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John Jackson, Steelers Offensive Lineman, 1988-1997

January 18, 2012

John Jackson:

First, can you tell readers about your work with KMG Sports Management – what your role there is and how you got started there?

I got started three months after I retired – really two years after I was done playing. My capacity right now is as a consultant but I’m getting out of that part of it. It’s a lot of babysitting. It’s hard to say, but that’s what it is.

I like the mentoring of the players. Some of the guys, well, it’s just getting harder. The trust factor between agents and players isn’t what it used to be when I played. Your word was your bond then but it’s changed. Now, everyone is out to top everyone and promise more and more. Guys forget what it takes to get there and now each just uses the other.

I will be focusing more on helping with recruiting and position training for offensive linemen. That gives me more free time to explore getting into sales. People think I’m crazy but I’d like to get into sales – I enjoy talking with people.

What makes KMG unique in its representation of players, and what do you look for in the athletes you represent?

Richard Katz makes it unique. He’s been in the business over thirty years and worked on endless contracts, including mine. He has a knack for negotiating and finding talent – especially the gems.

Compared to other NFL teams, how are the Steelers to work with in negotiations on contracts – any idiosyncracies they have?

All teams try to get fair market value. In negotiations, all have to come to the middle road. For the Steelers, loyalty is paramount as far as the players they represent and develop.

They shoot straight in negotiations and hold no punches.They pay players their worth but want to surround them with talent so they can win games. Most teams, their pay scale is skewed.  The Steelers philosophy is to have the right people  in place, sacrifice some value but not to sacrifice character.

You were drafted in the 10th round in 1988 by the Steelers. There’s certainly no guarantee as a 10th rounder that you make the roster – what did you do to catch the coaches eye and make the team?

Every day I worked out and tried to get better, and I did get better.

I started two preseason games. My first was against Lawrence Taylor and I did pretty well. My second was against Pat Swilling and I got blown up. Swilling and their defense threw stuff at me I never saw before. Chuck understood that – he knew it takes time. He saw the potential in me and stuck with me.

I started in my second year which is a challenge for an offensive lineman. I only missed ten games in my career – which is pretty good.

’88 was also the year of Art Rooney’s passing. How did that affect the team?

I think it put a lot of things in perspective. The Rooneys were a tight family and the team rallied behind them.

I met Art Rooney Sr. when the draft picks came in. It was an unbelievable experience sitting down and having dinner with him. He knew who everyone was – he picked them himself. And he was sharp as a tack.

I was really impressed that he knew who I was. We talked about horses – he knew I was from Kentucky I guess. I wasn’t a big horse fan like the Chief though – he was naming horses and was just a lot more knowledgeable than me. It was a really good experience.

Eight guys in that class made the team that year – it was a special class. Dermontti and I played together for eight years, and six of us played for five years together. That just doesn’t happen now.

I didn’t know the history of  the Rooneys when I got there. After he died, all the stuff about what he did for the community came out. Paid for funerals for those that couldn’t afford them. He used to walk around the North Side at night when he couldn’t sleep. People knew  who he was but wouldn’t touch him.

As a rookie, who helped take you under their wing and help you adjust to life in the NFL – both on and off the field? Any examples?

Two people – Craig Wolfley and Tunch Ilkin. I looked up to those guys. They taught me a lot on and off the field. I was one of the biggest lineman they had. Most of the guys were 6’3″ and I was 6’6″ – I stood out like a sore thumb.

They taught me how to watch film and understand the game – what to look for in other players. As a rookie, that’s big. Developing players through older players – other teams don’t take that as a badge of honor like the Steelers do. Passing on to others what I learned was so important to us – to give back to the players and organization. Other teams simply didn’t do that as much.

Who were the biggest characters on those Steelers teams? Any examples?

Lloyd – you didn’t know what to expect from him – he always had great stories.

I enjoyed the offensive line parties. At the end of the season the rookies threw a party for their units. They’d spend a lot of money and invite the most important guys on the team – the trainers and equipment guys. Ralph Berlin was banned from those parties by his wife. Too many soda pops (laughing). It was his punishment.

We always had a good time bonding at those parties.

One year, the linebackers made the rookies pay for their  tuxes and limos for their party. I was glad it wasn’t us!

We  always met and had drinks. Camaraderie was and still is big on the Steelers. Guys like to hang out together. On other teams a lot of the guys don’t like to hang out – and you can see that distance between them on the field. Other teams I played for had nowhere near that kind of camaraderie.

What was your and the team’s reaction to Chuck Noll’s retirement in ’91?

It was a big surprise but we all knew he wanted to retire soon. He had four Super Bowls….I got two playoff games with Chuck, which was really special for me.

What did you and the team first think of Coach Cowher when he came on board – especially since he had such a different temperament than Coach Noll?

I appreciated Cowher’s candidness. He told us he wasn’t a good football player but was a pretty good coach, and if we listened to him he’ll take us where we want to go. That was important to see him take that leadership role.

He put alarms in the exit doors of our dorm rooms so no one could go out at night – we thought it was funny. Someone would go through those doors every night and every once in a while he’d come up and do a bed check. You never knew when he’d come in.

The team had the same mindset – it was Coach Cowher who had to adjust to us at first.

Practice was treated like a game for us – we went all out and beat ourselves up. We beat the crap out of each other – we were old school playing under Coach Noll. We learned to practice  under Cowher – he had to tone us down. He said we’re not playing the Steelers this week – we  can’t hit each other like that. We’d have nothing left for the game!

You played for a fairly mobile quarterback in Bubby Brister. How hard was it for you to block for a mobile quarterback versus a pocket-passer? Do you sympathize at all with the “heat” the current Steelers’ line receives as it blocks for Roethlisberger?

You get benefits with a mobile quarterback – he gets himself out of trouble. With a pocket quarterback you have to be on point all the time. You want someone who will throw the ball and try to make a play.

As for Bubby – Bubby was a treat. He was so hyper you couldn’t understand him at times. Tunch and Wolfley and Webster tried to calm him down- they’d tell him to “Say it so we all understand it!”. He had great talent but had to hone it in. He had good and bad years which made me appreciate my career. I had only two losing seasons in ten years.

You left in ’88 to play in San Diego. What brought about this move and how hard was that for you?

It was real hard to leave. I would not have done the same thing again. The offer – I just couldn’t refuse those numbers.

I talked to Mr. Rooney and Cowher and told them it wasn’t personal, that  I had to take care of my family.  Both understood. Mr. Rooney told me that when I was ready, to come home, to let them know. That meant a lot.

Cowher said “You might want to take the money!” (laughing).

What were your best memories as a Steelers?

I enjoyed playing, but I loved the fans. Those are the greatest and most intelligent fans. They understand the x’s and o’s of the game, and that younger players take time to develop. It takes time to go through the progression from college to the pros and the Pittsburgh fans understand that.

They are the greatest fans I’ve ever seen due to their knowledge of their team’s history and the game of football. They have a lot to teach other fans. I’ve been on other teams, and no fans compare.

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