T.J.'s message of hope

AUBURN – After three seasons in the National Football League, Tommy Jackson walked away.

Former Auburn star Tommy Jackson walked away from the NFL/Phillip Marshall photo

T.J., as he was affectionately known when he was an All-Southeastern Conference nose guard at Auburn, wasn’t drummed out of the league. All he had to do was sign and play. But he had other priorities.

“I knew it was time to go,” Jackson says. “I felt like what the Lord was leading me to do was my true calling, which is to work with young people. I felt like it was time for me to further my education and further my influence with kids.”

And that’s what he did.

Jackson worked as a youth minister in Atlanta and spent a year as a coach at Opelika High School, where he played. Last week, he started a new adventure. He’s back at Auburn and working as a mentor and counselor in the athletic department's academic support unit. He's getting ready to pursue a Phd in either adult education or higher education. He’ll be finished with his master’s degree in adult education in December.

“The man I wanted to be was one who could offer something to people besides what I do under pads or behind a facemask,” Jackson says. “I’ve done that and I thank God for it. Now it’s time for me to help guys focus on life after football. Football is a great sport, but guys need to have a plan after. You have to want to do something.

“If you find something that you love doing, it’s like you’re not working at all. I know God is going to be my provider. It’s something I don’t worry about.”

That came as no surprise to Chette Williams, Auburn’s team chaplain.

“It speaks to his character,” Williams says. “He has his priorities straight. He’s been like that from the very beginning.”

From the time he was a high school star at Opelika, Jackson loved people. To this day, he’ll hug total strangers. But it wasn’t always that way. His father left him, his mother and his two sisters early in his life. He returned briefly, only to leave again.

In football, Jackson found an outlet.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world to feel bad about your circumstances,” Jackson says. “I’ve done that before. I tried to use it as motivation. That’s why football was so important to me at that point in my life. It was a way for me to deal with my anger. It was either that or do other things.”

Jackson’s mother and late grandmother were steadfast in their support. His wife, Ashley, is strong in her support now. And he has a message for those at Auburn, at Opelika High School, everywhere, who grew up hard.

“As a husband now, I make sure I do the right thing,” Jackson says. “My wife is the most important thing in the world to me. When we have kids, it’s important to me to be a great father. That’s what I try to portray to these kids. No matter how things have worked out for you, it is your duty to be a great husband and a great father.”

Jackson experienced the glitter and glamour of the NFL, but he saw another side of it, a side that isn’t shown on Monday Night Football.

“There is a large percentage of guys in the NFL that, once they are done with football, don’t have anything anymore,” Jackson says. “That’s why I tell guys it is so important to have a second career. That’s what has happened to certain guys lately, coming up with all these ideas and saying these different things happened. It’s up to the individual to take education seriously. If you don’t do that, it’s your fault.”

Jackson took education seriously. His mother and grandmother wouldn’t have it any other way. He grew from a chubby kid to a fierce football player known for his strength and quickness. He was a star on Auburn’s unbeaten 2004 team. But those aren’t the things he talks about when he looks back on his Auburn career.

“It helped me become a man, truly,” Jackson says. “You learn so much in this environment. You learn how to conduct yourself as an adult. You learn time management, things that as a kid you don’t pay attention to. I will be forever grateful to Auburn for that.”

For three of Jackson’s seasons, Gene Chizik was Auburn’s defensive coordinator. And Jackson celebrated when Chizik returned as head coach in December 2008.

“He was the same guy then he is now,” Jackson says. “He doesn’t change. He loves you when you aren’t on the field and makes sure you are doing the right things. When you put those pads on, he pushes you harder than anybody else will. He expected a lot out of me. I couldn’t have done the things I did on the field here if it hadn’t been from him pushing me.”

Jackson, who will be 28 years old in December, wants to eventually work in athletic administration, maybe become an athletic director. He wants the world to know that a poor black kid from Opelika doesn’t have to give in to difficult circumstances.

When he called athletic director Jay Jacobs about possibly working for Auburn, the response was enthusiastic. His first day was on Aug. 8.

“For guys that come from a similar background, it gives them a chance to see they can improve things,” Jackson says. “I think that’s important. For guys that come from my background, there’s so much you can do besides play sports.

“Appreciate it while you do it, but understand there’s so much to life than that.”

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