Even now, 62 years old in the church that is his second home, Reverend Larron Jackson can split his life easily into three separate metaphors. Those words, in turn, found their way into the title of his recent autobiography, The Ghetto, the Gridiron and the Gospel, a painfully honest if not quite tell-all examination of his violent upbringing, his career with the Broncos and his eventual turn to ministry at True Light Baptist Church. Right now, that is where he is standing with the still-ominous presence of someone who used to be an NFL guard.
Jackson is not a big man as much as he is an unabashedly huge one. But his edges are softened by his church livery, a pair of glasses roughly half the size of his face and a laugh that is as constant as it is overtly enthusiastic. He is a happy person, and obviously so, but his story doesn't follow suit. Jackson was incarcerated in 1963, at age thirteen, for assault with a deadly weapon. But after his release the following year, he began turning his life around -- and football was a big part of the change. Beginning in 1971, he entered the NFL, playing four years for the Broncos and two for the Atlanta Falcons before being called to the ministry. Four years later, he first considered sharing his story -- but more than three decades would pass before he finally did.
Latest Word sat down with Jackson after service yesterday to hear the details about that last decision and the ones that influenced it.
Westword (Kelsey Whipple): Why was it important to you to record your life story?
Reverend Larron Jackson: What inspired me began back in January of 1980, when I entered into Emery University's school of theology and was working on my Master's of Divinity. One of the courses you have to take your first year is a spiritual reflection course. In that course, you have to be able to say how you got to where you are in life in a paper. I wrote about how I got to where I am, from the ghetto of inner-city St. Louis to football to take me out of that ghetto.
When I turned in my paper, my professor gave it back to me and said, "You've got to write your life story." In 1980, though, I wasn't ready. I had to go through some growth and some spiritual maturity, but for the next twenty years, as I went around the world and shared episodes of my life, people kept echoing that back at me. I knew that if I was going to do so, I had to be transparent and completely honest. I began to write in 2003, I got the copyright on my book, and for the next five years I would write intermittently. In January of 2008, I was doing ministry in post-Katrina and New Orleans, and I made up my mind to sit down every day to get through. I finished it in May 2011.
WW: The title is a series of symbols from your life -- all tough ones. Was there anything you were worried to share?
LJ: The title is intended to reflect the depths of my story. There were lots of situations that were very dramatic and intense in my life. I grew up in a home of alcoholism and domestic violence and violence in the streets in St. Louis. From the ages of about eleven to thirteen, I committed fifteen armed robberies and almost got killed in the last one. At thirteen, I was six-foot-one and 190 pounds and looked like any man. I saw my friends killed in the streets, and I finally got to a place where I was incarcerated for some of my behavior. The day I went to jail, someone was looking for me to kill me, and the police just got to me before they did.
You have to understand that at this time, even if this person had found me, there was no assurance they would have walked away alive, either. The Lord probably saved a lot of lives that day. The Jackson family didn't go about starting trouble, but if trouble broke out, we could end it. My relatives did send some of out combatants home to the Lord. You didn't necessarily go around trying to trade off your name, but it worked if you needed it.
WW: How did your period of incarceration affect your life?
LJ: I was locked up in 1963 with guys who knew the Jackson name, and there's no place to go. I can tell you the exact date and time I got out, April 22, 1963 at 4 o'clock straight up. That was a remarkable day in my life. I wasn't free of the cultural dynamics of the ghetto, but there were certain things I wasn't going to do anymore. They had taken away my freedom.
WW: Why were you incarcerated?
LJ: I was hoping you wouldn't ask that. I took you all the way to the moment of my release and thought I had managed to get out of it. I was arrested on the charges of assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to do great bodily harm. It was really hard to share certain parts, especially like that one. I say at the beginning of the book that it's not a tell-all on purpose, but I chose the specific sections of my life I thought people would benefit from the most. Every chapter is followed by spiritual reflections, and they're in the appendix. I give subtopics around certain events in my life, and I invite people to compare my struggles to some in their own lives.
WW: What reaction have you received since the publishing process finished?
LJ: It is self-published and unabridged, and there are about 300 copies out there so far. Right now, we're still talking to potential publishers, but the issue in all of that is who's going to control the final product. I do want to have a significant say in what that looks like it. I'm paying for all the costs out of pocket. People are taking the reflections as daily devotionals. Then they will take the part where I'm asking them to reflect on their lives, and they say to me, "Man, that's really difficult. You took me to places where I wouldn't have gone in my own life." There's a drug recovery program in Philadelphia where people are using my book as part of their treatment and training program.
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WW: You played as a guard for both the Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons. How do you address your football career in the book?
LJ: I talk about the football section in the "Gridiron" section and walk you through how football turned my life around in high school, how I used it as a new direction for my life, a new focus in cultivating my abilities. I was a high-school All-American, and in 1966 I was the top athlete in Missouri. I was a good student and had all the major college offers.
Back in those days you still couldn't go south for school, but I had offers from the rest of the major conferences. At Mizzou, Coach (Dan) Devine was my man back then, and he was the first person to bring a black quarterback into the Big 8. He openly fought racism and said it wasn't going to be a part of his football team. When we were traveling, if a black guy and a white guy had the same position, they were automatically roommates. One of the players on the team's parents objected to him rooming with a black guy, and they called Coach Devine. Coach Devine said, "That's your son, and you can raise him however you want to. But this is my football team, and even if the world outside disagrees with how we're going to do things, we're going to live by Devine principles." He would rather give up the championship than give up his principles. In that way, I learned more from him than I probably know.
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