The Broncos' Ring of Fame honors those who have most impacted the franchise to be cemented in team history. (All photos from Denver Broncos photo archives unless noted as from AP Images)
During my 36-year Denver Broncos career 727 different players suited up in the orange and blue. I watched a lot of guys come and go, and presided over a lot of emotional moments involving the players and the press.
But only one time did I ever watch the press stand and give an ovation to a retiring player at his final press conference, and that was when Tom Jackson said goodbye.
"T.J.," as he is universally known to a cadre of Bronco players, administrators and fans, is this year's winner of the Pete Rozelle Award for Radio and Television, given by the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the annual swank soiree on Hall of Fame Weekend in Canton, Ohio.
There has never been a truer Bronco than T.J., and it will be wonderful to see him get this illustrious award.
He will be the 27th winner, and I have been honored to personally know 24 of them, including Hall of Fame members turned broadcasters like Len Dawson, Dan Dierdorf, Frank Gifford and John Madden, Wyoming native son Curt Gowdy, former Broncos public relations director Val Pinchbeck (honored as Director of Broadcasting for the NFL), and even T.J.'s fabled partner Chris Berman, who has worked with Tom at ESPN for over 25 years.
It will be a great moment, attested to by Tom when he said, "Playing in the NFL was a dream come true, but never did it occur to me that I'd have a second career so gratifying."
But careers do not come out of thin air. They start with talent and drive, and are nurtured and developed with a certain kind of passion and attitude, and those will be the elements I thought of as I first met T.J. in his rookie year in Denver.
He earned his TV success by being the same kind of person he was as a Bronco captain, three-time Pro Bowler and an eventual Ring of Fame member.
I would like to share some memories that define T.J.
He never said no to the press. It is easy to stand in front of the cameras and writers when you win, but T.J. never once dodged anybody when we lost. He was always front and center, and showed the way.
One time the players became particularly upset with the press and agreed among themselves not to talk to the media when the locker room opened mid-week. T.J. did not say anything to dissuade anyone.
But when I opened the locker room doors he beckoned the press to his locker and quietly began to answer all their questions, rationally, patiently, never once lecturing the for the perceived issues that were upsetting his teammates. As he talked on and on, eventually the other players took note and softened, and soon everyone in the locker room was following his lead and talking to the press.
He never lectured or scolded his teammates, and instead just showed them the way, leading by example until the entire issue was diffused.
There has never been a more loyal or passionate former Bronco. When we played the most recent Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks, Tom Jackson made it a point to wear his 1977 AFC championship ring to the stadium on game day. "This is why we play," he told me before the game, still just as proud and passionate as he had been in 1977.
He will receive his award on August 8 in Canton, for "longtime exceptional contributions to radio-television in pro football," but I could see it coming by the time he was ending his great 14-year career with the Broncos.
I called my friends at NBC as soon as Tom retired and told them they just had to talk to Tom Jackson, and that if they would just meet with him, they would hire him.
NBC brought him to New York and the network was impressed enough to offer him a job. Tom told me that he certainly planned to take it, but "my dad always told me that when you have a big decision facing you, take a little time and think it over."
So he asked NBC for a few days, and they gave him the time he wanted. Meanwhile, the fledgling ESPN network called and said they would like him to go to their Bristol headquarters, where he would audition with a young fellow named Chris Berman.
No two guys ever hit it off, on or off set, like T.J. and Boomer. He took the offer from ESPN, politely told NBC he was going in a different direction, and three decades of success were underway.
He is specifically being honored for his work on SportsCenter and Monday Night Countdown, and Tom and Chris are still as close as brothers.
Tom is beloved by the Broncos organization, and by no one any more than team owner Pat Bowlen, those two forging a mutual bond that only grew stronger over Pat's three decades of ownership.
I remember the day T.J. was inducted into our Ring of Fame. He was in Mr. B's box watching the game, but when it involves the Broncos, Tom is never just a watcher. First he was sitting and then he was pacing. Then he slipped out of the box and went down to the sideline, and more specifically, into the bench area.
So now we had an ESPN announcer not just on the sidelines, but in the team bench area. But it was Tom Jackson, and he was welcome.
Next he was shouting, exhorting the team.
And finally T.J. marched over to the table on which the telephones to the coaching booth sat, and he proceeded to pick up the defensive line and give his opinions of what he thought would work best in stopping the other team.
It was classic T.J. — absolute pure passion for his team, the Denver Broncos, for whom he was a truly great player.
He made one of the greatest plays in Broncos history in 1977 — the greatest play in team history to that point, in my opinion — picking off Bert Jones and setting sail for more than 70 yards into the south end zone to help secure home-field advantage in the upcoming playoffs.
T.J. intercepted Terry Bradshaw twice in the Broncos' very first playoff win over Pittsburgh, and I can still see him in the victorious locker room after the AFC Championship victory over Oakland, calling out naysayers over and over, with rising emotion, "Do they believe now? Do they believe NOW?"
Bronco fans always believed, and they always believed in T.J.
Tom Jackson always answered the bell for the Broncos, and the bell rings for one of our most beloved players at the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony via the Pete Rozelle award this year.