SAN ANTONIO - Cedar Hill, Texas, is just a few hours from the site of the All-American Bowl, but that didn't stop quarterback Driphus Jackson from making the longest journey to the game.
Jackson is this year's winner of The Ride, a reality show where under-the-radar quarterbacks compete for a coveted spot in the game.
Article Continues Below
Beating out seven other contestants in a competition that started in the summer and ran through the fall was one thing, but Jackson knows the true reality of the situation: He now needs to be able to compete against the very best players in the country.
"It's a blessing, more than anything. All the information I learned, being able to apply it to the game, and then hearing my name called, it was just a big relief," he said. "But, then there was even more pressure on me because I have to come out here and perform. It was a bittersweet feeling in the beginning, because I was like, 'Whoo, OK, I got it done,' but now I'm going to have to play against the top-tier athletes in the nation, so I've got to get prepared for it."
Amazingly, he nearly didn't even get a chance to try.
One call - well, really two - started Jackson on the wildest ride of his football life.
"I got a phone call (about the show) and I was actually the fourth option, if I'm not mistaken," he said. "One of my friends from DeSoto was an option, but he had to go to Oregon (during filming), so I was pretty much the last resort. They called me and I thought he was joking, so I hung up on him. Then, he called back and was like, 'We want you to come out for the show, so get back at me.' Two hours later I called them and let them know I was coming."
Then tragedy struck.
Two days before the first event, a Football University Camp in Maryland in July, Jackson's best friend - Deion Jackson-Houston, a rising 2012 point guard for Duncanville (Texas) High - was killed when the car he was in was hit by a train.
"I was on the phone with his parents, and they didn't know whether he was going to come or not," Marie Keeler, the Marketing and Media Relations Director for All American Games properties, which includes the Army All-American Bowl and The Ride, said. "But, he felt in his heart that Deion would want him to go. He went and represented not only himself, but his best friend. He said, 'I'm playing with two hearts instead of one.'"
The staff of The Ride immediately took notice of Jackson's personality and his toughness, both on the field and off.
Jackson, meanwhile, said he barely took notice of all the commotion.
"It was constant filming and throwing, but the filming, it was like being at home," he said. "I didn't even think about being on camera at all. I'm not going to change who I am for the camera. I do know that there are certain things that cannot be said, but I'm going to continue to be the kid that I am."
He was the kid who soon rose to the top of the heap. He was one of five quarterbacks that advanced to the second round in Virginia. He was then one of three who made the final step - being observed during an actual high school game. Once again, he looked good.
On Dec. 1, The Ride and the US Army Selection Tour pulled into Jackson's school, under the guise of doing follow-up interviews. Instead, they revealed to Jackson, his family, his friends and his school that he was coming to San Antonio for the big game.
Now the true test comes.
Last year's winner - Cole Marcoux of the Bronx, N.Y. - was one of the stars of the game, completing five of eight passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
Jackson, a 6-0, 195-pound dual-threat QB rated as a two-star prospect, said he isn't worried about measuring up to Marcoux or anyone else.
"There's not pressure to prove anything to myself," he said. "It's just pressure to not let anybody down, from the little kids that watch, to my parents who have made sacrifices - they made a 20-hour drive to Virginia for me to go to the Top Gun camp so that I could be in that situation.
"My mom, going though times where I was far away from home, there were just a lot of things that went into this. I don't want anything that they've done for me to be in vain. That's really the only pressure I have on me. I'm going to play my game. You can't stop me, and I'm not going to stop myself from playing my game. I'm here to play my game and hopefully show somebody that you can't judge a quarterback on his height. You've got to judge him on his heart."
And his work ethic. Jackson promises to work as hard as anyone - just as he has his whole career - to prove he's the real deal not just a reality show winner.
"I don't want people to think that I'm just here because of the show," he said. "I work just as hard as the next person. I grind, I'm in the weight room consistently. I wake up at 5:30 every morning to go training before school, and then I go after school. I do a lot off the camera that a lot of people don't know to be where I am. It's just a blessing."
The day before the final episode of The Ride aired on Dec. 18, Jackson decided that he'd take his 3.7 GPA, 32-inch vertical and 4.6-second 40-yard dash time to Rice, officially committing to play for the Owls in 2011.
But first things first: He's still got one more television show to do. And this one's the real deal, live on NBC this Saturday.