Menu

FOOTBALL

The "City Champ," Rickey Jackson, says 2010 was the right time to enter Hall of Fame

Rickey Jackson's fearsome pass rush rarely came from the blind side.

Quarterbacks usually saw the "City Champ" coming, and many still couldn't escape his grasp.

Election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame proved somewhat more elusive for the former Saints left outside linebacker, who was the cornerstone of New Orleans' famed "Dome Patrol" of the late 1980s and early 90s.

On Saturday, 15 years after his retirement, Jackson will at last join contemporaries like Lawrence Taylor and Andre Tippett, who have already been immortalized in Canton, Ohio.

"I felt for a long time that the best strongside linebacker wasn't in the Hall of Fame," Jackson said of himself — and in deference to Taylor, his longtime friend who played on the right side, which is also the blind side for right-handed quarterbacks.

"But I look back at it," Jackson continued, "and say if I would have gone in (earlier), there would have been probably other stuff overshadowing me going in."

Rather than echoing Saints fans' bitterness about how long it took him to be elected to the Hall, Jackson said he's thankful to be celebrating his induction at a time when his personal life is straightened out and his adopted hometown is basking in the glow of his old team's first Super Bowl title.

As recently as August 2007, Jackson was listed by the Louisiana Office of Family Support as the state's No. 1 delinquent dad, owing nearly $160,000 in child support. Now, he no longer appears on the agency's list. He talks of being more committed to his family and his faith, and of being in a better place personally than he has been in years.

"You have to look at everything as God's timing," Jackson said. "With the stuff I had to go through, He took care of moving all that out of the way, gave the Saints the world championship and gave me" election to the Hall of Fame.

Still, his old teammates say Jackson's recognition in Canton is long overdue.

"We always knew he deserved to be in," said former Saints right outside linebacker Pat Swilling, a member of the Dome Patrol along with linebackers Vaughn Johnson and the late Sam Mills. "When the Saints made this (Super Bowl) run, it put pressure on voters around the country to give us our due. Ricky should have been in the Hall five years ago. The timing is finally right for him and I'm excited. All the Saints who played with him are excited about this as much as he is."

Jackson played 15 seasons in the NFL, his first 13 with the Saints, making him the first Hall of Fame inductee to have spent the majority of his career in New Orleans.

When he retired, he'd been chosen first-team All Pro four times (second team twice) and his 128 sacks ranked third all-time. His sack total did not include the eight sacks Saints officials say he had his rookie season, a year before the NFL began recording sacks as statistics. After each sack, Jackson would tuck his elbow next to his No. 57 jersey and pump his fist.

While he was known for sacks, Jackson was an all-around, every-down defender, as former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert recalled.

"People don't realize how good his coverage skills were," Hebert said. "He'd cover a running back coming out of the backfield or come up and blow up a screen.

"Normally, when you look at his numbers, you look at sacks, but I don't know if you had anyone better as far as run defense," Hebert continued. "I was most impressed with his overall toughness and how he could handle double teams from tight ends and tackles and keep his lane and keep containment."

Jackson's reputation for toughness was cemented both on and off the field. After a game in 1989, Jackson was driving home in a Corvette when he smashed into the back of a flatbed truck. His car was demolished and he was hospitalized with a broken cheek bone.

Jackson's jaw was wired shut and he was supposed to miss four to six weeks, but instead missed only two games.

"He almost got decapitated," Swilling recalled. "He's tough as nails, but I couldn't believe he showed up and played in that game — and played well. And I still can't believe it."

Jackson played without thigh or knee pads, which he believed slowed him down. Hebert remembered Jackson sometimes stuffing small kitchen sponges in his pants where the pads would normally go.

Jackson said he wore small shoulder pads, too. Yet he missed only two of 229 regular season games in his career.

The Saints were coming off a 1-15 season when they selected Jackson in the second round of the 1981 draft out of Pittsburgh, where Jackson played end along with Hugh Green.

Rather than lamenting the fact that he'd start his pro career with an NFL laughingstock that had never had a winning season when he arrived, Jackson said, "I thought I was going to be the best defensive player in the league and turn everything around. That's the only attitude you can have."

That approach was in character for someone who gave himself the City Champ nickname when he was a three-sport standout — football, basketball (power forward) and baseball (first base) — in his native Pahokee, Fla.

Sure enough, the Saints went to the playoffs for the first time — and three more times — while Jackson was their top defensive star.

Jackson never won a playoff game with New Orleans, but spent the last two years of his career with San Francisco, where he won a Super Bowl.

Even while he was with the 49ers, Jackson maintained his affection for New Orleans. In his first game back in the Louisiana Superdome as a visiting player, he knelt at midfield and kissed the black-and-gold fleur-de-lis.

"I came and kissed it, man, because I bleed black-and-gold," said Jackson, who now has a business supplying commercial customers in south Louisiana with oil and gas and who still joins Swilling and Johnson for Dome Patrol autograph sessions. "It wasn't business with me. ... I was more old school. This is my team, this is where my heart's at, and the only thing I want is for the Saints to win."