It is an autumn night in South Carolina nearly 30 years ago. At Sirrine Stadium in Greenville, the black high school football team is about to play, so it must be a Thursday evening. Fridays are reserved for the white high school, and the Furman University team takes over on Saturday afternoons. Benny Granger, the sports photographer for the local newspaper, eases across the sidelines to make his weekly request of Sterling High's star quarterback.

"Jesse," he says, "it's cold out here again tonight. Why don't you run the first two or three plays over to my side so I can get some good shots of you and get on out of here."

The game begins and Sterling High gets the ball.

First down. Here comes the quarterback, rolling out toward the cameraman on the sidelines. Click.

Second down. Here he comes again, close enough for Granger's flash.

Click.

Third down. Sweep Right one more time.

Click. Got it.

It seems that Jesse Louis Jackson has been calling his own plays and running toward the camera ever since those fall nights of his teen-age years. For three decades he has been a familiar face in the American family album: Young athlete. Click. Disciple of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Click. Dashiki-clad boycott leader. Click. Rising star for the cover of Time magazine. Click. Embracer of Yasser Arafat. Click. Antidrugs crusader. Click. Symbol of black fulfillment. Click. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, polished presidential candidate near the top of the polls.

Jesse. How many people are known universally by their first name? Part of that might be aesthetic; his name is fun to say. Part of it might be, for whites, another subconscious form of racism, a way of making him seem less serious. But probably the main reason is simply that he started so young and has been around for so long. Turn the page from one year to the next and there he is again in the photo album. He grew up before the nation's eyes.

There is no longer any doubt, if there ever was, that Jesse Jackson, at age 46, is somebody. He is one of a kind. Since he started running for president as a Democrat four years ago, people have often asked, "What does Jesse want?" but that seems to be the wrong question. As one of his old professors said, not until Jackson began his presidential campaign did he have a job that fit his being. Now, in a personal sense, he is what he wants. But the more important and complex question is who exactly Jackson is.

It is an old conundrum, one that has puzzled people around him since the dawn of Jackson's adult career. Eighteen years ago, in the spring of 1969, the academy of scholars at Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) engaged in an extraordinary internal debate over myth versus reality, humility versus power, the ideal versus the pragmatic, preaching versus practicing. All these fundamental conflicts of their discipline came up when they tried to decide whether to award Jackson an honorary degree.

The questions they asked back then echo down through the years, through all of the stages of Jackson's singular career. His picture in the photo album changes, but the questions stay the same. In matters of character, life has a way of repeating itself.

Why, some professors asked, should they honor a student who never came close to graduating and whose behavior at the seminary sometimes seemed to mock serious scholarship? It was an early formulation of the current question as to why voters should honor someone who never held political office and who used to deride his newfound party and the electoral process. Then and now Jackson's answer is essentially the same: The civil rights struggle, he says, was his classroom; it was also, in a sense, his political party.

Jackson arrived at the seminary in the fall of 1964 as one of 53 first-year students in the largest class in the school's 122-year history. He was 23, married and a father, already a rising star among black college activists, a graduate of North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. Two years later he left the seminary, far short of fulfilling the degree requirements needed to become an ordained minister in a mainline church, but amazingly

Less than a year before the presidential election, a number of candidates are campaigning for the Oval Office, stressing their accomplishments in current and previous jobs. The Washington Post is examining their resumes, records and reputations in this series of occasional articles.

well established as an advocate for the black, poor and powerless. (Two years after that, in 1968, Jackson was ordained a minister in the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, which does not require a divinity degree.)

Victor Obenhaus, a professor of Christian ethics and Jackson's first adviser at CTS, could not forget that Jackson had refused to write any papers for his course. He considered Jackson "a tremendous con artist."

A few days before scheduled tests, Jackson would announce that he was going to "speak" his exam, and get up in front of the class and start talking. When Obenhaus tried to challenge this procedure, the other students rallied behind Jackson, forcing the professor to back down. "They would say, 'Oh, no, that's just Jesse, you've got to let him do it that way,' " Obenhaus said. "He had this tremendous gift, this facile way with people and with words. A spectacular guy with spectacular gall."

In later years Jackson would boast that he got a D in Preaching because he refused to write out his sermons -- how preposterous that seemed! Like Einstein flunking physics, Jesse Jackson, the world-class orator, bombing out in Preaching -- but his professors knew that he had avoided written work in other classes, even for teachers who considered him brilliant.

One of his favorite professors, Howard Schomer, who taught "Men, Movements and Ideas," remembered tearing apart the first paper Jackson wrote on the rise of social gospel in American church life, saying that it was nothing more than a scissors and paste job. Schomer considered Jackson "an electrifying chap," but warned him that unless he applied himself intellectually during his graduate years he would "end up at age 30 just another guy with the gift of gab but no capacity to effect change."

Jackson responded well to that challenge, in Schomer's opinion, but sometimes it seemed that his incomparable oral eloquence worked against him. "His greatest gift," Schomer said, "was also his greatest peril." Often he would grab the kernel of an idea and "with his ready tongue and vivid language, carry a thought beyond what closer scrutiny would justify." That concern prefigured questions now over whether Jackson's rhyming couplets and rhythmic aphorisms conceal the absence of a well-considered plan.The Hero's Journey

Was Jackson smart or just clever?

Edward Manthei, the school's president in 1969, described Jackson as "the kind of person who has the capacity to read half a book and talk about it as though he knew the whole thing." Well, came the response, that is better than reading the whole thing and not being able to explain any of it in a clear way.

Alvin Pitcher, the professor who introduced Jackson to the writings of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and helped him develop the theories and strategies for organizing black economic power, said Jackson had "the most active mind I've ever met -- always going at it, always churning, always putting it together. One of Jackson's problems is he has always been so much more perceptive than others that he has trouble with people who do not understand what is going on. Intelligence is the capacity to know what somebody would do or say before they do or say it. Some people don't have that capacity, or haven't developed it. Jesse had it with more power and energy than anyone."

What about the fact that Jackson missed so many classes? That question was an early expression of a notion that some people still have: that Jackson's restless energy sometimes works against him, leaving tasks uncompleted. Again, Jackson's answer to such criticism has remained consistent through the years. His favorite retort: "I'm a tree-shaker, not a jelly-maker."

During his two years at the seminary, the faculty more than once debated whether to ask him to leave, so frequent were his absences. But his champions, led by Schomer, the white-haired peace activist, and Ross Snyder, another distinguished ethics professor, always prevailed.

If Jackson was not in class, they argued, it was because he was practicing what the seminary preached. The school was known for its applied theology, and what better purpose could there be than what Jackson had been doing when he skipped class -- helping Martin Luther King Jr. during his marches for equal housing in Chicago, and organizing the city's black ministers into a moral and economic force known as Operation Breadbasket.

Snyder, a theological poet, considered Jackson a prophet for black America even then, a notion that Jackson had held since the times back in high school when he first began having powerful dreams at night about preaching. To Snyder, Jackson's life was what he referred to in his poetry as a "hero's journey," beginning with his birth to Helen Burns, an unwed teen-age mother, back in Greenville in October 1941, and continuing through the rude awakenings of his childhood in a racist society where blacks had to sit at the end of the stadium and the back of the bus. He was a rare individual who met Snyder's highest standard: "Someone who has discovered his truth and his integrity. This person is an authentic existence."

The dialectic in Snyder's world view was between a search for authenticity -- he called it "the act of becoming" -- and the inalienable sanctity of every individual. Jackson's place, Snyder argued to his colleagues, was at the front line of the civil rights movement. "Any black leader worth his salt," he said, "wouldn't be sitting around in classrooms when Dr. King was being stoned in Cicero."

Most professors agreed. Five of them had canceled classes and traveled down to Selma, Ala., with Jackson and 20 students in March 1965 when King issued a call for help from ministers and seminarians across the country. Several professors served as advisers to Jackson's Operation Breadbasket, the ministers' organization sponsored by King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference that sought more jobs and economic clout for Chicago's black residents. They also joined in the marches when King went to Chicago in 1966.

These teachers, all white, had participated in the civil rights movement before Jackson entered their lives, but he drove them to a higher level of commitment. Rare is the person, let alone student, who can do that. "Jesse was a powerful force. He was out doing the things that we believed in, and I don't see how we could discourage him from that," said Franklin Littell, one of his advisers.

Yet many professors, including Littell, wished that Jackson had been in class more.

Decades later, when Jackson's first presidential campaign staggered from revelations that in private the candidate had referred to Jewish people as "Hymie" and New York City as "Hymietown," Littell thought back regretfully to one course Jackson missed. Littell is a leading scholar on Jewish-Christian relations. After leaving the seminary, he helped found the Anne Frank Institute on the Holocaust in Philadelphia. His specialty at CTS was the history of Christian thought after the Holocaust.

"If Jesse took the course, he cut it all the time," Littell said. "He certainly didn't get a very good grip on Christian responsibility toward Jewish people." Littell wrote his former student a long letter on the subject in 1984, asking Jackson to contact him. He never got a response.

Did Jackson, some professors asked, possess the spiritual qualities that the seminary desired of its aspiring ministers? One recalled the time that Jackson stood at the doorway of his office and proclaimed: "You have to understand. I'm special." Jesus was humble, this professor thought. How can an arrogant person justify "the reverend" in front of his name?

To Christian realists such as Pitcher, that was a narrow way of looking at religious reponsibility. There is a significant difference, they said, between exaggerated pride and self-aware leadership. Black people had no power, and Jackson was trying to give them some. He exerted his ego, elevated his "self," not to defeat others, but to develop himself and other people. It is the "win-win" theory upon which Operation Breadbasket, and later Operation PUSH, were based. That was Pitcher's view. If Jackson had a weakness, he thought, it was not his ego, but his insecurity.

Jackson got the honorary degree, the first of 35.

There is another way to examine the riddle of Jesse Jackson. And that is to turn the question -- who is he? -- on its side. If he is not just somebody, if he is one of a kind, what are the qualities that separate him from everyone else? In Chicago, where Jackson has lived exactly half his life, that is not just an intellectual question at the seminary, it has been a central element in many people's lives. Like the pictures in the photo album, no single person captures the whole Jackson. Each person, each picture, has a different lens, a different lesson.Serving the Next King

Barbara Reynolds, now an editor at USA Today, was a reporter for Chicago Today in the early 1970s. She was the only black writer at the paper, a tabloid published by the Chicago Tribune, and her assignment was to cover anything that was black -- most of all, Jesse Jackson.

At that point in her career, Reynolds said, she had dual motives: to succeed as a journalist and to serve the civil rights movement. She regretted that she had never met King. In Chicago, Jackson was considered the new King. "So I thought, well, if I didn't serve the old leader, I'll serve this one."

Reynolds remembers Jackson teaching her a code for black writers. Whites don't tell on their own; we don't tell on our own. When she got a contract to write a book about him, that code was put to the test.

Reynolds said she began the project with the hope that it would help Jackson by clearing up some nagging questions, such as where he was and what he did after King was assassinated that terrible April day in Memphis in 1968. In interviews right after King was shot, Jackson said that he was the last person to cradle the dying man in his arms on the hotel balcony. For two days he wore a turtleneck sweater supposedly stained by King's blood.

Reynolds flew to Atlanta and interviewed people who were with King: Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy and others. One by one they told her that Jackson had rewritten history, that Abernathy was the last one to cradle King in his arms and that Jackson had busied himself talking to reporters before flying back to Chicago to make a dramatic appearance before the city council.

Reynolds continued gathering information and delayed writing her book for months. As much as she still admired Jackson as a brilliant, powerful figure, she realized that her book would portray him as an opportunist.

"I can remember the night I was writing the King scene in my room on Lakeshore Drive," she said. "The more I wrote the more I sweated. I was changing my clothes, crying, sweating. At one point I was crying so loud that someone knocked on the door. It was a 4-year-old girl, and she said: 'Miss Reynolds, will you please be quiet, you big crybaby.' That shook me up. I realized that I was scared to finish it."

When the book, "Jesse Jackson: the Man, the Movement, the Myth," came out in 1975, Jackson called her and said that he felt it was a betrayal, but that he wasn't as enraged as many of his supporters. To deflect the anger, he said, he would have Operation PUSH present her with an award. Soon she got a telegram from PUSH headquarters telling her not to bother picking it up. Then Jackson charged that the book was ghostwritten by white editors. Then the book was taken down from display windows, pickets marched outside Reynolds' apartment house, and she received threatening phone calls.

"I have covered the Mafia and no one threatened my life," Reynolds said. "I've covered the Black Panthers and no one threatened me. But when I cover the Christians my life is being threatened."

Jackson has declined to discuss details of the book since. Sources close to him say he was most upset about a section that discussed rumors about relationships with women other than his wife of 25 years, Jacqueline Lavina Jackson, mother of their five children. Jackson often compared the rumors with gossip spread about Martin Luther King's personal life by his white critics, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Jackson and his wife, then and now, essentially say the issue is nobody's business but their own. Private moral questions, Jackson says, "are a matter between the candidate, his or her family, their conscience and their God."'He Can Turn Your Head'

Hurley Green, owner and editor of the Chicago Independent Bulletin, a black community newspaper on the far South Side, has been observing -- and at times playing a role in -- Jackson's dealings with the press for nearly 20 years. He was Jackson's first public relations adviser of sorts, the person who got him introduced to Chicago's white media stars, such as personality columnist and television host Irv Kupcinet.

Jackson, Green said, quickly mastered the art of playing the press off against itself. In private he would appeal to black reporters through their racial bond. With the white press, he went after the celebrities, "appealing to their macho," as Green put it, calling the network news anchors and newspaper editors and telling them of his plans while soliciting their advice. It is a form of street smarts that Green appreciates. It has won him over again and again.

"He can turn your head around," Green said. "Just turn it around.

"I remember the first time I went down to one of the Saturday meetings and let it be known that I wanted to get involved with Jesse and the movement. So I'm sitting in the audience and all of a sudden Jesse says, 'Hully' -- he always called me Hully, never Hurley, he preaches in the southern idiom -- so he says, 'Hully, Hully Green. Are you here?' And I jump up in front of a thousand people and say, 'Yes, sir.' And he says, 'Now y'all give Hully here a hand.' And I'm thinking, Daaammmnnn!

"And then later he's sermonizing away and says, 'Now ain't that right, Hully?' And you know he's sinking it in a little deeper, giving you prestige and strokes. Then he wraps it all up by saying, 'All y'all step back. Hully, come on up here. Now, Hully, I got some very important things for you to do and I want your phone number at home, at the office and at your girl friend's.' And you know by that time I'm hooked. I'm probably 15 or 20 years older than this kid and I'm hooked."

For a time Green was part of the clique that entered the Saturday PUSH meetings from a back door and stood behind Jackson on stage. He left the clique when Jackson called him down from the stage one too many times to contribute money to the organization's coffers. "I didn't think people in the clique should have to do that," he said. "That was for all the poor people out there listening to that 'I Am Somebody' crap."

Green, of course, was not the sort of person for whom the "I Am Somebody" refrain was intended. Jackson says it first came to him during the Poor People's Campaign in Washington in 1968, just after he had read the book "Jesus and the Disinherited" by theologist Howard Thurman.

"It talked about life with your back against the wall. You may not have rent or heat or medicine or food or clothes, but reduced to your irreducible essence, you naked against the world, the core of your existence is something real," Jackson said. "You may be poor, but you are essentially somebody. I remember one morning during the poor people's campaign I was standing on the back of a truck, and people were looking at me for inspiration. It was raining. I remember the faces, mostly women and children. I had no food to give them. I had no money to buy them tickets to go back home. I had no jobs to give them. King was dead. Kennedy was dead. Their hearts were broken.

"It would have been easy to have given up. I looked in their faces and said, Say to me, 'I Am Somebody, I may be poor, but I Am Somebody.' That day was collective therapy, a catharsis. It gave people strength, nutrition of the soul. And since then I have used that battle cry all around the world and the self-affirmation rings true. It speaks for the human predicament, the quest for confirmation, the will to be."

David Wallace was the first person Jackson encountered when he pulled into the parking lot at the Chicago Theological Seminary one day in late September 1964. He was a white kid from Pecos, Tex., and he was, in a sense, the first member of the Rainbow Coalition. Wallace became Jackson's best friend at the seminary, along with Garry Massoni, another white student from California. And when King decided to start a branch of Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, Wallace and Massoni were Jackson's right-hand men.

Jackson and Wallace were inseparable, so close that Jackson could start a thought and Wallace would finish it. But Jackson totally dominated the relationship, in large part because of his superhuman energy. Jackson worked 18-hour days and demanded the same of those around him. Hermene Hartman, who was married to Wallace, remembers how they could never get a night's sleep because Jackson would call "at 2, 3 and 4 in the morning with another idea."

By 1971, just as Jackson was declaring his independence from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and starting Operation PUSH, Wallace was "totally burned out." At age 31 he suffered a heart attack.

When he returned months later, his frustrations increased. Jackson, he said, seemed too easily bored, always starting projects without setting up the structure to finish old ones. He also thought that his old friend was becoming more manipulative, setting up situations where people who worked for him would compete against each other for his favor. The scene was too stressful for Wallace. When he quit for good in 1973, Jackson, saying that the he felt betrayed, handed Wallace a severance check for $9. Wallace said no thanks, and left for a quieter life.

Several of his close friends, black and white, have felt Jackson's hostility at various times, especially, it seems, when they challenge or threaten his leadership position. The most glaring example of this was his half-brother, Noah R. Robinson, who was born to Jackson's father, Noah L. Robinson, and Robinson's wife, 10 months after Jackson was born to the teen-aged girl who lived next door.

It must be left to psychologists, if anyone, to plumb the depths of the mercurial relationship between Noah and Jesse, but the record shows that the one time they worked together the most closely, at Operation PUSH in the early 1970s, Jackson overpowered his half-brother and pushed him out of the organization. Alvin Pitcher, who is so supportive of Jackson's political beliefs that he is reluctant to say anything negative about him, nonetheless winces at the recollection of a time when Jackson "totally humiliated and intimidated Noah."

In each of these cases there is a larger and -- in terms of presidential qualifications -- more relevant dimension: the ups and downs not just of friendships but of Jackson's central enterprise, Operation PUSH.

Since Jackson has never held public office, his performance as PUSH's administrator for nearly 14 years is one of the few gauges of his executive talents. Wallace and Robinson were two among many former PUSH employes who left frustrated by Jackson's ways and means (although in the end Robinson also reaped its rewards, gaining a distributorship from Coca-Cola after PUSH won an agreement from the soft-drink company to hire more blacks in top positions).

Jackson's critics say that PUSH never accomplished much more than providing Jackson's friends and relatives with lucrative contracts from guilt-ridden white corporations and, at the weekly Saturday morning meetings, providing thousands of Chicago's poor with a message of hope. PUSH and its subsidiaries have had financial problems through the years, both in terms of staying out of debt and in accounting for all the money they received from federal grants.

"If one were to reach any conclusions about Jackson's leadership style based on PUSH, they would be mixed," said Calvin Morris, one of the organization's early executives. "It is clear that he excelled at building an indigenous community organization using churches and other groups. That was tremendously significant. The greatest disappointment was the lack of a midlevel staff that really functioned. He did not seem to care about that, and that led to two things: tensions among his employes and sometimes a lack of substantive follow-through."He Wanted to Be Jesse

Twenty-two years ago Jesse Jackson was the first executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Robert L. Lucas was at the top echelon of Chicago's black movement, the regional leader of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Today, Lucas is the executive director of the same Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Jackson is running for president.

Lucas is talented, but he never had Jackson's charisma. He did have it for one day -- Sept. 4, 1966, when he led the march to Cicero and The New York Times made him the subject of its "Man in the News" column. Lucas was tough and militant, and always thought it was funny that Jackson had a militant image in the establishment press. Inside the movement, Lucas said, they thought Jackson "was soft."

After King was assassinated, when Jackson made his move to take over the black leadership in Chicago and beyond, Lucas made a few efforts to stop him, fearing Jackson wasn't sufficiently militant. "I tried to rally some folks to stop the takeover, but I couldn't get nobody's attention," he said. "Bob Lucas versus Jesse Jackson just was not going to work. It was, 'Bob, you're a nice guy, but come on.' "

Lucas wanted to be what Jackson is. He wanted to be a national leader. There are thousands of people like him in cities all over the country. But Jackson made it, and they didn't.

"He had something I couldn't get close to," Lucas said. "I saw him give a speech once that gave Dr. King laryngitis. King was supposed to follow him but he just done lost his voice. I am not an emotional person. I haven't cried since my grandma died in 1948. But Jesse, he's made my eyes moist more than once. When he got up at that {Democratic National} convention in 1984 and said 'God hasn't finished with me yet,' he touched every black person in America, even the tough old cynical horses like me. All great leaders have mass appeal. Even when we're not sure what Jesse is, we see ourselves in him."

Jackson preaches at Shiloh Baptist Church here on King's birthday in 1976.