Kerry Jackson loves to cycle. He lives in the Denver suburbs and averages about 3,000 miles a summer on his bike.
“The sights you get here are just breathtaking,” Jackson said.
Full moons on the Eastern plains. Sunrises and sunsets over the mountains. The snow-capped Rockies.
“This is a gorgeous place,” Jackson said. “I ain't thinking about going nowhere.”
Except in his mind. Sometimes, Jackson allows his imagination to drift to an equally mystical place.
What if he had made his grades back at Galveston Ball High School? What if he had become the Oklahoma quarterback? What if, 40 years ago Thursday, the Big Eight Conference hadn't ruled him ineligible?
But quickly, the majesty of Colorado brings Jackson back to the present, and without a hint of bitterness, Jackson leaves What-If Land for What-Is Land, with a spring in his pedal and a spark in his voice.
Want to feel good about humanity? Want to remember that people can amaze you with their grace? Talk to Kerry Jackson, the man who would be king.
* * *
Steve Davis died the other day, an iconic Oklahoma hero. Quarterback of Barry Switzer's first three OU teams, which went 32-1-1 and won two national championships.
Would most of us even remember Davis if Jackson hadn't been shelved?
“Kerry Jackson was going to be our quarterback,” Switzer said. “Steve Davis would never been the damn quarterback if Kerry had been eligible. Kerry was really a good talent. He was going to be a great player.”
That's an opinion supported by fact.
In 1972, the NCAA made freshmen eligible for the first time in 20 years. A few Sooner rookies scratched their way to playing time. Joe Washington from the start. Tinker Owens by season's end. And Kerry Jackson.
Jackson earned the backup quarterback slot in August, then pushed senior starter Dave Robertson for playing time. Switzer, Chuck Fairbanks' offensive coordinator in 1972, began spotting Robertson with Jackson.
Through four non-conference games — routs of Utah State, Oregon, Clemson and Texas — Jackson was OU's third-leading rusher, with 286 yards on 44 carries. Greg Pruitt led the Sooners with 316 yards.
“He was awfully good in '72,” said Scott Hill, who was the plum quarterback recruit that season but was injured and eventually moved to safety, where he had a stellar OU career.
But Jackson's success wasn't historic just because he was a freshman.
* * *
Prentice Gautt broke the OU color line in 1957. Jerry Levias broke the Southwest Conference color barrier in 1965. Texas Longhorn football integrated in 1970. Alabama in 1971.
But black quarterbacks were years away from being accepted by most college fan bases. Jackson was OU's first.
It came so suddenly, a freshman rising to the ranks of varsity, that there was little time for opposition.
“Chuck let me recruit him,” Switzer said. Jackson's high school coach, Joe Woolley, was born in El Dorado, Ark., not far from Switzer's hometown of Crossett. “I knew Joe really well. Good relationship with him. I thought we could get Kerry.”
Since no big schools south of the Arbuckles would even look at a black quarterback, that was solid thinking.
Jackson signed with OU, reported and immediately earned playing time. But that didn't mean every Sooner fan liked it.
Jackson received hate mail and racial slurs in public. But now he says it helped him grow.
“Those are the things I had to actually endure to make me a stronger person,” Jackson said. “It just goes with ignorance. People are going to be what they want to be, do what they want to do.
“I was raised not to see colors. My mom raised me to not ever see colors. When that happened, it was bothersome. But it was something I had to get over and keep moving.
“I got a ton of support. From coaches, players. Especially players. That's what kept me there, the support. They let me know I was wanted, I was needed. That did a lot for me. And a lot of times, if you know you're needed and you're wanted, it makes it a lot more bearable when other things are going outside the box.”
Let it also be noted that plenty of Sooner fans were thrilled at Jackson's trailblazing. A 6-foot-1 quarterback who could run like a halfback, with a strong, if not always accurate, arm? These were the early days of the wishbone. Nothing seemed impossible for the OU offense, when you combined immense talent with cutting-edge schematics.
So when Jackson started running wild with the '72 Sooners — 109 yards on 10 carries against Utah State, 87 yards on 12 carries against Oregon, 79 yards on 17 carries against Clemson — OU football figured it had found its quarterback of the future, if not the present.
“I never expected to do that,” Jackson said. “My main goal was to get to play, but I didn't think I was good enough to move up as fast as I did.”
Jackson suffered an ankle injury against Colorado, OU's fifth game, and played only sporadically after that. But the future appeared set.
On a team that would sport Joe Washington and the Selmon brothers and Rod Shoate and Randy Hughes, Kerry Jackson would be the quarterback.
* * *
In January 1973, Fairbanks left OU to coach the New England Patriots. A few days later, Switzer was elevated to replace Fairbanks.
Then on April 18, 1973, more shocking news arrived. Administrators at Galveston Ball High School in Texas had changed the transcripts of Jackson and teammate Mike Phillips, so that they could qualify for OU. The Sooners forfeited eight victories from 1972, assistant coach Bill Michael resigned because of his knowledge of the transgression and Jackson and Phillips were declared ineligible for the '73 season.
Ironically, Jackson would have been eligible under the rules enacted a year later. But in 1972, scholarship qualification included a scale that balanced class standing and entrance-exam scores. Jackson's class standing had ben changed.
Jackson and Phillips said both then and now that they knew nothing about what had occurred and didn't really even understand it.
Jackson was found by Oklahoman reporters that day back in April 1973, climbing on his bike outside the dorm. “I'm kinda disappointed,” he told them. “That's about all I could say.” He said then didn't know about the tampering and that he intended to stay at OU.
“I had no clue what was going on with that,” Jackson says now. “And still as we speak, I couldn't tell you what happened. Nobody came forth and actually spoke about it publicly. Nobody ever came to me and told me about it.
“It's been a lot of years, and I still couldn't tell you what happened. I heard what happened. But nobody came and told me. Coach Switzer never told me. My high school coaches never told me. Just one of those things. Live and learn.”
Joe Woolley lost his job at Galveston Ball. Michael resurfaced as an assistant at Oklahoma State and head coach at Texas-El Paso. OU was hit with two years NCAA probation (no bowl, no television), but Switzer, with Davis quarterbacking, started one of the greatest coaching careers in college football history. Mike Phillips stayed at OU and ended up starting at defensive end on the 1975 national championship team.
Kerry Jackson? He did what he said he would do.
* * *
Jackson took the news hard. “It was devastating,” Jackson said. “Kind of broke me down. Hard to stay in one piece. It bothered me.”
He thought about a lawsuit. He thought about transferring.
“You know who told me not to, was my mother,” Jackson said. “She told me just to stay. We talked a lot. I'm pleased I didn't. I think it was the right thing.”
During a trip home not long after the announcement, Jackson suffered a broken sternum in a car crash and spent a week in intensive care.
“As a young person, especially guys that play football, we really think we're going to live forever, for the things we endure,” Jackson said. “The broken bones. The concussions. I got a chance to learn how not to take life for granted anymore.”
Jackson says he returned from that injury as good as ever, but who knows? He didn't seem to run as fast or move as well, but maybe that was because the carrot of the quarterback job was gone. Davis had become entrenched as the starter, and while his athletic ability couldn't match Jackson's, Davis' leadership was unassailable and the Sooners were winning.
“I didn't lose any speed,” Jackson said. “Any arm strength. Steve was just on top of his game at the time and he was very consistent with being on top of his game. I just couldn't get back in that groove of being the starting quarterback.”
Yet Jackson did what he said he would do. He stayed a Sooner. Was Davis' backup in '74, when Jackson rushed for 12 yards on 17 carries. His only OU touchdown came on a five-yard run in a 63-0 rout of Iowa State. In '75, Jackson wasn't even the backup. Three younger quarterbacks — Dean Blevins, Joe McReynolds and Thomas Lott — had moved past him.
Kerry Jackson would not be king.
“I learned a lot,” Jackson said of those years. “Learned more about my teammates, about myself. Life in general.”
After the car crash, “every day was a good day for me, even though I wasn't playing. I got a chance to participate with people and teammates. That was a good day. And I still feel the same today. Every day is a good day.
“You know what's good about this? I'm not pissed off at anybody. I'm not mad at anybody. I see it as something that happened, and I must go on with life. And coach Switzer, if he sent me out there to run the option now, I'd run it for him. Who can you be mad at? Who can you hold responsible, if you don't know. I think that's the best way. So I'm just going through life.”
That's just the way Jackson is, said Phillips, best friends with Jackson at Galveston Ball and now a minister at Carver Heights Baptist Church in Dallas. “Just an upbeat, caring guy.”
Jackson lives in Aurora, Colo. Been in the mountains since 1978. He's got a wife in Colorado and grown kids in Houston and Atlanta. He's coached some football on the high school and youth level and still officiates high school, junior college and AAU basketball. Rides his bikes over those glorious Rockies and sometimes lets his mind drift.
Championship OU quarterbacks typically go on to great things. Coaching careers. Broadcasting careers. Political careers. NFL careers.
“I still think about it,” Jackson said. “I wonder, where would I be? What would I be doing? What kind of functional body would I have? Would I be messed up? I've thought about all that stuff. The good thing about it, I can still think about it, every day.
“Those were marvelous days. From Day One, I had never been surrounded by so much talent. It was amazing. To be on the team that the depth chart was six deep, you had five other people that could play that position. I still think about it.
“I laugh. I cry sometimes. I miss the guys.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.