by Rob Moseley
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Oregon safety Brian Jackson was participating in a chat with friends from back home in Alabama via Xbox when he recognized a familiar voice.
It was one he hadn't heard in a couple of years, but one he recognized almost instantly. Turns out, Jackson's old friend from Hoover, Ala., Darius Morton, was chatting as well.
"We were like, 'Oh my god!'" Jackson recalled.
So ended a two-year pause in what otherwise has been one of the most meaningful friendships of Jackson's life. Jackson and Morton "grew up as brothers" between sixth grade and their senior year of high school, lost touch when Morton's family moved to Texas and have rekindled the friendship since that chance encounter on Xbox a couple years back.
On Wednesday, the two got to hang out for the first time in months. Morton was on a deployment as an Air Force medic in Afghanistan until last week, when he returned to his home base in San Antonio — where Jackson just so happened to arrive Wednesday, in advance of Monday's Alamo Bowl for the Ducks against Texas (3:45 p.m. PT, ESPN).
Morton had been studying bowl projections late in the regular season, and heard from a mutual friend that Jackson's Ducks still had a chance for a BCS berth.
"I was like, 'that would be cool' — but I was kind of rooting for San Antonio," Morton said Wednesday after meeting up with Jackson at Oregon's team hotel for the bowl game.
Jackson and Morton each grew up around Birmingham, Ala., but didn't know each other until Morton's family moved to Hoover, as Jackson's had a few years earlier. They were in the same class for sixth grade, and bonded over their love for competition, whether in video games, a playground game called "warball" or simply seeing who could run faster.
"That was our thing when we were little, for some reason," Jackson recalled. "'I'm faster than you are!' Everybody meets on the playground and races."
By high school, the two were among the best of friends. Jackson remembers that they'd mimic each other's hairstyles. If one grew his out, or got braids, the other would do likewise — though never at the same time.
Their senior year, however, Morton moved with his family to Killeen, Texas. It wasn't so many years ago, but things like cell phones and Xbox chats weren't as prevalent.
"The separation changed things," Jackson said. "Now, everything's so connected."
By the time they reconnected, Jackson was playing for the Ducks, and Morton was in the Air Force. He was first deployed to Afghanistan in May 2011, and returned that December.
Morton got a hooded sweatshirt and a flag to show his support for his friend's team. "I'd be posted up every time an Oregon game was on," he said.
In the fall of 2012, Morton made it to Eugene for a few games. He was last there in May 2013, before his most recent deployment. He's considering leaving active duty and enrolling in school next fall, perhaps at Oregon, even though his buddy Jackson by then hopes to be pursuing a pro career somewhere else.
The two stayed in touch through group cell phone text messages while Morton was overseas. When they talked on the phone, his experiences as a medic in Afghanistan came up rarely.
"He's got some stories, man," Jackson said. "Sometimes you don't even know what to say. You've just got to listen."
Jackson said the Veteran's Day holiday carries more meaning for him now that he knows of Morton's service. It put his own experiences as a college student in a new perspective.
"I'm up late studying for a test; he's up late helping people live," Jackson said.
That Jackson is a starting safety on the No. 10 college football team in the country is remarkable in its own right. But that, too, isn't a common subject of conversations between Jackson and Morton.
"You bring it up, but that's not what we know each other for," Jackson said. "We know each other as friends. We talk about personal stuff."
Friends whose bond is so deep it survived a separation of more than two years intact, and perhaps even stronger.