Alexandria’s Daniel Jackson is 13-years-old and entering 8th grade at Zion Lutheran School this fall, and he’s already turning some heads as a kicker with plenty of potential in football.
Daniel recently got back from the Kicking World 2020 training camp in Maple Grove. It was the first kicking camp he has ever attended, and an opportunity to get some in-depth coaching, along with competition against other good kickers from multiple states.
Almost all of the kids at the camp were older than Daniel, but he made an impression on everyone when he nailed a 50-yard field goal on the last day.
“I was so excited,” Daniel said. “I’ve only made 50-yarders in practice, and this was my first official 50-yarder. I was pumped up. The other kids were giving me some grief before it, saying I was an 8th-grader and stuff. Once I started my steps, I let all the nerves go and just kicked it.”
Daniel started the kick right of the upright to compensate for a strong crosswind. The ball sailed back over the middle, easily clearing the crossbar. He said he has made three or four 50-yarders in practice, but never one in front of a crowd like this.
“He just loves kicking so much that he’s been practicing all the time,” Daniel’s mother, Angela, said. “I think he has a drive when it comes to competition to just show his best, so we were proud he was able to pull it out at that time.”
Daniel’s performance at the camp earned him an invite to a two-day, national showcase in Austin, Texas in December. His father, Craig, was told Daniel is just the third 8th-grader ever invited to the camp, which is generally for kickers, punters and snappers in grades 9-12.
“I want to get a lot of practice before I go there,” Daniel said. “I think it will be just a huge learning experience. It will give me a better idea of what the (really good kickers) are doing, and it will be more of a competitive atmosphere the second day.”
“It was such a defining moment for him”
It’s not that common in Minnesota football to see a kid show a passion for kicking at such a young age like Daniel has. And where that passion stems from is a unique story in itself.
Like many Minnesotans, Daniel was watching the Vikings playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks on Jan. 10, 2016. Vikings’ kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal with 22 seconds left that allowed the Seahawks to escape with a 10-9 win.
Daniel was as stunned as any fan that day. He figured even he could make a 27-yard field goal, so he decided to give it a shot.
“That really was the moment,” Angela said. “When that happened, he couldn’t wrap his little 8-year-old mind around how such a close field goal could get missed. When he went out to try it, he realized there are a lot of technical things that go into it.”
Daniel was hooked on trying to perfect that kicking technique. Months later, he wrote Walsh a letter of support after he was cut by the Vikings. Walsh responded by writing him back, sending a game football and some of his personal kicking equipment to help Daniel with his training.
“He really started working on it, and getting that extra boost from Blair when he got that stuff just kind of kept him motivated,” Angela said. “It was such a defining moment for him.”
Beyond his years
The excitement Daniel felt that day has never really worn off.
“Kicking is my favorite athletic thing ever,” he said. “I just love how it feels to kick.”
That’s what keeps him so busy with the craft. Daniel practices kicking three or four times a week, but he is engaged with it in some way almost daily.
“From stretching, to drills, to reading any kicking material he can get his hands on,” Craig said.
Joel Monroe first heard about Daniel through others in the community. Monroe is a former Gophers’ kicker at the University of Minnesota. He moved to Alexandria almost a year and a half ago and was eager to help the Cardinals build a kicking program.
Daniel was at the field early one day at AAHS to work on field goals before 6th-grade football practice when one of the varsity coaches saw him and came over. He encouraged the Jacksons to reach out to Monroe for some guidance.
“The first time I saw him kick it was like, ‘Well, shoot. I came to try to coach people. What am I going to do with you?’” Monroe said with a laugh. “He’s so smooth and so clean in the way he kicks the ball, and that makes it very easy for him.”
Monroe and Daniel worked together every week before the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on that. They went over slow-motion video, analyzing Daniel’s form, figuring out steps, ball contact and looking at all the small things that affect consistency.
“His form is almost perfect, which is really rare at a young age,” Monroe said. “There’s body mechanics that enable your body to be used in the most efficient way, whether it’s golf or tennis or baseball. Daniel pretty much had those figured out.”
At 5-feet, 5-inches tall and 110 pounds, Daniel’s question to Monroe early after meeting him was how can he consistently create more distance on the ball?
“My answer was just get bigger,” Monroe said. “He’s going to grow, but the form is what lets you take that body strength and translate it into the football. I think back on myself when I was his age, and I didn’t have anywhere near this kind of power, and I was about his size.”
Daniel knows there is a lot of work to be done, but he is no doubt driven by kicking.
“I just want to keep practicing,” he said. “I want to kick for the high school here, and then maybe get a scholarship for college and then eventually hopefully go to the NFL.”
Monroe said it’s hard to even talk about life after high school for an 8th-grader, but camps like the one Daniel has been invited to in Texas this winter are set up to showcase kickers to coaches at the college level.
“They use these camps as a way to see them, and the camps take advantage of that as a way to promote high school kickers and make them easy for college coaches to go look at their stats, look at their performance and compare them,” Monroe said.
First things first, Daniel wants to help the Cardinals varsity team in the coming years when his time comes. Having a kicker who can consistently put points on the board with field goals is a luxury not a lot of high school programs have.
It’s one thing to kick on an empty field, and another to do it in pressure moments. Daniel proved last weekend that he can brush those nerves aside at the camp in Maple Grove. He should get plenty more opportunities to prove it in the future.
“The No. 1 thing to progress in any sport is performance,” Monroe said. “When the pressure is on, you got to get the job done. Performing at this camp is huge. That’s step one. When you start talking about where this is going to go, he has to perform on his high school team and build that resume of performance game after game. Then continue going to camps so he’s competing against the other top kickers in the country. This is just the beginning of the journey.”