After a 29-year broadcasting career that was arguably as stellar as his NFL career, Ring of Fame linebacker Tom Jackson is retiring as a broadcaster and NFL analyst for ESPN.
Jackson began his career at ESPN in 1987, months after retiring from his illustrious 14-year NFL career, during which time he recorded three Pro Bowl selections and one first-team All-Pro nod. He added to his trophy collection as an NFL analyst, too, winning the 2015 Pete Rozelle Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in addition to seven Outstanding Studio Show - Weekly Sports Emmy awards as part of Sunday NFL Countdown (1988, 1991, 1994, 1995, 2001, 2003 and 2007).
"As I look back on it—and it certainly has flown by—yeah, there's a sense of pride taken into work and the fact that people appreciate it," said Jackson, of winning the Pete Rozelle Award in August of 2015.
With the award, Jackson joined the likes of Irv Cross, Pat Summerall, Ed Sabol and John Madden, each of whom Jackson admired for their excellence in their respective careers as broadcasters.
"I was familiar with part of the list but I went into my office just to take a look at the entire list," said Jackson, describing his reaction upon receiving notification of the award. "That's when you get humbled and that's when you get overwhelmed and that's when you wonder how the hell you got your name on the list. That's about the time that you look and you go 'Pat Summerall, Chris Schenkel, Ed Sabol—who started NFL Films—Dan Dierdorf, Ray Scott, Frank Gifford, John Madden.' That's when it gets a bit overwhelming, but I'm honored beyond belief."
Also among those winners was Chris Berman, Jackson's broadcasting partner ever since Jackson auditioned with him at ESPN. It was at that audition when Berman knew Jackson was destined for great things on ESPN. After watching a tackle not unlike those he used to make for the Broncos, Jackson reacted instinctually and energetically.
"'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Tom, that's what you used to do,'" Berman said he told him. "He goes, 'I know, but it was such a good hit.' I knew we had a natural."
His jump to broadcasting was recalled thusly by former Broncos Vice President of Corporate Communications Jim Saccomano:
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 [the network] 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.
And as Saccomano remembered Jackson telling him, the former Bronco 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."
At the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015, we spoke to numerous former teammates and colleagues from Jackson's football and television careers. Here is what they had to say:
Floyd Little, Hall of Fame Broncos RB: As good a broadcaster as Tom Jackson is, he was a better football player. And that says a lot because I know the real Tom Jackson, I watched him as a player, I watched him develop as a player, I watched his skill levels continue to get better. He was a great player for the Denver Broncos. He played his entire career there and he, in my opinion—and that's my opinion—is a Hall of Famer, but that's not my call.
Tom has done well. We all knew he would. He was a very gregarious person, very outgoing, and he's always known that repetition is good pedagogy. He worked hard every day, and by working hard it taught him a valuable lesson to be not only a student of the game that he's become, but a guy who's analytical. Tommy was always analytical. He was always articulate and he's always found ways to make things happen.
Boy, I respect him. Every time I see him on TV, and when he articulates certain things about the game, the nuances, he speaks very well and he's very knowledgeable. So it's not surprising to me that he's getting the Pete Rozelle award for journalism because he is a crafty, well-gifted athlete that's done well in broadcasting.
After Tom Jackson announced his retirement from ESPN Wednesday, a photographic look back at his years as a Denver Bronco and ESPN broadcaster/analyst.
Chris Berman, ESPN colleague since 1987:** He didn't have to come as far as you think. He did a little TV work when he played with the Broncos. Remember, the players didn't make that much. They had to do something on the side, so he did some sports on TV. He's a natural because [he is as good a broadcaster] as good a player as he was—and Denver fans know he was really good.
So 10 minutes into our first day, watching games Week 1, he's played for 14 years. It's the first Sunday that he hasn't played and he looks up at the set of one of the eight games that we're watching and he goes 'Oh! Look at that hit!' I go 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Tom, that's what you used to do.' He goes, 'I know, but it was such a good hit.' I knew we had a natural.
He and Randy Gradishar—he would always want me to mention Randy—were Hall of Fame players, that's for sure. It's hard. Maybe it reminds people that he was also a good player, but his record as a Bronco speaks for itself, the way he played for 14 years. The reason he wasn't in any more, and I believe it was three, Pro Bowls was names that may not mean much to a lot of youngers, but there were only three outside linebackers from the AFC that went. Jack Ham was one of them for Pittsburgh, so now you're down to two spots. So it was tough to break through. It wasn't that Tom had a bad year, it was only three going. Now there's like six outside linebackers from both. He really could have been an eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker and that could have changed it. Although… . He was a great player. Maybe it does change perception. I hope it does.
Trey Wingo, ESPN colleague: He's tremendous. Nobody takes the task more seriously than Tom and no one has more insightful things to say about the game than Tom. It's been a privilege to work alongside him and I hope to work alongside him for many, many more years.
Chris Mortenson, ESPN colleagues since 1991: Getting the Rozelle Award is a prestigious broadcasting award. Only the best that make that transition into broadcasting are recognized for this.
But the thing about it is, I was at the Pro Football Hall of Fame museum the other day with Bobby Ross, the former Chargers coach, who was there for Junior Seau. Bobby and I know each other well. And we stopped at the plaque and Tommy had his name on the Rozelle Award. Bobby turns to me and says 'Where is Tommy's bust for the Hall of Fame?' And I said, 'Bobby, do you realize he's not in it?' He goes, 'He's got to be in it. I coached in Kansas City with Marv Levy. Him and Gradishar, they're in, right?' I said no. He said, 'You're pulling my leg, aren't you?' I said no.
So we're talking about a guy who was truly a revolutionary player. If they had the Pro Bowl balloting back then the way they do now, he would have made eight Pro Bowls. Tom, as I've said many times before, the preparation he did as a player, he brings it to TV. And not only that — he's a better husband, father and person and friend than he is anything else.