D'Qwell Jackson grew up in Largo, Fla., 300 miles from Tallahassee and almost 1,000 miles from College Park.
Geography was one obstacle Ralph Friedgen overcame to sign Jackson, who played linebacker, fullback, quarterback and punter at Seminole High.
The prestige factor was the other challenge.
Football players in Pinellas County yearn to compete for two programs: Florida and Florida State, perennial national title contenders. When Seminoles Coach Bobby Bowden arrives at a player's doorstep ready to offer a scholarship and spin tales about Charlie Ward, Deion Sanders and other past stars, "he pretty much has you," Jackson said.
Bowden, though, never showed at Jackson's home. Jackson said he never spoke to the coaching staff on the phone. The perceived snub serves as motivation as Jackson prepares to face No. 5 Florida State for the third time tomorrow at Byrd Stadium.
"I want to show those guys that they missed out on me," Jackson said, "and we're going to prove that we can beat them."
Make no mistake, Jackson does not regret signing with Maryland. But he said that had Florida State offered him a scholarship in high school, before he decided what mattered most in picking a school, he would have accepted.
That was before he was able to filter the pressures, rankings, hype -- everything that comes along with playing high school football in Florida. Some who don't get offers from the Big Three -- Miami, Florida and Florida State -- feel inferior, he said.
"That would have been a bad decision by me if I had ended up there," said Jackson, who said he feels most comfortable at Maryland. Despite his size -- 6 feet 1, 224 pounds -- Jackson is a star at middle linebacker, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference with 11.1 tackles per game. The junior had a career-high 18 tackles in the 10-7 loss at Clemson, a performance that earned him conference lineman of the week honors for the second time this season.
Questions whether Jackson could replace E.J. Henderson, the former Maryland two-time all-American, are long forgotten.
"He might be more athletic than E.J.," Friedgen said. "He's not as big, but he certainly has the instincts that E.J. had."
Friedgen was fortunate to sign Jackson in February 2002. He first visited Louisiana State, then Maryland. After the Maryland visit, Jackson told Friedgen that he wanted to commit, but only after he visited North Carolina State.
Jackson took the visit, but not before Friedgen told him a story about "love at first sight" to further sell him on College Park. Maybe it worked, because Jackson remained committed to Maryland after the visit to Raleigh, N.C.
At this point, Florida was making a late push. And Friedgen was aware of several cases in which a player looked as if he's going to one school, only to inexplicably sign with a Florida school that he had neither visited nor expressed interest in.
"I asked D'Qwell, 'If Florida comes in and offers, would you go there?' " Friedgen said. "I didn't think we'd be able to hold on to him."
Jackson answered, "I gave you my word."
He did not visit Florida.
But suspense wasn't quite over. On signing day, Jackson told Friedgen, "Coach, every time I go to sign it [the letter of intent], I just can't sign it."
"It's like jumping off a 10-foot board," Friedgen told him during a two-hour telephone conversation. "Just close your eyes and leap. Close your eyes and sign that thing."
Finally, Friedgen concluded the talk with, "D'Qwell, I'd love to announce you tonight [as a recruit], but I've got to go now. If the letter of intent is not in the fax machine tomorrow, I'll know you're going somewhere else."
The letter was in the fax machine the following day, along with Jackson's signature. He said he never had second thoughts about Florida and summons the motivation against Florida State only one week a year.
Last season's game against the Seminoles was special because Jackson played, and played well, before family and friends in the 35-10 loss at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Jackson, second-team all-ACC last season, made the first interception of his career less than two minutes into the game and ran 58 yards, barreling over quarterback Chris Rix and running back Lorenzo Booker, for the game's opening score. Also in the first quarter, Jackson blocked Xavier Beitia's 28-yard field goal attempt.
Another inspired effort is required tomorrow if Jackson hopes to beat the program that overlooked him. "We have to pitch a shutout," Jackson said. "If the other team does not score, they can't win."
Terrapin Notes: Wide receiver Derrick Fenner (ankle) has been upgraded to questionable. . . .
Friedgen said he heard back from the ACC regarding the complaint filed about the officiating in the Clemson game. "They agree with us," Friedgen said. ACC officials did not return a phone message.