A few days ago the name Harold Jackson came up in conversation. I knew of him — recalled his greatness — but admit he hadn't crossed my mind in years. Forgotten? I had to call my editor at Pro Football Weekly to make sure I wasn't the only one suffering from Harold-Jackson-related amnesia.
Such a great player, such a complete wide receiver, and at a time when defenses still ruled the league … how had he managed to escape our consciousness?
When Jackson retired from pro football in 1983, only one receiver — New York's Don Maynard — owned more career receiving yards. An invite to Canton seemed assured. But for a quarter-century Jackson waited for that call and his phone never rang. Time passed, other names emerged, and Harold Jackson slipped all our minds.
A closer look at his career accomplishments suggests the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Senior Selection Committee needs to take action …
As a rookie in 1968, Jackson had no place in George Allen's Rams offense. He played in two games and didn't catch a single pass. After the season, Los Angeles dealt him to Philadelphia where he instantly found a home. The 5-10, 175-pound outside threat led the league in receiving yards (1,116) and ranked fourth in both receptions (65) and touchdown receptions (nine) — one of the all-time great sophomore efforts for a receiver. The following season Jackson collected 194 yards in a game against the Giants, but it meant very little to the big picture; the Eagles began the season 0-7 and won just three games, a trend that continued during Jackson's four-year stay.
After leading the league in receptions and yards in 1972, Philadelphia dealt Jackson back to Los Angeles for 33-year-old QB Roman Gabriel. Jackson was devastated. "I absolutely cried when I heard I got traded because I did not want to leave Philadelphia," he told a writer several years ago. "… I may have been one of the only players that never got booed while playing in Philadelphia, especially in the early 1970s."
In 1973, both players found success. Gabriel earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors — his last good season — and Jackson set a career-best with 13 touchdown catches. In an October win over Dallas he caught seven passes for 238 yards and four scores. Unfortunately, when the teams met again in Jackson's first playoff appearance, the outcome was reversed. Jackson caught just one ball (40 yards) and Dallas won, 27-16.
The following year, Chuck Knox again guided the Rams into the playoffs, and this time they beat Washington in the opening round. In the NFC championship game against Minnesota, Jackson was marvelous (three catches for 139 yards) but fell just inches short of the goal line for what would have been the deciding score; instead, Minnesota won, 14-10, and earned the right to play Pittsburgh in Super Bowl IX.
At 31, Jackson earned a trip to his fifth Pro Bowl (1977). Following that campaign Los Angeles again traded its top receiver, perhaps thinking he was near the end of his rope — he wasn't. In four seasons with the Patriots he caught 156 passes for 3,162 yards, and had no fewer than five TD catches in each of his first three seasons.
When the 1970s came to a close, Jackson had gained more yards per season than Pittsburgh's Lynn Swann and more touchdowns per season than Dallas' Drew Pearson — the two first-team receivers chosen ahead of him for the decade's All-NFL team (Jackson didn't even make the second team, as Harold Carmichael and Paul Warfield were instead recognized).
After failed stints in Minnesota and Seattle, Jackson became the Patriots' wide receivers coach in 1985, and during the 1987 NFL strike he attempted a comeback at the age of 41, but it didn't take (this has created some debate as to when his 25-year clock for Senior Selection Committee consideration should have begun).
If his 10,000-plus yards and 76 touchdowns (more than James Lofton, Art Monk and Charlie Joiner) are not enough to sway Hall of Fame voters, then they might consider the fact that he gained 17.9 yards per catch over 16 seasons. By comparison, DeSean Jackson — arguably the NFL's best deep threat today — has a career average of 18.2 yards and still owns fresh legs. In 1979, at the age of 33, Jackson averaged 22.5 yards on 45 receptions (only his teammate, 24-year-old Stanley Morgan, had a better average that year).
Jackson must now compete for attention amongst ignored Hall of Fame greats such as Jerry Kramer and Alex Karras — in some respects, a stiffer challenge than earning entrance into Canton on the main ballot. A long shot, to be certain, but I can say this — he won't slip my mind again.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).