DON’T FEEL sorry for Marlin Jackson. For a man on the precipice of a professional athlete’s prime age, Jackson walked away from football, victimized by the viciousness of the world known as the National Football League.
However, he survived.
Today, mercifully, Jackson is whole, healthy, married, preparing for parenthood, and giving back via his non-profit foundation.
Prior to Saturday’s 66th anniversary Mercer County Hall of Fame induction banquet, the enjoyable Jackson spoke on a variety of topics.
The best part? No regrets.
As a rookie 1st-round draft selection he helped the Indianapolis Colts win a Super Bowl before being inundated with injuries, primarily to his legs — professional suicide for an NFL cornerback.
However marriage, 3-4 weekly Yoga sessions, augmented by the absence of crack-back blocks and collisions with 240-, 250- and 260-pound tight ends and fullbacks, have given Jackson a new lease on life — literally.
“I feel great! I’m probably healthier now than I’ve ever been in my life,” the legendary Sharon High standout related while speaking in The Park Inn by Radisson courtyard. “I’m still competitive — that’s part of your drive, your make-up, when it helps you attain that level of being a professional athlete. But at the same time, I’ve dialed it back ... ”
For a young athlete, the inevitable — calling it a day — was a difficult decision, albeit the correct one for him.
“It was bittersweet, especially the lead-up to it, coming to that point, that fork in the road: ‘OK, do I continue to go forward, or am I satisfied with everything I’ve done and it’s OK to go forward in a different direction,’” Jackson explained. “It was painful, but at the same time it was a relief because it was such a pressure and a burden to continue trying to push on. What you begin to do is you end up fighting an uphill battle.
“For me, it began to get quite stressful. Deciding to fully step away and move on kind’ve lifted a weight from my shoulders,” the former University of Michigan All-American admitted.
“This is a vicious game, and it’s really tough on your spine, and your spine is the most important part of your body,” Jackson continued. “ ... People don’t understand, they ask, ‘Are you knees OK?’ And I tell them, ‘I feel fine!’ I don’t have any issues, and I’m lucky because of that. A lot of guys, when they become older, their knees, their back, different things. But the time I was able to put in and just re-hab my body helped me to get to the place where I am now.”
Speaking with Jackson brought to mind the movie Field of Dreams. During one poignant scene the protagonist, Ray Kinsella, cannot comprehend how former player Archibald “Moonlight” Graham — who played only 1 inning and never got to step into the batter’s box in a Major League Baseball game — could walk away without feeling regret. Later, Kinsella’s revelation occurs then Graham, who subsequently spent 6 decades as a small-town Minnesota doctor, ultimately saves the life of Kinsella’s 12-year-old daughter.
“There’s blessings in disguise, and you never know or understand why things happen until hindsight and you look back and you’re able to see why God did what He did,” Jackson reasoned. “Because, for me, I had a string of injuries, but during that entire time it made me tighten up the way I was eating. my exercise regimen. I was putting so much into taking care of my body that I was able to withstand the beating that I took in those prior years in my career and from all those years of playing football in general.
“This is my life, and I feel as though I was prepared for everything along the way by how I grew up, by having to deal with disappointment ... my childhood, my early teens, and even through my career off the field with my family,” Jackson related. “I was prepared for adversity, and how to respond and how to bounce back and keep going. And the necessity to prepare myself.
“I was able to realize there’s so much more to myself than just being a football player,” Jackson continued. “That’s the problem with a lot of guys. Their identity is attached to ... being a football player and not, ‘Who I am as a person: Marlin Jackson, from Sharon, Pennsylvania,’ who grew up here, went to the University of Michigan and got an education. Some kids just get caught up in, ‘I’m a football player ... this is what I’ve done since I was little, and this is me.’
“When you do that and when it’s all done, what’re you going to fall back on?” Jackson asked an observer. “The house comes crashing down, and you don’t know what to do. That’s what a lot of guys encounter and that’s why the depression and things like that (former NFL standouts Mike Webster, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau committed suicide). And with the toll it takes on your body, especially concussions ... it was blessing in disguise to be able to step away when I did.
“Everything, my head, it feels so much better, and I don’t have those side-effects. It makes me feel very lucky.
“Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” Jackson admitted. “When I look back on how I felt before I got hurt — although I was very talented, very quick, very strong, very fast — my body was not built right. I had a terrible foundation on which my body was built. My spine was ‘jacked up,’ my head was ‘jacked up,’ I had headaches all the time. I didn’t know this was abnormal, because it was my ‘normal’ life, this was my reality.
“And until I was able to step away and get into a normal state of living and not be having ... people crashing into my body, it was like, ‘Oh, so this is how it’s supposed to feel ... this is what it feels like to be normal. OK!’”
Presently, Jackson’s passion is his Fight For Life foundation, which he established during his early playing days in Indianapolis — where it continues today, based on his great relationship with the Colts’ organization — and which he expanded by bringing it back to the Shenango Valley.
“It always feels good to be back in the valley, back at home. It sounds cliché, but there’s nothing like home,” Jackson said. “I’m always happy to get back ... and it means a lot to me to come back and be a part of this community because it is my roots, and there’s nothing better than your roots.
“ .. We all know, in this community here, what’s going on, and the need for that type of approach with these kids,” Jackson continued, noting, “ ... It’s a different generation today, and they need more guidance.”
From a painful personal perspective, Jackson knows of what he speaks.
“ ... I’ve never met my father to this day. So for me to be on the threshold of becoming a father it means that much more. I’m sure it’s important for everybody,” Jackson allowed, “but when you have never even said the word ‘Father’ in talking to somebody, and now you will be that (a father), and you’ll have your son say, ‘Dad,’ you can only imagine how special that is for a person that comes from that kind of background.”
His foundation, which encompasses academic education and physical wellness for youngsters from middle-through-high school age, is where he now channels his energy.
“I started it during my playing days, but obviously I wasn’t able to devote my full time and my efforts to it,” Jackson explained. “So as I got to the latter stages of my career ... I started focusing more on developing my program ... trying to encompass a full community approach, and keeping the kids engaged in positive situations as much as possible.”
An observer, a life-long Philadelphia Eagles’ fan, expressed disappointment Jackson’s short stint with that organization never manifested itself into playing at Lincoln Financial Field. A No. 29 Marlin Jackson Green & White Eagles’ jersey — not unlike the Indy Colts’ variety that were popular — was a fantasy.
Jackson just smiled.
“At times, because it’s what you’ve done for so long, you still may feel like, ‘Oh, man, I would like to get out there.’ But then you realize, ‘Nah,’ he admitted, adding,
“I’ve been lucky enough to step away with no major things wrong with me, and that’s a blessing. You don’t want to go back out there and do that all over again.
“Who knows what could have happened if I continued to play? Who knows how I would have ended up? Jackson rhetorically asked.
Beloved as he was, “Doc” Graham had nothing on Marlin Jackson.