In 2008, Max Rodrigues climaxed his senior year by competing with his boys cross country teammates for the first time at the Class 3A state meet at Peoria’s Detweiller Park.
Rodrigues was in contention for individual all-state honors with a top-25 honors as he entered the long final homestretch of the 3.0-mile race.
With enthusiastic fans crowding and screaming along both sides, Hinsdale South boys cross country coach Dave Jackson suddenly emerged.
“I remember Coach Jackson in my face yelling, ‘Kick it in,’ with 400 meters to go,” said Rodrigues, who now competes for DePaul University. “That image stays in my head today. It was kind of funny, actually, that he got so close to me with all of those people there.”
Through his 33 seasons of coaching cross country and track at Hinsdale South, Jackson has been close to his athletes figuratively and literally.
Jackson will retire as a teacher and coach after the school year and currently is going through his final run as an assistant coach for the boys track program. The Hornets complete their indoor track season Saturday at the West Suburban Conference Gold Division Meet at Addison Trail.
“Everything that I’m doing now is kind of my last time so it’s a little nostalgic going to these meets,” Jackson said. “Almost all of the meets that we go to, I know the hosts very well. It’s nice just to be able to go there and tell them, ‘Thank you for hosting us and having us.’
“I’m kind of looking forward to not being so busy. Life is very busy.”
Jackson, 55, has been a rare breed in his profession, coaching the same two sports at one high school ever since being hired right out of college after cross country and track success at Evanston High School and the University of Kentucky. He also has been a physical education and aquatics teacher throughout his time at Hinsdale South.
Jackson’s cross country teams never have been extremely large, and he coaches many of the same athletes for track in overseeing the middle- and long-distance track competitors. It’s allowed him to form an even closer bond with many of his current and former runners.
This past summer, 1991 graduate and all-state cross country runner Ryan Krietsch, now an F-15 flier in the Air Force, gave Jackson and family members a private tour of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
When 2007 Hinsdale South graduate and former cross country and track runner Alex Wright was graduating from Northwestern University, he received a phone call of congratulations that morning from Jackson.
“Four years later -- he really makes those kind of bonds with you. He really remembers you, and I enjoyed that,” Wright said.
“He’s just a wonderful guy to be around. He’s always joking around with everybody, and not just with the cross country team. A lot of the school came through him in the gym classes. You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy, but he knows when to put the hammer down. If anyone can strike that balance, it’s him.”
In 2006, Jackson was inducted into the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Jackson coached the Hornets to six of the cross country program’s seven state team berths as well as 12 outright or shared conference titles. Five of the state-qualifying teams had top-seven finishes at the state meet.
He’s also been coach for all four of the program’s all-state performers – Eddie Slowikowski (1982 and 1984), Bob Cisler (1985 and 1986), Krietsch (1990) and Rodrigues (2008).
Rodrigues' push down the final straightaway earned 25th place for the final all-state spot. He was forced to wait about 45 minutes after the race before the official results finally were posted. The Hornets finished 18th out of the 25 3A teams in the program's first state team appearance at Detweiller since 1986 after not being rated among the top 25 all season and earning the fifth and final qualifying spot out of their sectional.
“It was probably the greatest feeling ever when I went up to see the results and I saw 25th when everybody else was saying 26th or 27th,” Rodrigues said. “We wanted to perform our best for that meet. We wanted to do it for ourselves. We made it to state, but we also wanted to do it for Coach Jackson because we knew it was the first time (the team advanced) in over 20 years.”
Jackson had many influential coaches during his competitive days, going back to being a kid participating in the Evanston parks program. While competing for Evanston High School, his more influential coaches included Chuck Peters in cross country and Ron Helberg and Willie May in track. Ken Olson, a coach Jackson had as a freshman at Evanston, ended up being his head coach at Kentucky.
“When I was little, I thought, ‘This would be kind of neat as a career, to work with people.’ Ever since I was about 16, I very specifically wanted to be a P.E. instructor and coach,” Jackson said.
Peters was a three-time Big Ten Conference track champion who broke the world record in the 220-yard dash and tied the world record in the 60-yard dash. Helberg coached four state championship track teams and became athletic director with May promoted from assistant to head coach. A silver medalist in 110-meter hurdles at the 1960 Summer Olympics, May was instrumental in Jackson’s first involvement with the ITCCCA.
“I had a lot of really tremendous coaches, not only amazing coaches but all of these guys were unbelievably fantastic athletes in their day,” Jackson said. “(My coaching style) is kind of a combination of different people. I was able to take all of their philosophies and what I thought was good and what worked and what didn’t.
"(As a coach) I hope that I was a fair person. I hope (my athletes) had fun while we were doing this.”
Peters was a major influence upon Jackson as well as his approach to coaching – outwardly quiet and unassuming and never yelling yet competitive and able to motivate his athletes.
“Really, (Jackson’s) coaching style was he just wanted you to be the greatest person you could be athletically and scholastically, and even with your family. He wanted you to be a good person,” Rodrigues said. “Probably the most memorable thing about him is how he uses the same funny jokes every day but they never seem to get old.”
There’s also the well known practice of calling everyone ‘Chief.’ Jackson traces the origin to former Hinsdale South baseball coach Dave Lindley calling his players ‘Chief,’ practice passed on by assistant baseball coach Tom Malloy, a longtime cross country assistant for Jackson.
“That’s a big part of what (Jackson) does,” Wright said. “In the moment, he gets fired up. If he needed to yell, you needed to hear something, he’d tell you. He’s very passionate in the moment and then apart from that, he was a very calm guy, a very humorous guy.”
As a senior at the 1974 state track meet, Jackson was the state runner-up in the 880-yard run as part of the Wildkits’ state championship team and a team captain. Evanston also won state titles in 1972, when Jackson also was a varsity letterwinner, and 1971.
At Kentucky, he was the Southeast Conference runner-up in the 1,000-yard run as a freshman and SEC champion as a sophomore. Jackson finished with six top-five SEC Meet medals and was a team captain as a junior and senior.
In cross country at Evanston, Jackson was a two-time state qualifier and a team captain. He finished in the mid-50s at state as a senior and broke the 15:00 barrier (14:59), just ahead of current Hinsdale Central girls cross country head coach Mark McCabe, who competed for Oak Park-River Forest.
When McCabe found pictures of the 1973 state race in his OPRF yearbook, one of them was with Jackson running right next to him. McCabe also found a story from his school newspaper about the state meet that he gave to Jackson.
“It talks about people that ran in this race and it talked about me, ‘the feared Dave Jackson of Evanston,’ ” Jackson said. “It’s just hilarious McCabe found that. I guess I was so feared because if I was around at the end of the race, I had pretty significant leg speed. The question was if I was around at the end of the race.”
During his competitive days, Jackson also worked at sports camps during the summer and built several contacts through the running community and the Kentucky faculty.
When Jackson sent in his application and resume for a job opening at Hinsdale South, then-principal Joseph Dalpiaz called him the next day to interview with him, department chairman Ed Puck and athletic director Ed Herzog.
Jackson was hired one week later. He took over as boys cross country head coach from Mike Yavorski and hasn’t looked back.
“It happened that they took a chance and hired me,” Jackson said.
“It’s exciting to work with the athletes. I enjoy what I do. I’m sure my whole career I don’t think I ever complained about going to work. I’m not saying that it’s always easy because teaching is not an easy job. You’re getting challenged all of the time and you just have to try and remain kind of cool, not losing it.”
Jackson has enjoyed plenty of continuity around him. In 33 seasons, he’s worked under only three athletic directors (Herzog, Dave Smith and currently Tim Feigh). At one point, the four coaches in Hinsdale South’s boys track program (head coach Joe Iantria, former head coach Yavorski, Greg Riordan and Jackson) were together as a unit for 17 years.
Current track assistant coach Joe DeFalco also is retiring from Hinsdale South this season after 33 seasons as a boys soccer coach. DeFalco joined the track staff after Yavorski retired in 2000 following 30 seasons with the Hornets. When Iantria retired in 2005 after 24 seasons, current head coach Dean Norman was promoted following seven seasons as an assistant coach after Riordan stepped down.
“Job security is No. 1. If you try to move from place to place to place, you lose some job security,” Jackson said. “I enjoy what I do. There’s no reason to move and do something else. It was kind of my ideal job I would have eventually wanted to have, but I was just very fortunate to kind of step into it right from the get go.”
Jackson also gives credit to his family, his wife, Margaret, and children, Alan, Barbara and Erika. Alan and Barbara were state-qualifying runners at Hinsdale Central, and Erika swam for Hinsdale South. This weekend, Erika is headed to her final Special Olympics basketball state meet with Hinsdale South’s alumni team and also has been a Special Olympics state qualifier in track and gymnastics. The Jacksons have lived in Westmont since 1986.
“There’s no way I’d be able to do any of this without the help and support of my wife,” Jackson said. “I’m gone a lot. The reason our kids turned out pretty well is because my wife did a great job raising them.”
Jackson has had many exciting coaching moments. Probably the most memorable is the final stretch of the 1974 cross country state meet, when Slowikowski nearly won in a quagmire before being edged by York’s Jim White 14:30.5 to 14:34.
At the 2008 Class AA state track meet, senior Brian Denk, in his final high-school race, earned all-state honors in the 3,200-meter run by taking eighth, joining Slowikowski (1984 and 1985) as the program’s only all-staters in that event. Denk currently competes for the University of Illinois at Chicago.
There’s also athletes like 2006 graduate Jacob Woods, who overcame cerebral palsy to not only compete but also have success and do so with a great attitude.
“I’m just trying to have it so that these kids, hopefully, when they leave the program, are better people overall,” Jackson said. “I’m very pleased when we had those teams qualify for state and run well. To be honest, I’ve had just as much pleasure with lesser talented kids running (personal bests), getting best times even though they’re in last place.
“When you’re young, ego plays a real big part of coaching and as you get older, winning doesn’t mean as much. It’s more making sure everything gets done right and you’re teaching kids good values and doing the right things. Hopefully your athletes, when they get on with their lives, are better people because of their participation in track or cross country.”