Bennett Jackson started all 13 games for Notre Dame last season at cornerback. He finished third on the team in tackles with 65, second in interceptions with four, second in passes broken up with four, and second in passes defensed with eight.
He rarely came off the field when the Irish were on defense.
Sometimes the combination of pain and numbness would eventually overwhelm him. And yet if you weren’t on the team or a part of Notre Dame’s medical staff, you wouldn’t detect that Jackson was dealing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
“I felt like I needed it,” said Jackson of off-season surgery to repair the tear that kept him out of spring drills. “I couldn’t really sleep. I couldn’t lift. You can’t do a lot of things. It was just something that was there, it was lingering, and it was annoying me.”
Jackson said he first hurt the shoulder in the spring of his sophomore year. He probably should have had surgery then. But if he’d had surgery last May, he wouldn’t have been available for the 2012 season.
After playing special teams as a freshman and making the transition from receiver to cornerback as a sophomore, Jackson was not about to bypass his chance for a starting role on the 2012 squad.
“Spring of my sophomore year is when I really messed it up,” said Jackson, who made two of his four interceptions last season in the second game of the year against Purdue.
“But I couldn’t get the surgery then or I would have had to sit out, so I just decided to deal with it. As I went on, I kept tearing it and banging it and tearing it.”
The average human being has no concept of what Jackson experienced last season as he was helping lead the Irish to the national title game. Eventually, Jackson simply learned how to cope with the searing, incessant pain.
“Occasionally, it would pop out,” Jackson said. “I just got used to the feeling (to the point where) it really didn’t bother me too much anymore. It used to happen in practice all the time, but I just kind of got used to it. It was just part of the game to me.”
Trainers Rob Hunt and Mike Bean assisted with the rehab. Jackson did strengthening movements with Paul Longo in the weight room to build up the muscles around the torn labrum.
“A lot of it is stretching and breaking up the scar tissue so I could get my movement back,” Jackson said. “Little auxiliary lifts, just to build up the muscle around it so that you’re not stretching that ligament so much.”
Few knew by his play in ’12 just what he was dealing with.
“It made me feel weaker,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t have that initial punch or jam on a receiver like I wanted. I couldn’t wrap up as hard as I wanted to. Or sometimes you’d get an arm on a guy and didn’t have that initial strength. I didn’t have that high point that I wanted, either.
“I knew I couldn’t punch like I wanted to because my arm was going to give out on me and then he’s going to get past me pretty easily. I didn’t really care about hitting. I just kind of ran down there and stuck my face in it. When it would pop out, it would be on your mind because it would be numb for a few minutes and you don’t have a few minutes to wait, so that’s something that’s there mentally.”
Jackson attributes his strong will to the mindset that’s developed at Notre Dame under head coach Brian Kelly and his staff.
“It’s the mental toughness,” Jackson said. “That’s what I think we did tremendously last summer. Coaches talk mental toughness, mental toughness. Even this past spring, we’d go outside for no reason, other than it’s cold and snowy out and they’d have us do drills just to build that mental toughness.
“It might not be something that’s physically taxing, but it’s going to be something that gets you cold, gets you uncomfortable, and really, you’re always uncomfortable (on the field). So if you can help build someone’s awareness or familiarity with being uncomfortable, it’s just going to help you out on the field.”
Jackson said he’ll be cleared to condition full-tilt by the end of May, and by the time fall camp opens the first week of August, he’ll be good as new.
“I don’t think it held me back too much,” Jackson said. “It was just there and something that was in my mind, and when you’re thinking about it all the time, it’s something that you don’t want on your plate.
“Late in the season, as you wear and tear, wear and tear, you start to get to that limit where it’s like, ‘Dang, this hurts!’ So I’m pretty excited to see what it feels like to be 100 percent.”