Today, you’ll have to indulge me as I tell one of my favorite stories. It involves my favorite all-time football player, Saints Hall of Fame LB Rickey Jackson, and my mentor in football, John Paul Young.
In 1981, John Paul had just arrived in New Orleans as part of Bum Phillips staff with the Saints. Bum, John Paul and the new staff had been brought in to try to capture the energy and excitement Phillips had created in Houston as part of the ‘Luv Ya Blue’ crew that always challenged the Steelers for AFC supremacy during Pittsburgh’s series of Super Bowl wins in the 70s. The Saints made a bold move in the 1981 draft, passing up North Carolina’s Lawrence Taylor for South Carolina’s George Rogers with the No. 1 overall pick. As the narrative has developed, in that draft, this was just another Saints blunder in an early team history chock full of them. What people don’t realize is that the Saints could take their ‘new Earl Campbell‘ with the top pick because they hoped another elite linebacker would be available in the second round. That player was Jackson, whom they took with the 51st pick.
From there, as the Saints’ linebackers coach, it was John Paul’s job to groom him and get him ready to be an impact player. However, things got off to a bumpy start. As a new member of the team and someone learning a new defense, Jackson was not yet instinctive in his first couple practices. During film sessions, John Paul consistently corrected him, in a teaching manner but firmly and directly. This seemed to embarrass Rickey, who was clearly down in the dumps after one such session. Eager not to lose his star pupil, John Paul took him aside to encourage him.
“What’s the matter, Rickey?” he asked a visibly pouting Jackson. “Nothing, coach,” the ‘backer replied.
“Come on, Rickey, what’s the matter?” he prodded.
“You’re always on me, coach,” Jackson responded.
Concerned that Jackson would be so easily hurt, John Paul expressed concern.
“Well, Rickey, when you were at Pittsburgh playing for Coach (Jackie) Sherrill, didn’t they have to fuss at you sometimes?”
“Nope, coach, never.”
“Really, Rickey? Well, what would they say to you?”
“All they ever said to me was, ‘Attaboy, Rickey!'”
Under John Paul’s tutelage, Jackson made fast adjustments to the NFL talent level, speed of game and styles of defense. In short order, he was one of the few consistent Saints play-makers and after a long career, he went to the Hall of Fame in 1997. This is why I suggested to my wife that we name our first-born son Rickey Jackson Stratton. She quickly dismissed the idea. I still believe she thinks I was joking.