Sports broadcaster, professional athlete
Tom Jackson is a television sports analyst who spent fourteen years as a professional football player in the National Football League (NFL). During his football career Jackson played on the formidable "Orange Crush" defensive line for the Denver Broncos. He joined the broadcasting team of the cable sports channel ESPN in 1987. Discussing his perspective as a television commentator in 2000, Jackson said in the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal, "I feel that my opinion—from playing in this league for fourteen years and from covering it for another fourteen—is a very viable opinion. … I've been in enough locker rooms, seen enough football, talked to enough players and coaches, to understand what I'm seeing in front of me."
Jackson was born in 1951 in Cleveland, Ohio, where his first sports allegiance was to the hometown Cleveland Browns of the NFL. From 1957 to 1965 the star player on the team was running back Jim Brown, one of football's pioneering African-American talents. Jackson dreamed of a career as a running back like the record-setting Brown, but the coach at John Adams High School decided he would be better utilized as a linebacker. Others discouraged Jackson from pursuing a football career at all, telling him he was too small for the sport. However, he was courted by Lee Corso at the University of Louisville and received an athletic scholarship to play football there.
As a Louisville Cardinal, Jackson helped lead the team to its first appearance in a bowl game in a dozen years. He was named the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year twice and served as team captain. Dave Boling, a columnist for the News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington, was Jackson's teammate at Louisville. He recalled that Jackson "stayed busy offering surprises. Waiting for our keys in a hotel lobby on a road trip, we heard somebody doing a nice job on Chicago's ‘Colour My World’ on the lobby piano. We walked over to take a look. Tom Jackson at the keyboard. As far as I could gather, nobody had a clue he could play. Game after game, this guy came up with stunning plays that helped us to a 9-1 record and a ranking in the Top 20 as seniors."
Jackson was drafted by the Denver Broncos of the NFL in 1973. The Broncos had been perennial losers since their debut in 1960; the year Jackson was drafted was the first in which they finished with a winning season. Under coaches John Ralston and Red Miller, the team's fortunes began to improve, largely because of a solidly crafted line of defense—Jackson and fellow linebackers Randy Gradishar and Bob Swenson—that was soon dubbed the Orange Crush because of the team's uniform colors. The Broncos finished the 1977 season as the American Football Conference champions. They went on to their first Super Bowl, in New Orleans in January of 1978, where they were trounced by the Dallas Cowboys, 27-10.
Jackson was a three-time Pro Bowl athlete in the late 1970s. Twice he was voted Most Valuable Player by his teammates. The Broncos even created a Most Inspirational Player award just for him in 1979; he won it six times. "Jackson is one of the smallest linebackers in the league at 5 feet 11 and 220 pounds," wrote William N. Wallace in the New York Times a decade later. "But he remains a productive player because of his speed and his anticipation. The speed is eroding now, but he is still a valuable commodity and his teammates know it." When Jackson announced his retirement, he was the longest-serving player in the history of the franchise. He left on a high note: The Broncos made their second appearance at the Super Bowl, in Pasadena in January of 1987, which they lost to the New York Giants, 39-20.
The Broncos offered Jackson a slot on the team's coaching staff, but he opted for a career in broadcasting instead. He joined ESPN as an analyst for two of the sports channel's Sunday staples: the pregame show NFL Countdown (later renamed NFL Sunday Countdown) and NFL Prime Time, an early-evening recap of all the day's highlights. Jackson, anchor Chris Berman, and their staff spent more than twelve hours collectively watching every minute of every matchup played every Sunday.
Jackson and his colleagues at NFL Sunday Countdown found themselves mired in controversy in September of 2003 not long after conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh joined the program as a commentator. Discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, Limbaugh said, "What we have here is a little social concern in the NFL," according to a New York Times report by Richard Sandomir. "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well—black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve." Jackson and Steve Young were on the air with Limbaugh at the time, and they continued discussing the Eagles and McNabb without acknowledging Limbaugh's comment about race and media favoritism.
Many in the viewing audience, however, erupted in furor. U.S. Army General Wesley K. Clark, a presidential hopeful, and Representative Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tennessee) both called on ESPN to fire Limbaugh. Limbaugh resigned three days later. Limbaugh's remarks "made us very uncomfortable at the time, although the depth and the insensitive nature of which weren't fully felt until it seemed too late to reply," Jackson said afterward, according to Sports Illustrated.
Jackson's marriage to Diana Hill ended in divorce. His ex-wife and their nine-year-old daughter, Andrea, who was known as "Dre," were killed in an automobile accident in Colorado in the summer of 1997. Jackson flew to Denver to see Andrea, before giving doctors permission to remove her from life support, which had been started to allow for organ donation. As quoted by Marilyn Robinson in the Denver Post, Jackson said, "I choose to believe that she is at peace and that she is happy and contented…. I see it as Dre's life going on, as Dre's life continuing."
At a Glance …
Born on April 4, 1951, in Cleveland, OH; married Diana Maria Hill (divorced); married Jennifer Jackson; children: Andrea (first marriage; deceased 1997), Taylor, Morgan (second marriage). Education: University of Louisville, 1969-73.
Career: Denver Broncos, linebacker, 1973-87; ESPN, football analyst, 1987—.
Addresses: Office—ESPN, Inc., ESPN Plaza, 935 Middle St., Bristol, CT 06010-7454.
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), October 28, 2000.
Denver Post, August 8, 1997, p. B1; September 22, 2005, p. F9.
News Tribune (Tacoma, WA), November 6, 2006.
New York Times, January 8, 1987, p. D23; October 2, 2003, p. D1.
Sports Illustrated, October 13, 2003, p. 22.
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