Denver Bronco Legends: Rich “Tombstone” Jackson

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With the recent passing of Deacon Jones, I thought that we should review one of his contemporaries who played for the Denver Broncos. Deacon is said to have coined the term “Sack” and some give him credit for the “Head Slap” move that was later outlawed by the league as being too dangerous, but it is also said that Rich “Tombstone” Jackson came up with it first. Either way, in their prime, Deacon Jones and Tombstone Jackson were considered the finest Defensive Ends in football. In the early days prior to the famed “Orange Crush” defense of the Broncos, there was Tombstone. This is his story.

Rich was born in the Big Easy (New Orleans) on July 22, 1941. He attended Landry High School where he played football for legendary coach Felix James. Rich showed outstanding skills and determination as a 210-pound Defensive End and also ended up running track when one of the school’s Sprinters beat him in a 100-yard foot race. He spent the entire school year working on his speed. When track season came around, Jackson bested that sprinter in a rematch and earned a spot on the track team. He threw the discus, javelin and shot, as well as anchoring relay teams and running the 220-yard dash.

Upon graduating Landry, Jackson enrolled at Southern University in nearby Baton Rouge.

He was a standout End on both sides of the ball, lettered in track and also won the NAIA Shot-Put competition in 1962. His fifty-eight foot one-inch heave in 1964 is still a Louisiana collegiate record.

After college, Rich went Undrafted and signed with the AFL Oakland Raiders as a Free Agent in 1965 and he played five games at Linebacker in 1966 for Oakland. The Broncos acquired Rich at the beginning of training camp in 1967 when Lou Saban sent Wide Receiver Lionel Taylor and another player to the Raiders in exchange for Jackson and two other players.

The Broncos switched him to Defensive End and Rich showed the quickness that was to become his trademark in professional football. He played for the AFL Denver Broncos from 1967 through 1969, with 10 sacks in ‘68 and a career high 11 in ‘69. Jackson racked up another 10 Sacks in 1970 as the AFL and NFL merged. Rich was the first Bronco to be named to the All-NFL first team in 1970 and was a starter in the Pro Bowl that year. By all reckoning, he started 52 of 67 games in 5.5 years with the Broncos from 1967-72.

Jackson’s career was cut short by a severe knee injury midway through the 1971 season. He finished with an unofficial total of 43 sacks, most of which came during the three season period of 1968-1970. He made the Pro Bowl again in 1971 despite playing in only seven games due to a knee injury which eventually forced him out of football. That season, he was graded by the Broncos’ coaches as the team’s most efficient tackler as he made the stop on 97 percent of his opportunities. He played the first four games of the 1972 season with the Broncos before being traded to Cleveland for a 3rd-round draft choice in 1973 which turned out to be Paul Howard. Jackson played in each of the final 10 games for the Browns in 1972 before getting injured again and that finished his professional football career.

In Lyle Alzado’s book, he explained that in 1972 at Training Camp, Broncos head coach John Ralston and his staff forced Tombstone to scrimmage on his knee too soon after surgery and all but ruined him. (Source: ‘77: Denver, the Broncos and a coming of Age’ by Terry Frei, pg. 144)

Rich Jackson was known as “The Sheriff” because he worked in law enforcement in the off-season, and also as “Tombstone.” The latter was a perfecting fitting nickname for him.

The”Tombstone”moniker was something Rich earned through his devastating play in the 1960s and ’70s. He was famous for the “Head Slap” and the “Halo Spinner” which he used to subdue opposing Offensive Linemen. Lyle Alzado called Rich the toughest man he’d ever met, and told the story of Jackson breaking the helmet of Green Bay Packer Offensive Tackle, Bill Hayhoe, with a Head Slap.

On the nickname, Jackson said:

A portion of the field we played on in high school was a fireman’s graveyard. Tombstone is the termination of life. The stone is the symbol of death and, when you put the tomb and the stone together, that is the end of the road. A lot of people felt like the end of the road and that sort of thing was appropriate. People liked that and my style of play.”

Jackson terrorized Offensive Linemen with a club-like Head Slap or “Halo Spinner” move.

“I beat you up in the 1st quarter and then I could do anything else that I wanted. I had an enormous amount of strength. I worked out year-round. I used to Bench Press 575 and squat over 600 pounds. The guys could see that they couldn’t block me one-on-one; they always had to have help to keep me out of the backfield.”

Even with the help, Jackson finished his career with 43 sacks.

This is a guy who was the size of today’s Linebackers at 255 lbs. Tombstone must have played extremely mean to accomplish what he did.

In 1969, against the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Jets, “Tombstone” beat up Right Tackle Sam Walton and harassed Joe Namath all game. He continually forced Namath into making bad throws and Sacked him twice. The Jets tried to put another man in Walton’s position, but the results were the same. Jackson earned AFL Defensive Player of the Week honors for that performance. Jets coach Weeb Ewbank stated that, “Jackson was too much for us. He is a great End.”

Raiders offensive lineman Harry Schuh:

“I’d say he’s one of the best in the league. After watching the films I’ve noticed that Jackson has improved his technique tremendously. Last year he used an Illegal club all the time. After a whole game of that I’d have a heck of a headache. And where your head goes, your body goes.”

Tombstone Jackson was simply the best Defensive End in the history of the Broncos.

  • 2-Time AFL All-Star (1968, 1969)

  • AFL All-Time 2nd Team

  • 3-Time Pro Bowler (1968, 1969, 1970)

  • 3-Time 1st Team All-Pro (1968, 1969, 1970)

  • The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (1994)

Rich was first selected as Professional Athlete of the Year in 1970, by the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. That same Hall of Fame selected him for membership in 1975.

The legendary pro football writer Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, in naming his all-star team for the first 50 years of pro football, had Rich Jackson as one of his Defensive Ends and said he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He also said that Tombstone Jackson was perhaps the finest overall Defensive End and pass rusher he ever saw, a surefire Hall of Famer if he would have had a longer playing career and played in a bigger media market. As it was, Jackson will be remembered as a great one, but only by a handful of football insiders including those who lined up with and against him.

A devastating player, Rich was capable of head slapping an Offensive Tackle to the extent that the helmet would get twisted on the blocker’s face. His numbers and style earned him a spot on the Broncos Ring of Fame in 1984, as part of the inaugural class that included Floyd Little, Goose Gonsoulin and Lionel Taylor.

He has not yet been named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even though many football historians feel he has earned the right. Jackson says he doesn’t worry much about it.

“I’m not obsessed with it,” he said. “If it is going to come, it is going to come. If not, I will be remembered as one of the great ones that didn’t get in.”

After retirement, Jackson, his wife and two daughters lived in New Orleans where he coached and taught health and physical education, as well as directing a recreation department summer camp.

Jackson had a motor that never stopped and was a relentless pass rusher considered by many as the best Defensive End in professional football during his prime.

In 2006, Al Davis called Jackson “the best player [the Broncos] ever had”.  He also has said that Jackson belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Go Broncos!

– Kaptain Kirk

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