of me for a little while," he
said. Again he played on, driving North Carolina to its first
national title with a 2-0 win over Indiana. Jackson not only
anchored the defense but also scored the game-icing goal on a
75th-minute penalty kick.
Tar Heels coach Elmar Bolowich had speculated before the final
that the only way to keep Jackson off the field would be to "chop
a leg off of him." That is the kind of observation that might
lead one to conclude that soccer is Jackson's life, which isn't
true, though a few years ago it nearly was. After graduating from
high school in 1996, at 16, he was living at the youth academy of
Leeds United, his hometown team. He played for the youth team
nonstop from July to May, taking one day of college-level classes
a week to break up the training routine. After that, he says, it
was, "twiddle your thumbs, play a little golf, go shopping or
Following two years at the academy Jackson began thinking that it
might not be a bad idea to get a proper education, but
intercollegiate sports are almost nonexistent in England. He had
played a handful of games in the U.S. with Leeds in 1997, and on
that trip a few English expatriates had planted the notion in his
head that he could go to college in the States and play soccer.
He wrote a few letters, and when Bolowich sent an eager reply,
Jackson decided to give Chapel Hill a shot the following year.
Jackson had little trouble adapting, though the move was tough
for his parents, Michael and Barbara, who had grown accustomed to
watching him play. (They listened to the College Cup games over
the Internet, but it cost a dime a minute. Michael joked that the
broadcast of the marathon semifinal match was the best money he'd
ever spent.) Bolowich was so impressed with Danny that he named
him captain in the spring semester of his freshman year. "He's
the smartest player I've ever played with," says Mike Ueltschey,
a senior goalkeeper from Jackson, Miss. "There's not a better
player in the country at timing his tackles. He's good with both
feet, he has a pinpoint long ball, and he's fast. He doesn't look
fast, but when does he ever get beat?"
While Jackson was undoubtedly the team's leader during a 16-4-0
regular season, he had help from his three fellow seniors:
Ueltschey; defender Chris Leitch, who finished his career in
front of hometown fans in Columbus; and Noz Yamauchi, a
midfielder from Chapel Hill. "We've got a redneck, an Englishman,
a Yankee and Noz, who's a little bit normal," says Ueltschey.
"It's funny how we all came together and became best friends."
The disparate quartet played a huge role in North Carolina's
success. The 5'4" Yamauchi led the team with 11 assists, while
the other three formed the heart of a defense that allowed only
0.76 goals per game.
Jackson's clinching goal came five days after he took his last
exam. He crammed 18 hours of classes into his fall semester after
taking 18 last spring and a full load in summer school so that he
could get his degree in political science a semester early and
focus on his pro career next spring. The thought of going back to
England intrigues him, but not as much as playing in MLS, a
heretofore unheard-of concept for a top young English player. If
his smile after the Tar Heels' win on Sunday wasn't enough of an
explanation for why he'd want to stay, Jackson says, "The
experience I've had with soccer in America has only been
positive. I've had a fantastic time."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN
The thought of going back to England intrigues Jackson, but not
as much as playing in MLS.