State College’s Jackson Heasley takes the field Friday nights with a piece of paper tucked into his cleats.
It’s been a tradition shared with his father, Joe Dell, who awakes about 30 minutes early on game days to write a list of goals, or words of encouragement, for his son. Over the years, Dell included references to “Stonewall,” a nickname Heasley received from his time playing goalie in lacrosse, and referred to his son as “Jack the Sack Machine” on those notes.
“It became a must,” Dell said.
Heasley appreciates the positive words — if a note isn’t written, his dad’s reminded — and that type of support has helped him become a standout defensive end for the Little Lions, one who now has options to play in college. He was never the star player during his youth football and middle school days, and he was ready to quit playing the game when he moved to State College in eighth grade.
But he stuck with it and discovered his passion for football.
He embraced the long practices and now approaches the game with a relentless motor. He lifted weights at school and at home to develop the speed and strength he uses to cause havoc in the backfield. He soaked in the instruction of his coaches over the years and credits his mentors for his success.
It all shows Friday nights as the senior defensive end leads the Little Lions (4-0) with 28 tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks.
“I love football,” Heasley said. “I love playing with all these guys out here, so I just make the most of it every chance I get because you never know when it’s going to be your last play.”
Heasley might not be chasing down quarterbacks for the Little Lions if his mother hadn’t made him continue playing when the family arrived in State College.
He didn’t enjoy fighting against the bigger players as an undersized kid growing up in Indiana, Pa., and Chattanooga, Tenn. But his mother, Molly Dell, reminded him that that summer how much he loved the game and told him he couldn’t let past experiences factor into his decision.
She wanted him to play his eighth-grade season at State College.
“He agreed that he would try, but it was very reluctantly,” Molly Dell said.
Heasley wasn’t thrilled.
“I was really mad that she was making me play,” Heasley said. “I was furious she was making me play.”
He smiles about that conversation now, as he admits it was the “best decision” for him. Heasley loved football since he was 3 or 4 years old, spending Saturdays and Sundays watching games with his grandfather. Heasley even started learning math and statistics through football. They both loved the Pittsburgh Steelers — his grandfather had season tickets — and Heasley knew all the players’ names and numbers.
But he didn’t love playing the game for a long time.
His father remembers when his son didn’t get on the field in some games. He played three or four snaps in others. Heasley felt as if he wasn’t good enough, and it was frustrating for his father to watch him struggle. He simply couldn’t match up physically as one of the smaller kids on his teams. That size difference was clear when he was 8 years old, lined up across kids wearing stripes on their helmets.
“They used to have to wear stripes on their helmets if they were big and they couldn’t tackle you,” Molly said. “I can just remember looking at Jack next to the kid that was the same age and thinking, ‘Wow he really looks small.’”
And even after he agreed to play in State College, he wasn’t excited for the team’s first practice at Park Forest Middle School. During the two-mile drive, Molly could tell her son was anxious: He wondered aloud if he would like playing that year, if he would fit in on a new team and if he would be good compared to his teammates. The self-doubt formed after years of failing to measure up.
“I was really underdeveloped growing up,” Heasley said. “I didn’t start growing until about ninth grade. That’s why I didn’t like it as much. I wasn’t as developed as a lot of the guys. I was behind physically a little bit.”
But in eighth grade, Heasley started to love playing football for the first time under coach Brian McGonigal, who taught him to enjoy two-a-days and practices. With that newfound passion, Heasley dedicated himself to the game and grew from a 5-foot-9, 170-pound freshman to a 6-foot-2, 240-pound senior.
No longer undersized, Heasley is a force on the field for the Little Lions.
Heasley even gives 6-foot-3, 305-pound offensive lineman Robert Nachtman fits at State College’s practices. Nachtman, who is headed to Delaware on scholarship, feels Heasley has flown under the radar as one of the state’s top players with his speed, strength and motor.
Heasley used that combination to sprint 30 yards for a sack at one point this season, but Nachtman is most impressed — and annoyed — by his spin move.
“That’s dirty,” Nachtman said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him pull it on someone this year. I don’t think I’ve seen it yet.”
Heasley worked hard in the weight room to maximize his growth spurt in high school, too. When the family first moved to State College, he shared a room — until they installed a weight bench for him and there wasn’t enough room for his brother. Now, a stack of weights rest in an area outside his bedroom, allowing him to do lighter sets as he can now bench more than 300 pounds and squat about 400.
He also uses a 100-pound punching bag in the basement, causing the kitchen floor to shake during those workouts.
“We know when he’s working out,” Joe Dell said with a laugh.
Heasley turned himself into a college recruit with that work, as he’s received a preferred walk-on offer from Syracuse to go with options to play at MAC and FCS schools. He never imagined he’d have that opportunity when he was younger, and he was excited to meet with one college coach in State College coach Matt Lintal’s office in the spring.
“I told the coach ahead of time because I know Jackson — and Jackson had been in the other building across the street — I said when he gets here, he’s going to be sweaty and he’s going to be out of breath because he just ran here when I called him out,’” Lintal said. “Sure enough, he walked in out of breath, could hardly talk because he had just run from across the street over to meet with this coach.
“That’s just who he is. He doesn’t sit around and wait for things to happen.”
Last Friday, with State College set to take on Mechanicsburg, Joe Dell woke up at about 5:30 a.m. to write his note for Heasley.
He mentioned seeing the Little Lions improve to 4-0 and included “Go State” and “Be the leader that you are” in his message. He also asked for eight tackles, a couple of sacks and an interception.
“That’s a tough one for a defensive end,” his father said, laughing.
Joe knows stats aren’t that important, but he has fun with the notes for this son, who often talks with his family about the upcoming game at dinner on Thursday nights. And on Fridays, he’ll take his father’s words with him and keep them close on the field that night with his family in the stands providing support.
Sometimes as they watch, they’ll think about his journey from an undersized kid to a standout lineman.
“We look back and we kind of chuckle a little bit about the struggles and how he used to worry about whether he could actually play at this level,” Molly Dell said.