Calvert Hall's Jackson headed to Navy
The odds were stacked against Donya Jackson from the start.
That the Calvert Hall small forward is still in high school, let alone excelling on the court and off, is an unbelievable achievement. That the 6-foot-4, 200-pound rising senior is going to college, let alone an institution like the Naval Academy, is borderline miraculous.
Jackson, who committed to Navy two weekends ago, was born in Baltimore, spent several years in New York and returned before middle school to the Pumphrey section of Anne Arundel County and later South Baltimore. As a seventh grader at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Brooklyn, Jackson said he was skipping school and staying out late.
“All the guys in my family have went to jail or sold drugs,” Jackson said. “A lot of women in my family used drugs. ... Right now I should be somewhere dealing drugs or in jail, because that’s the path that was set up for me.”
In Jackson’s seventh-grade year, a chance meeting changed everything. William Russell, the basketball coach at Benjamin Franklin (now called Masonville Cove Community Academy), saw Jackson in a sparsely attended middle school play. The two met after the show and struck up a friendship. Russell invited the 5-7 Jackson to join his team.
“It was the first time he ever played. He couldn’t dribble the ball and he couldn’t shoot,” Russell recalled with a laugh.
Jackson bought in to Russell’s philosophy and made his mark early on defense. Off the court, Russell began to discover the harsh realities of Jackson’s upbringing. At the time, Jackson was living in Brooklyn with his aunt. Russell offered to take the 12-year-old Jackson into his home. The arrangement suited both parties well, and Russell adopted Jackson the following year, subsequently changing the course of his life.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do right; it was that I didn’t have anyone pushing me, somebody with their foot in my butt,” Jackson said. “When I went with my father, he had a lot of structure. There was no coming home in the wee hours of the night. He had to know where I was, who I was with, when I was there. He had to know everything. ... So going with him helped me a lot. The will to do right was always there. I just needed someone to guide me on the right path.”
Jackson spent his freshman year of high school at Northwestern, where he played on the junior varsity team. He transferred to Calvert Hall the following year. As a junior, Jackson averaged 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. He was honored as the Baltimore Catholic League’s Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
Loyola and St. Francis (Pa.) offered scholarships, while Mount St. Mary’s, UMBC, Quinnipiac, Niagara and several others were interested, according to Russell. Navy, meanwhile, was always involved. At a team camp earlier this summer, Russell said Jackson connected with Midshipmen guards Jordan Sugars and Romeo Garcia. Father and son “fell in love with the style of play,” Russell said.
“We were actually at a regional track championship, and Donya said, ‘Pop, I’ve been thinking a lot about Navy. Nobody’s going to offer me what Navy can offer me.’ And I said, ‘You’re exactly right, son.’ He’s going to have a career after basketball, and that’s what has been important to us.”
Said Jackson, “At first, I was kind of scared going to Navy because of the war going on right now. I’m really not a military guy, but when I sat back and looked at the whole picture, the education that I will get when I’m there is tops in the country, I’ll graduate an officer in the Navy and I’ll get to choose any field I want to be in. Me and my father sat down and talked about it, and he said ‘you’ll go there, and doors will open.’”
From a basketball standpoint, Calvert Hall coach John Bauersfeld thinks Jackson and Navy are a perfect match. Jackson’s improved shooting and defensive intensity make him an ideal player for the frenetic pace of Navy’s system.
“It’s a great fit and it’s 100 percent his decision,” Bauersfeld said. “Nobody pressured him in any way to go there. He said it was the right place for him. ... They’re very excited to have a kid with the quality of character and also the talent and tremendous upside Donya has. They’re very excited to have him.”
Before middle school Jackson had never played organized basketball. Now he’ll receive a free education because of the sport. Russell said Jackson’s hard work and dedication to the game made this all possible. But Jackson says his father is the one to thank for his good fortune.
“He’s just been so happy,” Jackson said. “I actually just got him a card because we had a little argument and I didn’t get my way and I acted like a brat. I wrote him a big apology in the card because I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for him. All of this is because of him. I look at him and he’s so happy and proud of me because I’m doing the right things. And I have to think about all of that. But he’s definitely extremely happy. I can see it in his face every time he looks at me.”