IU senior Nate Jackson, the country’s No. 6-ranked 184-pound wrestler, has sacrificed more time than the typical student-athlete in his five years at IU. With three kids and a wife, Jackson has more to tend to than just his academic and athletic careers.
Before getting to Bloomington, Jackson said he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life until he and his now wife, Raychelle, were expecting their first child.
Jackson said the impending birth of Nate III, his first son, put things into perspective before his senior season of wrestling at Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights, Illinois. He and his wife set a goal for Nate to get a collegiate wrestling scholarship, which started with winning a state championship in his senior year. Jackson’s dominant state championship run caught the attention of IU Coach Duane Goldman, and after catching Goldman’s eye, Jackson visited IU and said he instantly fell in love with the coaching staff and felt a connection with the program.
“I really agreed and had a really good feeling about coming and training under Coach Goldman,” Jackson said. “He told me things that other coaches weren’t willing to tell me as far as what he expected out of me and the greatness he saw in me. It helped me believe more in myself.”
Now, five years after arriving on campus in 2012, Jackson is an All-American with 101 career wins, two trips to the NCAA Championships and a third NCAA Championship appearance on the horizon.
Now that Jackson’s IU career is coming to an end with just the Big Ten and NCAA championship meets remaining, he said the things Goldman told him about what he could accomplish in five years are beginning to resonate, mostly because they’ve come to fruition.
“He kept his word to me, you don’t always run into people who keep their word regardless of the ups and downs,” Jackson said. “I have had plenty of ups and downs throughout my career on and away from the mat. For a coach to stick by you through that, without passing judgment, says a lot about his character.”
Despite all of Jackson’s victories and accomplishments, winning is not the biggest thing his teammates have taken away from him.
Goldman said his standout senior is IU’s leader and role model because of the way he is able to juggle his academics, athletics and family life.
“He doesn’t put anything on the back burner,” Goldman said. “They are all things that are important and he really pushes himself in his life to make sure that everything is being attended to. He doesn’t sacrifice one area for another.”
Jackson said his family helps him understand everything happens fast. Nate III turns 5 years old in the summer. Carter Ray, the middle child, just turned 3 years old, and his newest child, Zoe, is 7 months old and moving around with a walker.
Jackson said the time really does fly, and it’s helped him make the most of the wrestling opportunity that has been presented to him: two final tournaments to try to win before the relationships he has built turn into memories.
There are currently 14 teams in the Big Ten and they alternate playing host to the Big Ten Wrestling Championships. In Goldman’s 26-year career, this will be just the third time the Big Tens have been held in Bloomington. All 14 teams will take the mat this weekend in the renovated Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Jackson said he understands he has a special opportunity with the Big Tens set to take place in Bloomington during his senior year.
“I am sure there are a lot of seniors who wanted to have their final Big Ten competition at home,” Jackson said. “It is going to mean a lot for my body, rest a little bit more with less travel lag. I am going to take all the positives that come with it and use this week as a good building block for a good tournament.”
Jackson said no tournament prepares wrestlers for the NCAAs like the Big Ten Championships. Eleven of the 14 Big Ten schools set to compete this weekend are currently ranked in the top 25 nationally, including IU at No. 23.
“It’s almost a mini NCAA Championships,” Goldman said. “Almost better. At the NCAAs, in the first couple rounds, there are some great matches from different conference affiliations, but from the Big Ten in round one you can have two of the top guys in the country going at it. It’s a real sight and treat for the fans.”
Despite the magnitude the Big Ten Championships bring, Goldman is trying to make it feel like any other tournament. IU will still stay in a team hotel and do things they always do before tournament play to try to make the weekend as routine and normal as possible.
The team has stressed all year that each week is just the process leading to the post season. Win or lose, as a team or individually, this season has been about building to now.
Jackson stressed that wrestlers can’t go into the Big Ten Championships unprepared, and given that he competes in one the toughest classes in the Big Ten, if not the toughest, that preparation will take on more meaning for Jackson. Currently, seven of the nation’s top 11 wrestlers in the 184-pound weight class are from the Big Ten.
Jackson knows his weight class is tough, and said he needs to control what he can control.
“There are a lot of guys who want to wrestle at their pace,” Jackson said. “If you can dictate your pace, you’ll have a lot of success at this sport. In a tournament like this, it’s more taking each match like an individual match and advancing in the tournament.”
This is the last time Hoosier fans will get to see Jackson wrestle in Bloomington, but he said this will not be the last time people see him in Bloomington helping and supporting the program he has helped turn around.
“I feel like I left a good impact,” Jackson said. “It’s not where it was when I got here, and I like the direction we are headed. I can say that it’s all me that did it, but that’s not the reality. I feel like I was apart of it, and there are plenty of areas to grow and I am looking forward to the next steps.”