The first time some little league football coach issued Tom Jackson a pair of shoulder pads and a helmet, he must have also reminded him to put on a happy face.
It wasn’t until after about 25 years on the playing fields of America that Jackson finally took off the pads with a large measure of reluctance in 1987, yet even that couldn’t change the face.
Jackson gave 14 seasons to the Broncos, and nobody even came close to providing as much inspiration during a successful period in the team’s history, the mid-70’s through the mid-80’s, when Denver won three AFC championships and made three Super Bowl appearances.
Jackson became a fixture at right outside linebacker, alongside Bob Swenson, Randy Gradishar and Joe Rizzo, one of the best linebacking corps in Broncos history, making more than 1,000 tackles, 44 quarterback sacks, shaking his finger in John Madden’s face in that watershed upset at Oakland, intercepting Bert Jones and Terry Bradshaw in that first glorious ’77 season, making three trips to the Pro Bowl, and almost single-handedly “willing” the Broncos into league-wide respectability.
“I’m supposed to make the big plays,” said Jackson. “That’s what the weakside linebacker is all about.”
It was in 1980 that the Broncos inaugurated their annual “Most Inspirational Player Award,” and until after Jackson retired following the 1986 season, there was never much competition for its recipient.
“In all the years I’ve been around football,” said then Coach Dan Reeves, “I never met anyone who really enjoyed practice until I came here and met Tom Jackson. I don’t remember ever seeing him come to practice without a smile on his face.”
Myrel Moore, the then long-time Broncos Linebackers coach, switched Jackson from safety to linebacker early in his rookie year when he came to the Broncos as the club’s fourth-round draft choice out of the University of Louisville in 1973. “I’ve coached a long time and I’ve been around a lot of players, and there was simply nobody like him,” said Moore. “He is the most total, well-rounded guy you’d ever want to have play for you. He could set the tempo for anything you wanted to have done. If I needed to change the tempo of a game or a practice, all I had to do was look at T.J. and he’d know exactly what I wanted to do.”
In his early development, said former Denver defensive coordinator Joe Collier, the only fault he could find in Jackson was that he was sometimes too physical, making himself a little bit injury prone because of his own hits. “He had all the tools you look for. He was a great blitzer who could put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. He could cover any running back out of the backfield and he held up exceptionally well on the running game.”
“No question, he was our leader,” said safety Mike Harden, the former Broncos defensive captain. “We’ll never have another one like him” You can never replace a Tom Jackson.”
After his professional football career, Jackson began co-hosting “NFL Primetime,” ESPN’s weekly National Football League show during the regular season.
I never met anyone who really enjoyed practice until I came here and met Tom Jackson. I don’t remember ever seeing him come to practice without a smile on his face.