On the field, Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson always followed his instincts, knowing they would often lead him in the right direction and to a successful conclusion.
But the legendary No. 57 of the New Orleans Saints lived his life quite differently off the field, ignoring the warning signs of a potentially serious health issue, until recently when he discovered that numbers don’t lie.
Unfortunately, the numbers added up to one thing: Like so many male members of his immediate and extended family, Jackson had prostate cancer.
Last Wednesday, Jackson, 57, had surgery at Tulane University Medical Center, the procedure performed by Dr. Raju Thomas.
“I’m cancer-free; I didn’t have to take no radiation or anything,” Jackson said Tuesday from his West Bank home. “This is a good Christmas present for me.”
The best kind, as it turns out, for the father of 10 and the most notable of the outstanding Saints linebacker corps known as the Dome Patrol of the 1980s and early ’90s. Pat Swilling, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson have long been admired for their play, but Jackson came to be loved by Saints fans during his stellar 13-year career in New Orleans (1981-93).
In those 13 seasons, he missed only two games, a result of an automobile accident in 1989. He played the rest of the 1989 season with his jaw wired and wearing a special helmet, still managing to accumulate 7.5 sacks.
In 1994, he joined the San Francisco 49ers and helped them win Super Bowl XXIX. He retired from the NFL following the 1995 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Jackson appeared to be indestructible as a six-time Pro Bowl player and as his career stats would suggest. But he proved to be no match for a form of cancer that has afflicted his father, four uncles and two grandfathers.
“I had never talked to my father about it because I wasn’t raised with a father,” said Jackson, a member of the Saints Hall of Fame and the team’s Ring of Honor. “I wasn’t even thinking about my family history. But my uncle died with it about three years ago, and that got me worrying about it more and more. Then I found out that all my uncles had it and my granddads had it, so it was something I knew right then that it was in my genes.”
A first screening performed several years ago in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, displayed early warning signs. A biopsy in mid-November indicated it was time to consider more aggressive options, surgery being one of them.
“Guys are afraid of what they’re going to discover,” Jackson said. “I had the attitude that I didn’t want to go see no doctor. Doctors are for ‘soft’ people. I had that kind of attitude with doctors. But prostate cancer is a silent killer. I didn’t know I had something wrong with me. I’m thinking I’m a perfect being. I’m thinking I’m ‘Mr. Macho’ and stuff. But it can take you out. You got to be smart these days.
“So when Dr. Thomas told me I had prostate cancer, he gave me several options. I thought about it for five minutes, and I told him I want to be cancer-free. I made the decision on the spot because I didn’t want to play around with it.”
Once Jackson made the decision to have surgery, he kept it to himself except for family members, a few close friends and clergy members.
“I know God ain’t ready for me yet,” Jackson said. “That’s the way you have to deal with life. You have to face the challenge and do what you need to do. I’m a man of God. Whatever hand you’re dealt, you’ve got to play it. I wasn’t worried or anything. I know God is in control of all things.”
Now Jackson wants to help spread the word.
“I want people to know about this silent killer,” he said. “I got about 10 buddies who are going to get screened next week because of what I went through. That’s a real honor, knowing that what happened to me will make these guys go get screened. These are close friends, some great ex-players, some Hall of Famers who would never go get screened if this hadn’t happened to me.
“I’ve got seven boys, and I’ve told them to get screened when they turn 35. It can save their lives. It saved mine. I still got a whole lot of life to go. I’m not through living yet.”