To talk about Tom Jackson, you really have to go back to the circumstances that led to him becoming a Denver Bronco. Long before he was a household name, he was an award-winning linebacker from Louisville; drafted by a franchise that almost wasn’t.
The nascent American Football League had their 1st meeting on the 20th floor of the Chicago Hilton, on August 14, 1959. There were 8 ‘owners’ in attendance, and the question of the day was where each one’s franchise could be located. The issue of where a suitable stadium was available dictated several of their choices. They broke early and moved over to soldier Field to watch the 1959 College All-Star Game - their public excuse for meeting.
Two weeks later, the NFL announced that it would be expanding, trying to move two more teams into Texas. It was a move they hoped would kill off the AFL, since Texas was the ‘home’ of two of the proposed franchises. It nearly worked.
Former NFL commissioner Bert Bell was someone the AFL could work with (he’d convinced them to go with 8 teams rather than 6 so as to have a better ‘playoff’ in their first years). Bert commented that 240 players were up for the draft each year back then, but only 60 were chosen. He thought that it was pointless to leave those players without a team and that adding them would only build the game he had given so much of his life to. Garrulous and outgoing, Bell had the rare ability to see the NFL as it could be in another 10 or 20 years. He did it by hanging out with the fans.
Bert died just as he would have wanted to. He attended the October 11, 1959 game in Philadelphia, chatting casually with friends around the stadium. He liked to sit with the fans and talk to them, moving from seat to seat and focusing on their perspectives. It’s something that present and future commissioners could learn from.
With two minutes left in a tense game, Bert keeled over and died of a massive heart attack. The NFL lost its commissioner. The AFL lost their best - and perhaps only - friend in the NFL.
But on a practical level, the NFL needed more franchises and the AFL had put 8 together. Furtively, the NFL sent ‘ambassadors’ to propose a truce and a mutually beneficial agreement, all the while publicly denouncing the AFL and its plans. They tried to get key owner Lamar Hunt to back out, offering him both the Dallas and Houston Texas franchises. But Hunt had already agreed with the other owners - he had too much integrity to go behind their backs.
The 1st season of the AFL kicked off with the Denver Broncos facing the Boston Patriots, on September 19, 1960. The teams met at the 50 yard line after the game to divvy up the gate. Somehow, the AFL survived - and flourished, until the NFL was forced to negotiate and eventually merge with them. Los Angeles won the Chargers franchise and Oakland added the Raiders. For the 1st decade and a half, Oakland used Denver as a practice ball. Denver was 2-21-1 against them when it came to their fateful 1977 meeting in Oakland.
It was October 16. Both teams were 4-0 at the time, so it was as close to a playoff game as previously hapless Denver had known. The Raiders had won 17 consecutive games. But with 59 seconds left in the 2nd quarter and Denver up 14-7, the Broncos ran the most remarkable trick play in the league to date.
Placekicker Jim Turner watched the snap to holder Norris Weese, faked a kick and sprinted into the left flat. Weese threw to him and he charged ahead, in his square-toe kicking shoe, all the way to the end zone. It made it 21-7, but more importantly, it broke the Raiders’ spirit.
The second half was all Broncos. The Orange Crush was at its height and featured a tough weakside linebacker named Tom Jackson. Jackson had attended the U of Louisville and led his team in tackles all three years he was there. He was the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year in both 1970 and 1972. He left behind a 27-3-2 record that he’d led the team to. The Broncos took him in the 4th round of the 1973 draft.
Off the field, Tom was cheerful, talkative and friendly. On it, he turned into another person - tough, ferocious and hostile. On that day in October of 1977, as the game turned into a blowout that included Ken Stabler’s worst day (with 7 interceptions), Jackson bellowed across the turf at John Madden, "It’s all over, fat man!".
The quote has become iconic. When Doug Alan Lee, TJ Johnson, Ted Bartlett and myself started a Broncos analysis site, it was unanimously chosen as the name of our site. It didn’t just represent the finish of a major national game. It was the beginning of the Broncos as a legitimate force in the league, which we tried to honor.
Jackson left football after 191 games with the Broncos, playing in both Super Bowl XII and Super Bowl XXI. He recorded 20 interceptions (3 for TDs), tied for the Broncos record at the time, and 13 sacks. His 191 games are 3rd in franchise history behind Jason Elam and John Elway.
After his retirement, with 14 years playing for the Broncos, Jackson was hired by ESPN and teamed with Chris Berman. They made a highly successful team, anchoring both Sunday NFL Countdown and NFL Primetime. Sunday Countdown earned 7 Emmy awards. In 2015, Jackson won the prestigious Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His easy-going style, thorough preparation and knowledge of the game made him one of the most recognizable faces in sports television.
Tom now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his wife Jennifer, who he met on the plane ride to Hawaii for the 1990 Pro Bowl. They have two daughters in Taylor and Morgan. A third daughter, Andrea, was killed in a car accident at age 9.
Tom may have left broadcasting, which he entered when his playing days were over. But it will be a long, long time before his clear voice, rational analysis and engaging personality will be forgotten by the people who were fortunate enough to have the chance to watch, listen to and enjoy his ebullient style on the screen. I’ve been fortunate enough (read: old) to have watched him play as well as his performance in the analyst’s chair. Few announcers have shown his sense of style, intelligence and class.
In a profession that too often wears down and spits out its players, Jackson earned appearances in two Super Bowls and three Pro Bowls. He moved on to a 29 year career at ESPN - a rarity in a profession that too often looks to the ‘next big thing’. Jackson showed his usual level of class in his retirement speech. Although he would never say so, he was one reason that ESPN, just getting started when he joined, would flourish.
"Having joined in the early stages of ESPN and remained with the same company for 29 years is especially gratifying. The friendships made are too numerous to mention but I know that many of them will last a lifetime. I also want to thank all the fans who supported me over the years and made my job so enjoyable. This move just comes at a time when the priority of my life is spending time with my family."
Thank you, Tom. Thanks for the battles on the field, the guidance and insight from the broadcast booth and the model of kindness and intelligence that you’ve provided. It will be a long time before anyone can say that they’ve stepped into your shoes. Your induction into the Ring of Fame in 1992 was an honor richly deserved. It was a small way to say how much you’ve meant to the Bronco fans, football followers around the nation and to the Denver franchise.
Enjoy your retirement, my friend. Very few have earned it more.