Last week, I couldn't bring myself to write about the death of former Ravens wide receiver Michael Jackson. I was still too shaken.
We've had too many deaths in our football family over the last year and a half:
- The Ravens' first head coach, Ted Marchibroda, passed on 1/16/16.
- Then second-year safety Tray Walker, Breshad Perriman's close friend, died in a motorcycle accident two months later.
- Beloved Defensive Line Coach Clarence Brooks was felled by cancer at the start of 2016 season.
- On 12/12/16, former tight end Konrad Reuland died young from complications from a brain aneurysm.
- A month later, the Ravens' first president, David Modell, became another victim of cancer. Much of our heritage can be traced to David's creativity.
- And then, at the age of 48, the vibrant Jackson was killed in another motorcycle collision two weeks ago today (5/12).
Michael's passing put a number of us over the ledge. He had visited recently and brought that big smile and enthusiasm that made him one of the original Ravens fan favorites. His 14 touchdown catches, which led the NFL, and 1,201 receiving yards, both of which he produced in our inaugural 1996 season, are still team single-season records.
"He should have been selected to the Pro Bowl that season," quarterback Vinny Testaverde told me on Wednesday. "It bothered him that he didn't. We all felt for him. … He was lot of fun as a teammate. He would tell cornerbacks what pattern he was going to run, and they never believed him. Then he'd do it and beat them.
"He was big and long, not afraid to go after the ball, even across the middle," Vinny continued. "He was respectful in the huddle and then have smart suggestions on the sideline, explaining what he was seeing and how we could beat the coverages. He was reliable, really, everything a quarterback would want.
"What a tragedy. I've thought about his smile and how he'd light up a room in recent days …"
Ozzie and Michael
Another one of us who was deeply impacted by Michael's death is Ozzie Newsome.
"Whew. He was really the first player I ever worked out as a scout. That gave us an early bond. He produced for us when we needed every yard and point we could get on offense. (We weren't very good on defense in the early years.) He was a leader, and you could easily share laughs with him," Newsome said yesterday.
(After his eight-year Ravens [and Browns] playing career, Jackson continued his work as a music producer both here and in Louisiana. Devoted to making each community better, Jackson continued his charity work here and where he grew up. He would later run for sheriff in his hometown of Tangipahoa, La., and eventually became the town's mayor.)
"I had just started in scouting (Feb., 1991 for the Cleveland Browns) and was in my second meeting. We were reviewing receivers," Newsome remembered. "Every now and then, Ernie (Accorsi, general manager) and Bill (Belichick, head coach) would say to me, 'Go see this guy.'
"One of those was a tall receiver from Southern Mississippi named Michael Jackson. A little later, they gave me a stopwatch, told me what to measure, and I was on my way.
"I went to the Cleveland airport and, fortunately, Nick was there, and he was also flying to Houston to work out some defensive players." (Nick is Nick Saban, then the Browns' defensive coordinator. Saban gave Ozzie even more advice on what to do on the scouting trip. Oz noted that it was the first time he really got to know Nick. Decades later, Newsome was instrumental in bringing Saban to Oz's alma mater, Alabama, as the football coach. Strange how things happen.)
"Before I left, Coach Belichick told me, 'Make sure they run 40 yards. Sometimes the distances aren't accurate,'" Ozzie remembered. "The workout was at Texas Southern, and I had a tape measure that was
15 yards, and I carefully measured 40. There were six receivers at the workout. One was Michael. Another was Keenan McCardell, who eventually ended up with us in Cleveland after a season in Washington.
"The first time I ran Michael, he was in the low 4.3s – very fast. I didn't quite believe it and made all six run again and, this time, Jackson was under 4.3, a real rarity. Either way, I knew he was fast, but wasn't confident that I timed it right. A few weeks later, our quarterbacks coach, Gary Tranquill, went to Southern Miss (Jackson's college) to work out Brett Favre. While there, he also worked out Michael and timed him in the 40. Gary asked me what I got Michael in, and I said 'Under 4.3.' Gary said he did too, but we both ended up turning in low 4.4s, which is still very good. We were finding it hard to believe a guy with Michael's size could get under 4.3.
"I liked Michael right away," Newsome continued. "First, as a player, he was very fast, big, and his hands were OK. He could drop his weight and change direction. And, he was charismatic and fun. We ended up taking him in the sixth round. He then made himself into a good receiver by working on his hands, learning to relax when he caught the ball. … We always had a bond since that first workout."
Jackson and Belichick
Michael was never shy about voicing his opinion, and sometimes that got him in trouble. Coach Belichick benched quarterback Bernie Kosar early in the 1993 season. Kosar was a local hero, and it was huge news. Shortly after that, Jackson made a speech on a Monday night in Dover, Ohio. In his presentation, which Jackson thought was only to the people in the room, Michael ripped the Browns' head coach. Jackson said Belichick was wrong for benching Kosar, that there were communication problems between the players and the head coach, and added, "It's going to be hard to win with this guy in charge."
By Wednesday morning, Jackson's words were the lead story in the area's main paper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Not the top of the page in the sports section, the lead on Page One up front. (These were the pre-Twitter, pre-newspapers' online days.)
Coach Belichick was in my office early that day. "Did you see the morning paper? ... Well, you let Jackson know that he will address his teammates this morning at the first meeting. He'll explain what he said and (sarcastically) maybe he can suggest to his teammates how they should answer questions from the media about what he said."
Got it, Coach.
The team meeting was at 8:30. I was in the parking lot, waiting for Michael by 8:00. By 8:25, Jackson had not arrived. Oh boy. A minute later, his car roared into the lot. As we almost trotted to the building, I explained to Michael what was going on.
I asked, "Did you see the morning paper?" Nope. "Well, this is what they said you said in Dover on Monday …"
"Well, that's easy," Jackson said. "I didn't say those things." I explained that a local Dover reporter had taped Jackson's comments. Jackson paused for a second, smiled, looked down at me and said: "Well, that's a different story then."
I attended the opening meeting. As promised, Coach Belichick called immediately on Jackson: "He has something to say."
Michael explained that he said some things he should not have, and that if "any of you guys get asked about it by reporters today, tell them to talk with me." Excellent strategy by the head coach and Jackson, for the moment, dodged a bullet.
He still had to face the reporters at the mid-day break. He handled it well. "Guys, sometimes you say some things you shouldn't or regret, and I did that on Monday in Dover. I talked with my team about that this morning, and we're all focused on winning Sunday's game." Reporters still pressed him about his thoughts on Belichick, but Michael kept repeating. "That's in the past, we're getting ready for the game, and we're all together on winning this game."
Not quite "We're on to Cincinnati," a Belichick mantra a few years ago. But Michael found a way out of a tough situation he had created.
Jackson will be missed by all of the original Ravens, a lot of Ravens fans and all of those he helped in Louisiana and Baltimore with his outstanding work in both communities. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those affected by the tragic accident. Rest in peace, Michael.
Talk with you next week,