His nickname alone should qualify Rich Jackson for a bust in Canton.
“Tombstone is the termination of life,” Jackson once told Broncos Magazine. “The stone is the symbol of death and, when you put the tomb and the stone together, that’s the end of the road.”
And it was the end of the road for AFL quarterbacks who played against Jackson and his Denver Broncos in the late 1960s.
There was no better pass rusher in all of football than Jackson, who collected 10 sacks in 1968, 11 in 1969 and 10 more in 1970 after the AFL merged with the NFL. Despite increased competition from elite NFL pass rushers Deacon Jones, Carl Eller, Claude Humphrey, Jim Marshall and Coy Bacon, Jackson was still voted first team All-Pro that season. That’s the level of respect his play merited.
But Jackson suffered a knee injury in the seventh game of 1971 that ended his season. He was still voted to the Pro Bowl that year despite playing fewer than half the games. Again, that’s the level of respect his game merited.
Jackson returned in 1972, but his knee was never the same. After four games, the Broncos traded him to Cleveland, where he finished out the season with the Browns. Then he retired.
That shortchanged greatness.
Add it all up, and Jackson played only seven seasons. The first and the last season shouldn’t even count.
His rookie season was a wash in 1966. As an undrafted college free agent out of Southern, Jackson made the Oakland Raiders as an outside linebacker but suited up for only five games as a backup. Then Raiders president Al Davis made one of the biggest personnel blunders of his own Hall-of-Fame career, trading Jackson to Denver in a package deal for once-great wide receiver Lionel Taylor.
Taylor never played a down for the Raiders. Denver coach Lou Saban moved Jackson from linebacker up to end, where he emerged as a pass-rushing force for the Broncos over the next five years. Bundle up those five seasons in the middle of his career, and Jackson collected 43 ½ sacks.
With fellow Bronco Terrell Davis having been enshrined in Canton on the strength of four Hall-of-Fame-caliber seasons, maybe the door has been opened for reconsideration of the candidacy of Jackson and other players whose greatness evaporated with an injury. Jackson has spent the last 39 years languishing in the senior pool of the selection process.
His career may have been forgotten by the Hall-of-Fame voters, but his talent should not be.
Legend has it that Jackson’s football field at L.B. Landry High School in New Orleans abutted a firemen’s graveyard. Thus, the nickname “Tombstone” for a defender who laid out opposing ball carriers with his tackles, be they quarterbacks or running backs.
Jackson polished his skill as a pass rusher by developing a head slap. Both Jackson and Hall-of-Famer Deacon Jones claimed the creation of that particular technique in the 1960s, which was finally outlawed in 1977.
At the snap, Jackson would slap his blocker on the side of his helmet. Usually over the helmet ear hole, the tactic damaged many an ear drum and usually cost the blocker his balance. Edge, pass rusher. Jackson dubbed his head slap a “halo spinner.” One of his head slaps broke the helmet of an offensive tackle in a 1971 game against Green Bay.
At 6-3, 255 pounds, Jackson played his game with speed, power and ferocity. In high school, he anchored relay teams. In college, he became an NAIA shot put champion. In the pros, he leveled quarterbacks.
The brevity of his greatness did not prevent AFL media from selecting Jackson as one of the four defensive ends to the all-time All-AFL team. It did not prevent the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame from enshrining him in 1975, nor did it prevent the Broncos from placing him in their Ring of Fame in 1984.
Now his career is worthy of discussion for pro football’s highest honor – the Hall of Fame. There are plenty of busts in Canton. There ought to be a place for one Tombstone.