Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
“The Town With A Heart.”
That is the moniker plastered on the homepage of Park River, North Dakota’s website. The town, located in northeastern North Dakota, was founded in 1884 on the values of heart, grit and hard work. Those values shine through in its residents.
NDSU linebacker Jackson Hankey is one of those residents that embodies Park River’s mantra. The junior showcases his heart, grit and hard work every time he steps on the field. It also affirms that Hankey belongs in the vital position of middle linebacker.
Hankey led the Bison in tackles in 2019 with 127. That mark was third-best in school history behind NDSU great Nick DeLuca and Grant Olson, who also happens to be Hankey’s position coach.
What Hankey has shown on the field is impressive and it illustrates the hardworking attitude he grew up with. However, Hankey also mirrors his onfield accomplishments off the field.
Hankey is the true definition of a “student-athlete”. He graduated at the top of his class at Park River Area High School. He has carried that success in the classroom to NDSU as well. An agricultural economics major, Hankey has been featured on the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s Honor Roll three years running. He also has two MVFC Commissioner’s Academic Excellence awards and multiple trips to various AllAcademic lists.
All of this is bookmarked by Hankey’s NCAA Elite 90 award in 2019, an award given to student-athletes who compete at a national championship while also upholding the highest academic standard. What we see from Jackson Hankey today, both on and off the field, is thanks to that “town with a heart”.
Small towns in North Dakota are built on the values of hard work and perseverance. From your perspective, where do you think that mentality comes from?
One of the biggest things about being from a small town is that you become a lot more appreciative of where we’re at now. Obviously, being from a small town, we’re probably not expected to be able to play at this kind of level. The fact that we’re here and we have gotten this opportunity makes us more appreciative. Small towns definitely have a different set of values that are much more predicated on hard work, perseverance and earning everything you get.
There is also a certain amount of pride you take in your community. What is it about small-town pride that is so special?
We’re not as expected to have success at this level, it’s much less likely. There will always be a sense of pride because it does not happen often where we’re from. When it does happen, it’s a little more special and it means more to the community.
Growing up in Park River, was playing football at NDSU always the endgame for you? Was that a goal you had?
NDSU was my goal. When I grew up, this is exactly where I wanted to play. I realized early on that I probably wasn’t going to get a lot of opportunities at other places just due to where I am from. I was always hoping I would get an opportunity to play here and fortunately I was given that opportunity. I am very grateful.
“Obviously, being from a small town, we’re probably not expected to play at this kind of level. The fact that we’re here and we have gotten this opportunity makes us more appreciative”-Jackson Hankey
Do you think getting to NDSU was aided by how Class A (the level you played at) is structured? Just based on personnel alone, most kids have to play on both sides of the ball. Was that to your advantage?
You get to develop many skill sets, and you get to play a lot of positions. For me, when I was in high school, I played quarterback, running back, fullback and wide receiver. So I got to develop a lot of those skill sets and all of those positions have different movements and different things required. Being able to do that and play defense, you not only get to develop certain things, but you also get a better look at the mental side of the game from both sides.
Once you did get to NDSU, was it a challenge to hone in on that linebacker spot since you were so used to playing every position?
I had always wanted to play linebacker when I came here. Ever since I got the opportunity to play middle linebacker here, I wouldn’t want to play any other position. It is my favorite position on the field and it comes with a lot of responsibility. That is one part that I really like about it too. It was a little different honing in one specific spot, but I am very glad and satisfied with the position that I am in.
Where have you seen your biggest improvements since coming from Park River to Fargo?
The biggest one would probably be with coach [Jim] Kramer. All of the sudden, you get to a very high level of strength and conditioning program and that can develop you a lot. I feel like that has been a huge stride forward for me. Another area would be communication and understanding the game. Being a middle linebacker here, you are required to have a very strong understanding of our defense. You have to be able to communicate that understanding at a very high level. I had to make very big strides in those two areas.
I have to imagine this time we’re living in is extremely challenging, especially as an athlete. How have you been able to brave the challenges this world offers on a daily basis?
It’s been very challenging. It’s been emotionally challenging and physically challenging. We do not know what is going to come tomorrow, a week from now, a month from now, etc. For me, it’s important to be grounded in something other than football. That would be faith in Jesus, to be honest. With the coronavirus, I have had a lot of time and I’ve been able to really hone in on that and learn how important it is. Also, how much it has helped me, but given me clarity on things in life and the way I see the world.
• Led NDSU in tackles in 2019 with 127. Third-most in a season in school history.
• Hometown: Park River, ND “The Town With A Heart” [Walsh County (Population 1,338)