Jonah Jackson held the silver football in his hands for a moment, staring at it.
It’s not always easy to speculate on what someone was thinking, but the tears welling in Jackson’s eyes were a decent hint that this was a pretty meaningful moment for him.
That silver football represented a major milestone in his career. He was the starting left guard for the 2019 Big Ten Champion Ohio State Buckeyes. They had just completed a 34-21 win over Wisconsin to push their record to 13-0, and punched their ticket to the College Football Playoff in the process.
It was a meaningful and emotional moment for everyone in scarlet and gray that night. But as Jackson closed his eyes to kiss that silver football, it wasn’t hard to see that it might have been just a little more special for him.
Jackson’s path to that moment on the field in Indianapolis was unique, longer and far more winding than most of his Ohio State teammates.
Unlike most of them, Jackson was something of an afterthought as a high school football player. Rated a two-star prospect out of Penncrest High School in suburban Philadelphia, Jackson was considered the 170th-best offensive tackle prospect in the class of 2015. That same year, the Buckeyes signed the tackle ranked as the No. 5 player at the position instead, Isaiah Prince.
Jackson was the 2,307th-ranked player overall. He held scholarship offers from four schools: FCS programs Monmouth and Albany, and FBS also-rans UMass and Rutgers. Jackson chose to play at Rutgers.
There, he built himself from a forgotten and overlooked player into an honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree in 2018.
When he entered his name in the transfer portal, the magnitude of his transformation was clear.
Instead of Monmouth and UMass, teams like Ohio State and Oklahoma were clamoring for his services.
When he visited Columbus, he met with the Buckeyes’ new head coach, Ryan Day, at Cap City Diner near campus. It didn’t take long for him to realize this first-year coach was the one he wanted to play for.
“He seemed like a seasoned veteran what he’s doing,” said Jackson. “He was under one of the greatest coaches in college football all-time. I haven’t seen an ounce of new-guy in him or nervousness at all.”
Jackson picked the Buckeyes. He graduated from Rutgers in the spring and enrolled at OSU in the summer, and it didn’t take long for his impact to be felt.
OSU was replacing all three interior linemen after Demetrius Knox, Malcolm Pridgeon, and Michael Jordan departed. They had a former 5-star recruit in Wyatt Davis and another top-100 recruit in Josh Myers more or less lined up to fill two of those holes, but the third spot was something of a question mark. That’s where Jackson came in.
Chemistry is important along the offense line, where players have to work closely together and it can take months or even years for guys to truly gel as a unit.
Jackson didn’t have years, or even months. He had weeks. And he knew what he had to do.
“Just earning my stripes, getting around the guys outside of the facility and hanging out with them and, you know, just put my head down and go to work so they can see that I work, I’m not just talking about some action,” Jackson said.
He quite literally earned his stripes when he was the first Buckeye to lose his black stripe during fall camp. He quickly earned a spot with the first-team line.
“It’s a hard thing to do what he did,” said Myers. “Just the way he carried himself throughout that whole process, and how professional he was and we all love him so much. Everything he’s done through this whole process has been next to perfect.”
Day appreciated Jackson arriving in Columbus with a veteran’s mindset, ready to work and earn his spot.
“He’s come in with a professionalism. It’s hard to walk into a room with such pride as the offensive line room at Ohio State. So to walk in as a fifth-year senior, the way he handled himself was really great,” Day said.
It was immediately apparent that the grad transfer wasn’t just going to be an adequate replacement on the interior of the line. He was going to be an upgrade.
It also didn’t take long to figure out that Jackson’s life on the football field had been upgraded as well.
The Buckeyes won their season opener against Florida Atlantic. That matched the number of wins Jackson had in his final season at Rutgers of 2018.
They won their second game against Cincinnati. That matched the Scarlet Knights’ win total from his second season in 2016.
They won their third game, this time a conference road game against Indiana. It was the first time he’d walk off the field of a Big Ten road game with a win since October 2017.
The Buckeyes won five games in September. That was already more than Jackson had ever won as a college player. And it didn’t take him long to figure out that winning had some advantages.
“You know, coming back after win on a Sunday, it’s a good feeling, not a bad feeling,” Jackson said. “The mood is a lot brighter.”
He returned to Rutgers in mid-November and was greeted with hugs and smiles from seemingly dozens of RU coaches, players, and staffers before and after the game.
And the wins kept coming for Jackson and the Buckeyes. They improved to 11-0 and clinched the Big Ten East with a win over Penn State in late November. That was another milestone for Jackson.
“When we beat Penn State, after that game like we were just in the locker room getting ready to leave and he just kind of looked at me and was like, ‘that’s the first time I ever beat them like in my entire career,'” said Myers.
By the time the Buckeyes beat Michigan to wrap up a perfect regular season, Jackson had been a part of more of those brighter Sundays in one year as a Buckeye (12) than in four years at Rutgers (11).
That set up the Big Ten Championship Game, another first.
Jackson helped pave the way for 172 rushing yards for J.K. Dobbins in that win, clinching not only his first trip to the College Football Playoff, but his first trip to any bowl game at all.
“It’s pretty wild, but you know I’m grateful to at least have one in my time, and I’m excited for sure,” Jackson said.
That journey from forgotten recruit to the basement of Power 5 football and now to the College Football Playoff is far from the normal path for a college football player. And Jackson realizes just how remarkable his story is.
“Honestly, if you told me I’d be here doing this right now, I’d probably laugh at you last year. But it’s just a blessing, man, just have these guys, everybody here around me and being in this group and being a part of this culture and such a historical program. It’s incredible,” he said.
Now, the question is what happens next in Jackson’s journey.
The Buckeyes enter the Fiesta Bowl with the top scoring margin in the nation. They’re tops in the country in scoring offense as well, at 48.7 points per game.
They’ve run for more yards per game than any team outside of the service academies and a Kentucky team that was forced by quarterback injuries to basically abandon the pass altogether.
But they haven’t faced anyone close to as talented as Clemson.
The Buckeyes’ ability (or inability) to run the ball consistently could be the deciding factor in the game. That means Jackson, the former 2-star recruit who’s never played in a bowl game, could be one of the key pieces to determining who gets to play for a national championship. He said the recipe to win the game was simple.
“Just be able to execute be efficient, run the ball. protect the quarterback and score touchdowns,” he said.
The addition of Jackson has been an absolute gift to the Buckeyes, helping them build a punishing ground game and an explosive offense.
“I think he’s got to be as happy as he can be about how everything’s going,” said Myers. “He’s so good.”
“Jonah has been great. Jonah was just the perfect guy at the right time for that room,” said Day. “I think our offensive line this year has come together stronger than an offensive line has had in a long time that I’ve seen. He’s been a big part of that, even in the short time here.”
And Jackson knows it has worked out pretty well for him, too.
“I’m enjoying a lot,” he said. “Christmas definitely came early, and hopefully we get a couple more presents in the future.”