Players still think of Solomon Jackson constantly. His smile. His energy. His work ethic.
And it doesn’t matter if the conversation is about chicken wings or haircuts, one said, the memory of Jackson always returns.
“Every day,” linebacker Jarrett Franklin said. “I can speak for the team when I say we think of him every single day.”
On Tuesday, the University at Buffalo football team hit the practice field for the first time since losing their teammate, Jackson, on Feb. 29. The 20-year-old was hospitalized after a medical emergency suffered during off-season conditioning and was pronounced dead one week later.
The Stone Mountain, Ga., native was entering his third year at UB. At the ADPRO Sports Training Center, UB made it clear this 2016 season is dedicated to him.
“We know we’re playing for a bigger purpose than ourselves this year,” Franklin said. “Honestly, we’re trying to commit this whole season to ‘Solo.’ You can actually tell that a lot of guys are waking up, excited that we get the opportunity to play football at a D-I level.
“Because not a lot of people can say that and Solo can’t say that right now.”
Returning to the field is therapeutic, Franklin added. They view each other as family, working through a grieving process. The sudden death shook everyone.
And now, helmets back on, Franklin said that Jackson is “playing through us.”
“I think we’re over the grief process and we’re hungry,” Franklin said. “Because we know that if Solo was out here right now, he would work every single second that he got. So that’s how we have to attack this season. We have to work every single second we have – when we’re in the meetings at 5 a.m., when we work out in the weight room, when we’re on the field.
“Every single day, we have to work like Solo would work.”
While the school has declined to comment further on the death, the news sent a tremor through the UB community.
He was known for his infectious personality and tireless work ethic, and was a member of the team’s Bible study. In UB’s 4-3 defense last season, the defensive end had 13 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss. So back on the field, the Bulls are trying to bring a Solo-like energy to every drill.
Tuesday’s practice was upbeat with players sprinting drill to drill, coaches shouting instruction and head coach Lance Leipold setting the tone.
The second-year head coach knows every player will deal with this loss differently. The dawn of spring football does, however, help the healing.
“We’ll always have Solomon in our minds,” Leipold said. “Our thoughts and prayers continue for his family. But we also want to make sure we go out and honor him the right way and play the way he played for us.
“It’s one thing you don’t want anybody to go through in a college football program – any football program. It’s a day-to-day thing. I don’t think there’s any of us who don’t think about him daily or wake up in the middle of the night. I think we all need to go through our own grieving process. But we’re doing the best we can to look out for the 90-plus players who are here right now and everybody affiliated with our program.”