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Traevon Jackson guided by faith

LOS ANGELES -- Wisconsin had just defeated North Carolina in the Sweet 16 when Traevon Jackson began to credit whom he always credits for his achievements: God.

If there's a microphone in his face, then there's probably a faith-inspired message rolling off his tongue. Not in a fiery, traveling Southern Baptist evangelist manner. But in a way that suggests the gravity of it all.

Jackson's life is governed by a higher power. And he's not shy about professing that to anyone, including his teammates.

"It's not like I'm out here just preaching to them and stuff," said Jackson, who will play in his second consecutive Final Four when Wisconsin faces Kentucky on Saturday in Indianapolis. "They know how I live and I try to encourage them a lot and show them that there's more than just this game. ... A trophy will disintegrate eventually. There has to be more than that."

In 2015, religion is arguably the most polarizing topic in America. Its controversial elements transcend the electric themes that are woven through the country's quilt of demagoguery: politics, education, sports and more.

The state of Indiana is currently weighing legislation that appears to grant businesses and individuals permission to discriminate against gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals based on those businesses' and individuals' religious beliefs, although Gov. Mike Pence has repeatedly rebuked that notion and promised to alter the language of law to prove as much. But it's not an unfamiliar discussion, one that often involves a religious undercurrent.

But those fireworks don't worry Jackson. He's committed. It's not a gimmick. It's just his character. His Christian fervency does not scare his teammates, who embrace Jackson, a key leader throughout his four years at Wisconsin.

"It came as a surprise, really, when I first got here because I didn't really know Trae beforehand," Badgers forward Vitto Brown said. "But I think it's great. It allows you to get away from basketball sometimes and it's also, it's uplifting even when times are going rough. He always has somebody to turn to."

Added sophomore Nigel Hayes: "We embrace it well for him. We know that that's a part of him. In order to get all of Trae and the best of Trae, we have to respect all of Trae and his faith being one of those things. We definitely allow him to do what he needs to do with his faith because it doesn't really affect the way he plays at all, so we just take it as it is."

It's not unusual for an athlete to profess his faith. The "I'd like to thank God" postgame quote is common within the sports world. Jackson often goes beyond that typical response, though.

He talks about the Holy Spirit and its role in his life. He speaks of "the world" as an enemy and combative entity that might attempt to blemish his beliefs. And he discusses with pride his recent realization that there's more to life than basketball.

His faith has brought peace.

"He started to find strength," said Jim Jackson, Traevon's father, a former Ohio Star basketball star and a commentator on Big Ten Network. "I believe he started to find peace of mind in answers he was searching for through the [Bible]. That's a delicate balance. I think it's really helped him level out."

Before you accuse the younger Jackson of anything or put him in a box, you should meet the old Traevon Jackson. The ladies' man. The guy who started the party and ended it. The young man searching for purpose and a vision. The Ohio native who nearly left Wisconsin and college basketball two years ago.

"Traevon, before that moment, was the life of the party," said Anthony Rhodman, Jackson's mentor and director of In God's Image Sports Training. "He has a magnetic personality where he draws people to him. As an athlete, a young man that's not afraid to talk to ladies, he was able to get ladies easily. An easygoing guy who drew people to him all the time. Unlike a lot of people, he's kept his personality. Now he draws people to the Lord instead of the party."

Jackson confirmed as much.

"I was wild," Jackson said. "I was in the world. I was trying to do everything. I was just your average, worldly college guy. I used my status to get what I needed. It's a total 180 now."

At a Bible study after his sophomore season at Wisconsin, Jackson heard a friend's story about his faith, and that night, Jackson decided to recommit himself to God. Two years later, he aims to avoid the popular vices on college campuses. He knows them well. He said it's not difficult because his faith is genuine.

"When in doubt, go to bed," he said. "That's what one of my good friends told me. Just make smart decisions. Over time, I think you create habits that keep you doing the right thing."

It shapes how he lives and acts. And, per his teammates, his faith has made him a stronger leader. The latter term is cliché. Not every veteran deserves that title.

But Jackson has earned that respect and label in the Wisconsin locker room, especially in recent months. In January, Jackson suffered a foot injury that sidelined him for two months. During that time, Bronson Koenig became the starting point guard and on-court guide for the program.

Jackson, however, mentored Koenig from the bench. He wasn't bitter about the change or, eventually, his injury. He was happy to help. His teammates noticed.

"Trae is a unique guy and the personality that he's brought and just the character he is, is just a huge piece of what this team has, his leadership that he brings on a daily basis," Duje Dukan said.

After this weekend, Jackson's college career will end. He's not on any NBA draft boards but he'll likely attempt to play professional basketball somewhere. Wherever the game takes him, he'll stay strong in his faith.

If anything, it has taught him that the game alone isn't sufficient. He's now content with the idea that basketball is not his only purpose.

"It's everything," he said. "To where this game used to define me, this game doesn't define me anymore. It's all about Christ and about what my purpose here on this earth is and understanding what that means and using this platform of basketball. It's like a cliché thing to say that but nah, this is my gift and this is what I was put on earth to do."