Last in a series of profiles of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's seven-member Class of 2010.
When Rickey Jackson learned he had been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the 52-year-old knew he would not make the journey to Canton alone. As the first NFL player to be inducted as a member of the New Orleans Saints, Jackson represents both the sorry state the franchise was once in and the bridge that helped take it to the heights it has found today.
"I look at me and Archie Manning — two pure Saints," he says. "I know how Archie feels about me, and I know how I feel about him. He was one of the greatest Saints ever, and I know he feels the same about me on defense." When the two spoke on Monday, Manning said he was proud of Jackson, and that the honor was well deserved.
It took Jackson awhile (he retired following the 1996 season), but eventually Hall of Fame voters found a place for him. Really, it was consistent with how Jackson's career had gone. Often overshadowed by the bigger names or better stats around him, somehow Jackson always found a way to distinguish himself on the football field.
During his time at the University of Pittsburgh, Jackson was "the other guy" opposite star DE Hugh Green, who tallied the most first-place votes and total points ever by a lineman in Heisman balloting. When the 1981 NFL draft rolled around, Green went No. 7 overall to Tampa Bay; Jackson didn't land until late in Round Two (quite possibly the greatest second round ever, in terms of defensive talent, with Jackson, Howie Long and Mike Singletary).
Think of the Saints teams of the 1980s and '90s, and what comes to mind is the team's unstoppable linebacker foursome, which consisted of Jackson, Pat Swilling, Vaughan Johnson and the late Sam Mills. NFL Films labeled it the greatest LB corps of all time, and during a six-year stretch (1987-92) it helped New Orleans rank among the top five in the league in points allowed four times (No. 1 in both 1991 and '92). In 1992, all four linebackers earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
In some of those seasons Jackson was again "the other guy." Thanks to his 17 sacks, Swilling was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1991, and there were a few seasons when Mills and Johnson received more recognition than their two teammates on the outside.
The "Dome Patrol" was one of the NFL's great units — a position group greater than the sum of its parts. Says Jackson, "A lot of teams had that one good player ... but four together? The league had never seen that before."
Saints fans worried that none of the four would ever gain entrance to Canton based on the theory that sometimes having too much talent takes away from the worthiness of each individual. It sure seemed that was going to be the case with Jackson, who had been unsuccessful on his first nine Hall of Fame ballots, never before having reached the group of finalists.
Eventually, though, he found a way.
A Hall of Fame voter admitted this week that one reason Jackson gained entrance was because of the convincing argument made on his behalf during the Hall of Fame selection committee's meeting the week of the Super Bowl. I imagine all his presenter had to do was just point to a few facts ...
If those four points are not the credentials of a Hall of Famer, I'm not sure what is. But Jackson's greatest contribution may have been helping New Orleans reach its first playoff game (1987), followed by three more appearances over the next five seasons. The Saints lost each of those four first-round contests, but the postseason berths were still victories in a sense — Jackson and his teammates had given fans an excuse to leave their paper bags at home for good.
As much as he pursued a title for New Orleans, Jackson loved to pursue NFL quarterbacks. Today, fans take for granted the role of the 3-4 outside linebacker. Jackson was one of the best during a time when few teams used the scheme, and regardless of position, he demanded as much attention from opposing offenses as just about any NFC defender.
The quarterback he wanted to sack more than any other?
"Joe Montana was always the hardest to get, and I always felt he was the best football player in the NFL at the time," says Jackson. To sack the greatest player, he felt, was one way to achieve greatness.
Jackson caught Montana on occasion, but during New Orleans' rise to greatness, it finished ahead of the 49ers just once (1991) in the NFC West, so it was bittersweet for Saints fans to see Jackson join San Francisco in 1994 at the age of 36. Many in the league felt he was washed up, but Jackson was not yet ready to give up the game, nor did he feel his skills had deteriorated much. He was right; in those two seasons he shifted back to defensive end where he started 29-of-32 games, collected 13 sacks and helped the 49ers claim Super Bowl XXIX.
"They gave me two good years," Jackson says. "It was the perfect spot for me at the time, and I know winning the Super Bowl helped me (get into Canton)."
In 1998, Jackson accepted a training-camp invitation from then-Saints coach Mike Ditka. But at age 39, he didn't make it out of camp. "I was just messin' around," he says. "My heart wasn't in it."
That may have been the only time on the football field when Jackson's heart wasn't into what he was doing.
Now, back living in Florida where he grew up, Jackson's life is much quieter. And as far as his NFL career, Jackson has also achieved peace. There's no longer a need to debate just how good he was, and there's no chance he'll ever be mistaken for being "the other guy" again.
Who dat? It's Rickey Jackson, New Orleans legend and proud member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame ... dat's who.
Other Hall of Fame profiles: Emmitt Smith | Floyd Little | Jerry Rice | John Randle | Dick LeBeau | Russ Grimm
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