“Randy Gradishar was the heart of our defense for all those years, but Tom Jackson was our soul”~Joe Collier.
These days, Tom Jackson is probably better known as an NFL analyst for ESPN and a guy who loves to talk, but before that gig, he was a Denver Bronco legend and a big part of the “Orange Crush Defense.” His playing career lasted 14 seasons and he started every possible game in a season 7 times for his career.
Thomas Louie “Tom, TJ or “Tommy” Jackson was born April 4, 1951 in Cleveland Ohio. As a kid, Tom was a talented all-around athlete and diehard fan of the Cleveland Browns and never missed a game. He attended John Adams High school where he played baseball and football along with excelling as a wrestler. TJ competed at 185 lbs. against guys who weighed upwards of 240 lbs.
“I played baseball in the Police Athletic League when I was a youngster, and started wrestling when I got to high school. I was really into wrestling throughout high school—165-pound weight class, 175-pound weight class and then into heavyweights.”
Jackson credits his wrestling coach as the driving force behind his development mentally and the building of his character.
“He was a 140-pound guy named John Bianchi, the toughest little Italian man I ever knew. He drove us unbelievably and probably drove me more than he drove the rest of my teammates. I look back very fondly on his help building of my character.”
Tom envisioned going to college at Ohio State after graduating high school, but that didn’t happen because of his undersized stature. Then he got a visit from Louisville head coach Lee Corso who was trying to rebuild the school’s football program and didn’t think Jackson was too small. Corso’s sincerity sold young Tommy and he became a Cardinal.
Lee converted him to Linebacker and TJ developed into one of the Cardinal’s greatest players. During his college career, he was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference player of the year selection and led the team in Tackles for three consecutive seasons. In 1999, the Cardinals retired Tom’s jersey (#50), joining the likes of Frank Minnifield and Louisville’s most famous football alum, Johnny Unitas.
After college, Tom expected to go high in the 1973 NFL draft, but his size (5’-11”, 220 lbs.) didn’t help him. Teams liked his speed and intelligence, but “Tiny Tom“ lasted until the 4th round. The Broncos selected him 88th overall and he still had to convince his coaches that he could be an everyday player in the Pros.
The Broncos liked what they saw in Tom and Defensive Coordinator Joe Collier, the architect of the “Orange Crush” Defense, utilized his attributes. Collier put Jackson in at the weakside Outside Linebacker position where he was able to use his quickness and instincts to their fullest advantage.
Jackson always seemed to be in the right place on the football field. His agility allowed him to both rush the Quarterback from the Broncos 3-4 Defense or drop into coverage. He was able to keep up with both Running Backs and Tight Ends and provide blanket coverage. When it came to the running game, his speed allowed him to slip blocks and make plays all over the football field. Big plays along with showing up for big games became his trademark.
When the illustrious Red Miller assumed the coaching reigns in 1977, Randy Gradishar, Joe Rizzo, Bob Swenson and Tom emerged as one of the NFL ‘s top linebacking units—the juice that fueled the Orange Crush. The Broncos made the first of their two Super Bowl appearances during Tom’s career in 1978. The second came in his last season, 1986. Along the way, Tom was the Broncos’ defensive MVP in 1974, 1976, and 1977, went to three Pro Bowls, and was named All-Pro twice. His teammates also voted him Denver’s Most Inspirational Player a franchise-record six times.
Tom liked the stage of the big game, and always played well under pressure. No Denver fan will ever forget his playoff performance against Pittsburgh at Mile High Stadium in December of 1976. In the postseason for the first time in their history, the Broncos throttled the mighty Steelers, 34-21. Tom picked off two passes by Terry Bradshaw and recovered a fumble, setting up three Denver scores. Jackson chose that game, the Broncos’ first playoff win, as his most personally significant performance. Of course, things didn’t go as smoothly in the Super Bowl.
Nine years later, Denver faced the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI. Again the team was blown out, as Phil Simms and Big Blue exploded for 30 points after intermission to win easily, 39-20. Tom injured a knee early against New York, and watched virtually the entire contest from the sidelines. When he walked off the field, he knew his career was over.
“One of the things about which I am most proud is my reaction after losing the biggest game in life—Super Bowl XXI. Reporters walked into the dressing room, and I can’t tell you how devastating the loss was. Every one of those reporters asked for a word from me. I stayed until the last bus left. I made up my mind as the game ended that I would sit there and answer every single question from the media. I was willing to sit there when I was winning, and I would be willing to sit there after losing, as well.”
Another one of TJ’s better games occurred on November 27, 1977 against the Baltimore Colts. Denver led the Colts 14-13 and the Colts had the football and were driving for the go ahead score. With less than four minutes to play, TJ stepped in front of a Bert Jones pass and returned it 73 yards for a Touchdown, setting a club record for the longest Interception return and giving the Broncos control of the game. The Broncos defeated the Colts 27-13.
Tom retired fifth on Denver’s Sack list with 44 and first among Linebackers with 20 Interceptions (returned for 340 yards and 3 touchdowns). He also had 8 Fumble Recoveries (returned for 104 yards). Amazingly durable, he stands second only to John Elway on the team’s all-time list of games played with 191.
TJ held Denver team records for most seasons (14) and games played (191) for many years after his retirement until both marks were broken by Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.
He helped the Broncos to 6 playoff berths (1977-79,‘83-84, ‘86), 4 division titles (1977-78, ‘84, ‘86) and 2 Super Bowls (XII in 1977, XXI in 1986). Jackson was one of only 4 players to play for the Broncos in both of the aforementioned Super Bowls, played 9 years apart.
3-time Pro Bowler (1977, 1978, 1979)
4× All-Pro selection (1977, 1978, 1979, 1984)
1-time 1st-Team All-Pro (1977)
Broncos Most Inspirational Player 6 consecutive seasons (1981-86)
Team Defensive MVP (1974, 1976, 1977)
2nd (Tie) Most games started by a Bronco (177)
1 of 5 Broncos to wear a Denver uniform for at least 14 seasons.
Denver Broncos 50th Anniversary Team
Colorado Sports Hall of Fame (1989)
Denver Broncos Ring of Fame (1992)
Upon his retirement in 1987, Tommy immediately joined ESPN as its NFL studio analyst for the launch of the network’s NFL game coverage. Dan Reeves offered him a job on his coaching staff, but he wanted to explore life away from the sidelines. His Personable and insightful personality made him a natural commentator. Since 1987, “TJ” has occupied a chair next to chris Berman as a studio host for ESPN.
“I never thought I’d have 14 years in the NFL. I just thought about being the best player I could be. I always thought in terms of the next step, I just focused on being the best player that I could be at any given time.”
Not a bad resume for a 5’-11”, 200 lb. Linebacker.
– Kaptain Kirk