They would listen to Stacey Jackson. The football players would pay attention, and that’s what everyone says the best coaches can do: grab and hold the minds of young men worn to a nub by constant physical pounding and the tedium of studying endless X’s and O’s while crammed into meeting rooms.
Stacey Jackson could reach the ones who think that they can down liquor all night long and drive themselves home, because the worst consequences won’t come to them. Everybody thinks that way in youth, Jackson told Piers Morgan on CNN, after he realized that she had an extraordinary message to deliver and booked her on his show.
Football players have to think that way to do their jobs. They watch teammates go down in heaps. They see them taken off on stretchers or limping away with their damaged bodies supported by trainers, and they go back for the next snap, telling themselves without really thinking it through: “That won’t happen to me.’’
When NFL players go out and drink, they all have the money to call a cab. They all have numbers, or should have them, for league security employees who will provide a ride home from bars and parties for free. The NFL even gave the program a name, Safe Rides, and it should have sounded like a perfect deal to Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent in the early hours of Dec. 8, when he and Jerry Brown, a longtime friend from the University of Illinois who had recently become his teammate again, wanted to get back to the home they shared.
Brent didn’t make that call, even though he had already served 30 days in jail for a 2009 driving-while-intoxicated charge. Jerry Brown also didn’t make that call, and he didn’t tell Brent to give up his keys. Stacey Jackson, Jerry Brown’s mother, makes a point of saying that. Even though Brown was only the passenger when Brent’s car banked off something, then skidded and flipped, she will call the accident “their mistake.’’ She will say that even as she mourns her 25-year-old son.
She could be angry -- at the world, at Brent, at the people who served him enough liquor to push his blood alcohol limit to 0.18, more than twice the legal limit, according to police. She probably should have taken the calls of those lawyers who tried to contact her soon after the accident, instead of saying that she needed to put all her energy into planning her son’s “homegoing,’’ the perfect wake and funeral.
That was her top priority, that and protecting Brent. Almost immediately after the accident, Jackson and her family issued a statement about their grief and said that they felt for Brent and his family as well. At one of the memorial services, organized for the people who knew Jerry in Texas, she asked Brent to ride with her from the airport, to sit with her and the rest of the family.
They say forgiveness is the gift we give ourselves. Stacey Jackson has enough to share with everyone.
The day before the service, she appeared on Morgan’s show. She was starting to get through to people, with her message of compassion, her kindness toward the man accused of stealing her son’s life.
Eventually, she would hear from Bill Cosby. He called to say that he had listened to her and, as the father of a man senselessly killed 16 years ago, felt touched by her words.
Part of Jackson’s message: Don’t incarcerate Brent. Don’t follow through on manslaughter charges. Let him go talk about his horrible mistake in schools and in front of other NFL players, as part of the life lessons the league presents to each team.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said before the season that he wants to reduce the number of DUI arrests among NFL players. He may not agree that Brent should escape the law. But someday, if Brent can express his remorse in a room full of football peers, the commissioner should take Jackson’s advice. He should ask her to join in the conversation, maybe even start it on her own now. She is his best resource.
She could talk about what she lost, about the son who loved football and her spaghetti and fashion. Jerry took sewing classes, and he planned to open his own business after football, with help from his younger brother, Jeremiah, currently in a trade school studying clothing design.
She could also share how she felt about Brent, how she worried about him after the accident, how she eluded anger.
“Ain’t nothing I can do to him that his conscience isn’t going to do to him,’’ Jackson said, “because he’s going to relive this over and over again.’’
Those who believe in clear boundaries and stern consequences may think that she would blur the most important message. But football players hear lectures all the time. Someone is always threatening to throw a flag on them. At some point, they either tune out from exhaustion or use a sense of entitlement as a sound barrier.
Jackson’s voice, the voice of a mother and a spiritual woman, would be unfamiliar, perhaps distinctive enough to resonate. She is not a soft woman. She worked as a corrections officer for six and a half years. She is gentle. There’s a big difference.
“My faith in God, it’s always calling me to be humble,’’ she said by phone over the weekend. “It’s not for us to judge other people because we’ve all done things in our lives, in our pasts.’’
To celebrate Christmas, she had planned to go to Texas. She and her husband would fly down to visit Jerry and Josh, and go to their first Cowboys game. Then Jackson would start cooking for a crowd, just the way she did every Sunday when her son played for the University of Illinois.
His teammates, 10 to 15 at a time, would take over the house, filling it with laughter. They’d play cards and eat, then pack up food to go. Brent always joined that crowd and then came back for more later in the week, more of the cooking and more time around the woman he’d eventually call Mama J.
“Josh would be over almost every other day,’’ Jackson said.
She reared her sons in St. Louis, but not long after Jerry moved north to Illinois, she followed. She and his stepfather settled in a house about 15 minutes from the Illinois campus. Jackson, who attended culinary-arts school as a way to get away from the coldness of working in the penal system, eventually became a manager for the university dining services.
“I moved up there because he lost so much weight, and he couldn’t gain it back because he was homesick,’’ she said, laughing. “When I got up there, then he started gaining weight, because he was close to his Mama.’’
Jackson ended up flying to Texas the week before Christmas after all. Cowboys fullback Lawrence Vickers gave her a plane ticket and persuaded a local event organizer to divert proceeds from a party tied to a Miami Heat visit to Brown’s family. She spent a fair amount of time on her trip with Brent.
“I make sure he stays positive, because this is the holiday season and people who are having a hard time do things they wouldn’t do normally,’’ she said tentatively, in a rare instance when she had trouble speaking directly. Eventually, she got to her point: “Because of the stress, I don’t want him to take his own life.’’
With that in mind, she said, “We talk about him getting help and making sure he keeps going to his counselor.’’
She has plenty of hard moments of her own – when she checks Jerry’s Facebook page, when she realizes that she will never hear his voice again. Understanding how hectic his life was in the NFL, she always stayed on alert for his calls and picked up. As a result, she doesn’t have any voicemails to comfort her. Jerry’s fiancée has promised to copy one of hers and transfer it over to his mom.
The couple’s daughter is due in February, and Jackson finds comfort in the thought of welcoming her. She has also noticed that her sleep, fitful in the days after Jerry’s death, has returned closer to normal since the funeral in St. Louis.
Her other son, Jeremiah, has not found such peace, she said.
“He didn’t come to the funeral because he can’t take it right now,’’ Jackson said. “What we did is we had the funeral videotaped and everything, so when he’s ready to come to grips with it, he can watch it in his own time.’’
She planned to leave Dallas to be with Jeremiah over Christmas, comforting him. She wants him to honor his brother’s memory by living his life as fully as possible.
In darkness, she insists on seeing only light. It’s a gift. She should be asked to share it with as many people as she can.