By Lynn Saternow
Herald Sports Editor
MERCER COUNTY AREA —
Marlin Jackson rose to fame as one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of Mercer County. But he’s even greater as a human being since he never forgets his roots.
In fact, he’ll be here this weekend at Sharon High Tigers Stadium to conduct his annual clinic on football fundamentals as well as speaking on life-lessons to youngsters.
It’s only one of the projects Marlin conducts locally to help youngsters through his “Fight for Life Foundation.” And it’s apply-named because Marlin himself had to fight for life to become a football star at Sharon High, the University of Michigan and finally the NFL.
“Everything I do here is for free,” said Marlin, who lives in Indianapolis where he won a Super Bowl ring with the Colts. His interception late in the AFC Championship game propelled the Colts into the Super Bowl. He closed out an injury-filled career with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I want to show kids about football and life,” said Marlin. “I talk to them about college and about doing things if football doesn’t work out. They need to realize that not many athletes can reach the NFL.”
He also stressed that you need to rise above our surroundings, even if your family life is not the best growing up. In fact, in high school he finally moved in with Sharon football coach Jim Wildman and his wife Karen, which helped him finally find structure after a troubled upbringing.
Marlin was born in Youngstown, one of four kids. His brother Elmarko and sister Michelle were older, while Melanie was two years younger.
“Numerous times my mom was in and out of jail,” he said. “I had to live with my grandmother. It leaves you numb when your mom disappears a few days when she goes on a drug binge.”
Elmarko was a great football player at Sharon prior to Marlin, but he ran into problems.
“It was the lifestyle that brought it on,” said Marlin. “Elmarko became a product of the environment in a negative way. He was sent to Glen Mills (a reform high school where he excelled in football).
“He went on to Temple, but he couldn’t shake the lifestyle. He got stabbed at Temple.
“But he gave me the hunger to be a great football player. You want to be like your big brother. He gave me a passion. He never taught me anything else.”
Marlin was passed around to live with various relatives at times. He said his life was “pretty good” when he lived with his aunt Gwen and Butch Ragster. “But they broke up and it was like I was on my own again,” said Marlin.
How bad was that kind of life? “I came home from school one day and everything was out on the porch,” he said.
“Sports were my outlet and I picked up positive things that I learned. I started going to camps to see how good I could be. After my sophomore year I was offered a scholarship from Penn State. That put it in perspective.
“My junior year was when my brother got stabbed. On the flight down there with Coach Wildman, we talked about moving in with them. And I did.
“They were like family. So many of my close friends had family issues. But families are sometimes built. ... I had close friends who were like family. Being reflective on my life, they showed me there was something better, we had a genuine caring for each other.
“The Wildmans have always been good to me, they’d encourage me. It was hard to trust people, hard to let myself out. I didn’t know who I was for a long time. It took a while to figure out who I was as a person. I was so conflicted and confused.”
“For me it was a generational curse; people in my family continue to hurt one another. If there is no relationship there are no grounds of trust. But things I learned from Coach Wildman and (University of Michigan) Coach Carr helped me.”
Marlin said that even today, too many of his family members look at him as a human bank. “They think because I was a pro football player, I have a lot of money, that’s not true.”
He said he had even received threats from one cousin in prison and had heard rumors that some of his family members had planned to rob him. One family member once pulled a gun on him.
“Family love is supposed to be unconditional, not what you can do for them,” said Marlin. “People say that ‘Money is the root of all evil’. It is in a way. They look at me as a dollar sign.
“People need to work for what they get. If I just hand people money then I’m not really helping them. I’m an enabler.
“The kindness I displayed as a kid; they took it as a weakness. Growing up in the ghetto, that’s how people take it. Kindness is a weakness and they try to take advantage of me.”
Marlin found a new, great family life when he married Nikki. “I learned a lot from my wife and the support from her and her family. One of the things that made me fall in love with my wife was her family. They are a caring, bi-racial family. They never judge anyone. I felt this was something I need.”
And he also was excited with the arrival of his son Camden Tyreill Jackson last year.
Marlin wants kids today to learn that they can overcome anything when he shares his story. Here in Sharon he helps programs at Musser Elementary School and conducts an annual football camp.
He establishes program for other areas through his “Fight for Life” program. And he also started a new program to help guide college athletes on what to expect both on and off the athletic fields.
“Michigan opened my mind up to the world from a social standpoint on how to conduct yourself to being successful. I try to pass that on to others who may be struggling.
“God has graced my life. He had a higher purpose for me, to show people the right way. I had an opportunity to get into stuff (administration) in the NFL, but that would be a waste of my talents. I have things to expand beyond football and help other people.
“I know the good that I do. When kids come up to me and give me a hug or talk about school or football camp, the “Building Dreams” program at Musser ... I know the kids appreciate it.”
Marlin said that one of his regrets was not winning as state championship in high school: “It’s a big part of your life then, but it’s just a beginning. It eventually becomes a small part of your life.”
Luckily for children in this area, Marlin becomes a small part of their lives through his guidance and teaching on and off the football field. And because of him, just maybe the fight for life won’t be as difficult for them as it was for him.