By Alan Siegel
His Hoover (Ala.) High Buccaneers were visiting rival Tuscaloosa County four years ago. His best receiver, Chad Jackson, had just broken into a full sprint to make a one-handed touchdown catch. With only six feet separating the back of the end zone and the crowd, there was no way he could slow himself down enough to avoid hitting a wall. Or so Propst thought.
Instead, Jackson used his free hand to open a gate leading into the stands, which he slipped through. His cleated feet then skidded up three or four steps like tires on a runway.
"Chad Jackson," Propst said last week, "is a big-time playmaker."
Propst's Bucs, now famous after being featured on MTV's reality show "Two-A-Days," weren't yet a national sensation. Jackson, on the other hand, was on the way to becoming one. After starring at Hoover High, he moved on to the University of Florida, where he put up big numbers as a junior in 2005.
But one question remains: Can the Patriots rookie be a difference maker this season?
Those who know the second-round pick say yes. Jackson had his best game as a pro Sunday, catching 35-yard touchdown pass in a 28-6 win over the Bills. Through five games, he has five catches for 86 yards and a pair of TDs.
If there were any early-season frustrations still eating at him, he's since swallowed them.
"Chad is a reserved guy," Propst said. "There are a lot of crazy, goofy (receivers). He would never seek attention or detract from the team."
One thing's for sure: Don't expect Jackson to follow in the footsteps of his high school coach, whose fire and brimstone laced speeches have made for interesting TV.
"I don't want to beat them. I want to embarrass them," Propst said of an opponent during an episode of "Two-A-Days."
Jackson, like any player around here - especially a rookie - is strongly discouraged from producing verbal ammo for opponents.
Last Wednesday, for example, he walked to his locker and politely declined comment.
"Can't talk," he said with a small smile before heading for the nearby training room.
Propst said he's happy to be a sounding board for Jackson. They speak on a regular basis.
"We don't always talk about football," said Propst, who's now a Patriots fan after rooting for the Red Sox and Celtics while growing up in Alabama. "I just listen."
'It's very frustrating'
For months leading up to training camp, Jackson worked out with hopes of preventing injuries.
Pete Bommarito, the trainer who's helped develop intense diet and exercise regimens for Jackson and about 75 other NFL players at the Perfect Competition facility in Davie, Fla., remembers Jackson continually telling him how great he felt as camp approached.
Then Jackson strained a hamstring during a noncontact drill, sidelining him for the entire preseason.
"We can limit a lot of noncontact injuries," said Bommarito, whose client list includes Arizona Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress and Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "It's very frustrating. But now that he's healthy, I think he's going to start proving how he can actually play."
Sophisticated programs like Bommarito's are becoming the norm for professional athletes who want to supplement team-sponsored workouts. Forget about basic shuttle runs and arm curls.
To improve his speed and cutting ability, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Jackson uses what Bommarito called an assistance machine, a metal structure connected with a pulley to the athlete's belt.
The trainer controls the tension of the device, which instead of holding Jackson back, yanks him forward.
"It pulls them a hell of a lot faster than they can run," Bommarito said.
After a machine-aided 10-yard sprint, the trainer releases the pulley, screeching the runner to a halt and forcing him to stop, make a cut, and change direction.
Jamming on the breaks like that might make a normal person skid or crash, but not Jackson. His ability to stop on a dime and make precision cuts is vital in the Patriots' complicated passing game.
Jackson's work ethic and knowledge of the playbook has been questioned at times this season, but his desire has never been an issue to Bommarito. He said Jackson may be the only player who can keep up with the "freakishly athletic" Boldin during workouts.
"He ranks right up there with people who excel," Bommarito said. "That mentality toward training, I see that drive for perfection, maybe more than any other player I've ever trained."
'It's a long process'
With Jackson's hamstring healed, agent David Canter is sure his client is ready to break out.
"He's 100 percent healthy," Canter said. "That's huge for him. ... Tom (Brady) knows what kind of explosiveness Chad brings to the game."
Other Sunday's 35-yard score and a 29-yard touchdown catch against the Jets on Sept. 17, Jackson has been kept under wraps.
"He's working hard to improve," Brady said of the receiver who ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in April. "It's a long process for a rookie."
Teammates, including fellow Florida Gator Reche Caldwell, have noticed Jackson's considerable talents.
"He's young and he's got hands," Caldwell said. "He's a good route runner. He's a threat."
All he needs to do, Propst said, is "get his injury right." Even that appears to be under control at this point.
Jackson hasn't been able to get back to Hoover for a game this season, but still watches his nationally-ranked alma mater when it plays on national television, Propst said.
After watching "Two-A-Days" recently, Canter asked Jackson (a 2003 Hoover graduate) if he knew where some of the featured star players ended up as college players.
Then he had a twofold realization: A) Jackson had been out of high school football for three years when the show was filmed, and B) reality TV doesn't exactly fit in Jackson's schedule.
"It's not something Chad has time to be watching right now," Canter said.
Patriots fans hungry for a productive wideout agree.
Notable Patriots rookie receivers
Deion Branch, 2002: 43%489%2%2
Terry Glenn, 1996: 90%1,132%6%1
Vincent Brisby, 1993: 45%626%2%2
Irving Fryar, 1984: 11%164%1%1
Stanley Morgan, 1977: 21%443%3%1
Hoover (Ala.) High
2002: 70 catches, 1,407 yards, 16 TDs
2003: 68 catches, 1,187 yards, 14 TDs
Career: 2 state titles (6A), 52 TDs, team went 42-3 over in his final three seasons
University of Florida
2005: SEC-leading 88 catches, 900 yards, 9 TDs
2004: 29 catches, 648 yards, 6 TDs
Career: 1,586 yards, 18 TDs, 2005 Biletnikoff Award semifinalist as a junior