Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer Janis Joplin once said before a concert, “I love being on stage and everything else is just waiting.” Another Hall of Famer heard it, wrote it down and then wrote a song about it.
Tom Petty’s “The Waiting” sold millions of records in 1981 with the chorus “The waiting is the hardest part.”
BYU freshman running back Jackson McChesney doesn’t sing or play an instrument, but this eager football player can relate to “the waiting” and for him, it is the hardest part.
“I’m itching to play. I’m happy with my role but I’d be happier running the rock,” said McChesney. “I know I’m gonna turn some heads when I get in.”
McChesney watched and waited last week as sophomore Tyler Allgeier rushed 22 times for 218 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State. It was the biggest single-game rushing performance at BYU since McChesney rushed 15 times for 228 yards and two touchdowns at UMass in 2019.
“He’s got great speed for a big guy,” said BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick of McChesney’s 6-foot-1, 212-pound frame. “When he hits you at full speed, he can run through a tackler and he’s fast enough to run away from them. When he gets his chance to play, people are going to be surprised at how fast he is.”
When he gets his chance? That’s the question that burns in McChesney’s heart and mind. When?
McChesney starred at Lone Peak High in Highland and earned a scholarship to BYU with plans to play with his older brother Austin, who was already on the team.
A two-year church mission to Concepcion, Chile, separated McChesney from his glory years with the Knights, where everything seemed to come so easily, to his new reality with the Cougars, where bad luck and good teammates have made it difficult to get on the field.
“The last thing you want to hear is to ‘be patient,’” said running backs coach Harvey Unga. “But he knows as well as I do, he’s one play away. That helps him stay focused. He’s the type of player you want on your team. He never complains and will do anything to help.”
McChesney made a splash in 2019. He returned home from his mission just a month before fall camp. The true freshman saw action in three games, including carrying the ball 10 times for 46 yards against Idaho State.
But it was a week later at UMass where the running back with rocket speed was finally launched. His 228-yard rushing performance not only set a BYU freshman record, but it was also the sixth-best in the program’s history.
The following week, however, against San Diego State, McChesney didn’t play a single down due to a coach’s decision.
“I was still so young, and I really had no idea what was going on,” McChesney said. “I knew I was going to redshirt so I was just happy to be there.”
A month later, McChesney didn’t touch the ball in the Hawaii Bowl either. It was during that game where he watched Allgeier sub in for an injured Lopini Katoa and it’s been all Allgeier ever since.
The 2020 setback
With a full offseason of conditioning and practice, McChesney packed his uniform and his big plans into a travel bag and flew with the Cougars to open the 2020 season at Navy.
Late in the third quarter he heard his number called.
“I was super excited,” he said. “I thought this was finally my time to shine.”
Three plays into his first drive, McChesney suffered a Lisfranc injury to his foot. Not wanting to leave the game, he didn’t tell anyone and kept running. He finished with 56 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown in BYU’s 55-3 victory.
The injury required surgery and months of rehab and McChesney, who dresses, warms up and appears ready to go, hasn’t seen the field since the Navy win that kick-started BYU’s 16-1 record over the last two seasons.
“It’s disappointing at times, but I see the guys ahead of me having so much success that I can’t be mad,” he said. “I want to play, but this has been a good learning experience. I’ve developed the intellectual part of my game.”
From the sideline, McChesney studies the opposing defenses and what BYU is doing to attack them. Unga asks for his observations during the game.
“His knowledge of the game is one thing that I really appreciate,” Unga said. “To be that talented and really know the game of football makes a huge difference.”
Injuries are nothing new for the McChesneys.
Jackson’s older brother Austin also arrived on campus with an impressive high school resume and big plans.
He played in each of the first nine games during his freshman season in 2016 as a defensive back. But during the ninth game, at Cincinnati, where he grabbed his first and only interception, he tore the ACL in his left knee while on kickoff coverage.
Austin recovered from the injury only to tear his right ACL during fall practice in 2017. After another year of rehab, he tore his right MCL in 2018 and his career was over.
“I wish I could tell you why we had these injuries,” Austin McChesney said. “Some people think it might be lifting too heavy with the legs. We blame our mom’s side of the family for our legs. We never had injuries in high school but once we got to college, we both had issues.”
The injuries and personal challenges are points of conversation as the two brothers mull over their family fate.
“We talk about it all the time,” Jackson said. “We often ask ourselves, ‘What would life be like if we were completely healthy?’”
The injuries kept Jackson and Austin from suiting up together, a rarity currently enjoyed by the Romney, Barrington and Nacua brothers.
“Without Jackson, I wouldn’t have been at BYU,” Austin said. “He’s the one that got me into school. The kid has a heart of gold. He keeps our family together. Whenever he’s around it’s a party.”
Ready to play
The upside to Jackson’s BYU career is it still has plenty of time to get re-started. With the NCAA’s COVID-19 ruling, McChesney is still a freshman and is third on the running backs depth chart behind Allgeier and Katoa.
“He knows that I had to wait my time for an opportunity to play and I felt like I was somewhat patient,” said Unga, who is BYU’s No. 2 all-time leading rusher. “So when I ask him to be patient, he understands it.”
Having been injured himself, McChesney said he would never wish such a fate on a teammate. But, in the reality of football, as BYU has seen through the first five games of the season, injuries are part of the game and create opportunities for players who are waiting in the wings.
“There are a lot of examples on this team of people being ready to step up,” said Roderick. “The odds are good that we will need him at some point down the stretch. I have a lot of confidence that he will be ready to play and there will be no drop-off. He can do all three phases of the game — block, run and catch.”
Need for speed
McChesney hasn’t timed himself in the 40-yard dash this fall but he doesn’t think he is too far behind Allgeier’s time of 4.3.
“He’s deceptively fast,” said Allgeier, who is No. 8 in the country in rushing. “Once he gets his legs going you can’t stop him. He’s gonna be great. He’s just waiting for his turn.”
There is that word again — waiting.
Fortunately, a few timely text messages from mom (Meisha) has helped keep McChesney’s emotions in check and his optimism alive.
“She is always patient and humble. I’m trying to be like her,” he said. “She sends texts that say, ‘You’ll be all right,’ ‘Be calm,’ and ‘Just wait for your time.’”
If McChesney gets his name called Saturday against Boise State, he vows to be more than ready, and while Tom Petty wrote his popular song 20 years before Jackson was born, the message holds true, for McChesney and everybody else with big dreams, “the waiting is the hardest part.”
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.