When siblings Justin and Phil Jackson were kids, they woke up one winter morning at their home in Carol Stream and noticed an enormous present sitting under the Christmas tree.
As one would imagine, the brothers eagerly speculated about what might be inside the giant box. On Christmas, they ripped off the wrapping paper and found an unexpected surprise.
The gigantic present was a mop and bucket.
"That was one of the best Christmases we ever had," Phil Jackson said sarcastically. "You can imagine, young kids see the biggest box under the tree and think it's some crazy toy and it ends up being a mop and a bucket."
This story needs some context. First of all, the two brothers turned out to be wildly successful running backs. Justin Jackson is on the verge of becoming Northwestern's all-time leading rusher. Heading into Saturday's game against Bowling Green, he trails career leader Damien Anderson by 229 yards.
If Jackson can match last season's rushing total (1,524 yards), he'll pass two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin for second place among Big Ten all-time leading rushers. Ron Dayne will be difficult to catch for No. 1.
Older brother Phil is not as well known, but he's not a slouch, having won three Division II national championships at Northwest Missouri State. He finished his college career last season by scoring 2 touchdowns in the title game victory over North Alabama. Both brothers starred at Glenbard North High School.
You don't enjoy that type of success -- in football or any other activity -- without the willingness to work hard. And that's the message Phillip Jackson tried to send when he gift-wrapped that mop.
"Yes, that did happen," Mr. Jackson said with a laugh. "I used to try to have fun with them.
"It was sort of a dual purpose there. One was to say, 'Hey, you've still got to work for the things you earn.' The whole idea behind the mop and bucket was that, 'It's Christmas and this is a great time of year, but hey, you've got to keep working hard.' The look on their faces was pretty priceless at the time."
Justin Jackson's road to becoming one of the best running backs in Big Ten history is a typical suburban story. He's probably played more games at Armstrong Park in Carol Stream than at Glenbard North or Northwestern. It all began one day when Phillip Jackson took his boys to one of the local schools to sign up for youth football with the Carol Stream Panthers.
"My brother was going to play," Justin recalled. "I hadn't really been into sports much until I saw him sign up. I think we were actually walking out and I think I just said, 'Dad, I think I want to play too,' or whatever. I went into it and I guess the rest is history."
Anyone who has spent time watching youth football has probably noticed the fastest kid on the field, the one who can change direction three times in the backfield and cover about 150 yards on the way to a 40-yard touchdown run. That was Justin Jackson the moment he put on pads.
"He dominated, it seemed like, literally from Day One," Phillip Jackson said. "He was so good, there were a couple times early the coach didn't want to play him."
Paul Taramelli was Jackson's coach during most of his youth football career and also on the freshman team at Glenbard North.
"There was a play where I put him at defensive end and he was supposed to crash," Taramelli said. "He got in so fast, he took the ball from the quarterback as if he was taking the handoff and ran for a touchdown. This was probably in fifth grade. He knew exactly what he was doing."
The glory days of the fastest kid in youth football often don't last. Other kids catch up. Boys mature at different speeds, but Jackson never slowed down. His high school stats were astonishing. During his senior year, he rushed for 402 yards and 5 touchdowns in a game against Naperville Central. He gained 349 yards against Wheaton Warrenville South, and 340 in the playoffs against New Trier.
Jackson had a few things working in his favor. No doubt he benefited from growing up in DuPage County with its strong football tradition. He had an ideal role model in his older brother, and was constantly reminded to work hard and stay humble by his father. The Christmas mop was put to good use.
"We did every chore in the house you could think of and we hated it," Phil Jr. said. "Our work ethic that we've been taught through family and friends, and just him being humble -- that's the reason (Justin) is where he is."
Justin's mother died of breast cancer when he was young, and that tragedy brought the family even closer. Along with older sister Megan, the Jackson brothers also enjoyed competing against cousins Christina and Nicole Ekhomu. Both are now college basketball players, Nicole at Florida State and Christina at St. Francis.
Justin and Phil spent one season as teammates, during Justin's sophomore year of high school.
"You ride the coattails of your older brother, usually," Justin said. "We actually became really close when we started playing together. Before, I was just sort of the annoying little brother. I guess I matured a little bit, so that was a really good time for us."
Phil's final college game was played in a snowstorm in Kansas last December. Justin was able to make the trip to watch the Division II title game in person, 11 days before Northwestern beat Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl. Phil is now working in Kansas City.
This is how it usually works. When athletic siblings grow up together, the youngest often turns out to be the best athlete because he was the one always playing against better competition.
"I'm not one to take credit for anything, but I'm glad I could be there for him," Phil said. "I'm glad he could watch me and take what I was doing and do it better. I have no problem with that.
"People used to ask me, 'Are you mad that your brother is bigger and at a bigger school?' I'd say, 'No, absolutely not. Why would I be mad about that? What person would be mad about their own kin doing better than them?' "
Yes, might as well say it: Watching your brother mop the field with Big Ten defenders is a pretty good life result.
Sept. 2: NU 31, Nevada 20
Sept. 9: Duke 41, NU 17
Sept. 16: BOWLING GREEN, 6:30 p.m. BTN
Sept. 30: at Wisconsin, TBA
Oct. 7: PENN STATE, 11 a.m.
Oct. 14: at Maryland, TBA
Oct. 21: IOWA, TBA
Oct. 28: MICHIGAN STATE, TBA
Nov. 4: at Nebraska, TBA
Nov. 11: PURDUE, TBA
Nov. 18: MINNESOTA, TBA
Nov. 25: at Illinois, TBA
Home games in CAPS