Chasing a dream: Westside product Kareem Jackson waits for his NFL call

It was one run, one simple 40-yard dash.

Kareem Jackson has run hundreds of them, from his days at Weaver Middle to Westside to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, as well as at Alabama.

The one in Indianapolis seven weeks ago at the NFL Scouting Combine, however, likely will make him a millionaire sooner than later, although he didn’t know it at the time.

He just wondered what the big deal was.

“To be honest, I couldn’t believe everybody was questioning my speed,” Jackson said, his voice still carrying a tone of that disbelief. “Once I declared, everybody was like, ‘The biggest question is his speed.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

That official 4.48 — although several scouts clocked him at 4.44 and 4.41 — didn’t change any of Jackson’s skills at cornerback, where he started 40 games for Alabama in three years.

But it made him a first-round prospect in the NFL draft, which begins tonight in New York City.

“I knew if I ran a good time — which I knew I could, I’ve always been fast ...” Jackson said. “I just felt like I had to prove myself. I worked out every day with a chip on my shoulder. I had the opportunity to go to the Combine and prove myself and my speed.”

Mission accomplished.

Jackson rose on mock draft guesses, as well as in NFL war rooms. And he has faced a hectic schedule.

Since then, Jackson has traveled to Arizona, New York (to visit the Jets), Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Jacksonville and St. Louis. He has been visited by Cleveland, New England, Oakland and Chicago.

Jackson’s performance in the Combine even changed Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s view of the decision to leave school a year early.

Saban thought Jackson needed another year and didn’t think his veteran cornerback made the right call, especially considering Jackson was unlikely to be considered a first-round candidate.

And then came the attention-getting and image-changing time.

“I think that Kareem has helped himself a lot, by the way he’s worked out, the time that he ran at the Combine,” Saban told reporters a few weeks ago during spring practice. “If there was a question about him as a player, it was probably, ‘What’s his flat speed?’

“But when he ran a good time, I think that probably made the decision he made a good decision. If he wouldn’t have run a good time, it might have made it a bad one. There’s always a little bit of risk in this.”

Jackson still finds it amazing that his speed was questioned, considering he spent three seasons facing the SEC’s collection of superb athletes at receiver.

“All this man-to-man coverage we played and nobody runs past me?” said Jackson, who was his high school basketball team’s top defensive player as a senior. “I’ve always been fast.”

How is Jackson’s checking account balance going to change because of his 40-yard time?

Seattle picked cornerback Antoine Cason of Arizona at No. 27 in 2008 and signed him to a five-year contract worth $12 million.

A year ago, Vontae Davis of Illinois went to Miami at No. 25 and got $13.3 million for five years with $7.35 guaranteed. Cornerback Alphonso Smith went fifth in the second round and got $4.93 million for four years with a $2.15 million signing bonus.

So that 4.48 was worth maybe $5 million.

Jackson hasn’t investigated his future income potential, nor its improvement after that 40-yard time, but the mention of it did widen his eyes a little bit.

“I haven’t looked at that at all,” he said. “That’s crazy.”

The months leading up to the draft have led to a cottage industry in the past decade. The website lists links to more than 400 mock drafts and has updated more than 200 in April.

Google “Kareem Jackson” and “Alabama,” and there are 103 news links in the past week and 44,600 overall. A dozen or so of the 103 come from NFL teams’ own mock drafts, so Jackson is liked by, well, just about everybody.

But that means nothing.

“I have no clue at all,” he said about who is a favorite to draft him. “Everybody’s showing the same interest.”

All of this is a nice payoff for somebody who didn’t play defense in high school and appeared destined to walk on at a Conference USA school.

Colleges started backing off as he continued trying to qualify academically. National Signing Day came and went quietly, although Jackson remained in contact with schools. He said his grades were fine, but he was about 100 points short on the SAT.

Finally, Fork Union called. Jackson accepted and listened to Vanderbilt’s advice to move to defense.

He was reluctant at first, wondering why gaining 3,447 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns in three seasons for a good GHSA Class AAAA program in a football hotbed state didn’t earn him a chance on offense.

He came around.

“I knew I was a good enough athlete to play defense,” said Jackson, who said his GPA at Alabama was about a 2.7 and he was on track to graduate on time before declaring his NFL intentions. “Then I saw how the running backs take a beating, and being in the training room a.m. to p.m. I was like, ‘Awww yeah, I can play this corner, I can give those hits instead of taking them.’ ”

He qualified early in the school year at Fork Union and committed to Vanderbilt, but a visit to Alabama changed his mind. He enrolled in January of that academic year, and a few months later, he earned the Ozzie Newsome Newcomer Award.

Soon, he’ll be a newcomer on the game’s highest level.

“It’s an opportunity I’ve always wanted and dreamed of,” he said. “I’m not nervous now. I’m pretty sure when it’s time, I’m gonna be pretty nervous. But I’m excited.”