Harold Jackson was thankful to be chosen by the Los Angeles Rams in the 12th round of the 1968 NFL Draft. But after the wide receiver played in only two games and had nary a pass thrown his way, he was more than thankful to be traded to Philadelphia.
"I felt like going to the Eagles, somebody wanted me. Somebody was going to give me a chance to play," Jackson says. "Coming from a small school like Jackson State, I just didn't know that I was going to get the opportunity to play in the NFL. I was a small guy and weighed probably about 155 pounds coming out of college, and always felt like guys in the NFL were big, huge guys.
"And so, when I got traded to Philly, man, I was blessed, and felt like I had an opportunity because I felt somebody saw something in me. I felt like that was a chance for me to get an opportunity to really make a name for myself and prove that I could play in the NFL amongst those big ol' guys."
Jackson proved it and then some.
In 1969, his first season with the Eagles, he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl after catching 65 passes for a league-leading 1,116 yards and nine touchdowns. Three years later, he led the NFL with 62 receptions for 1,048 yards. Named an All-Pro, Jackson would play in his second Pro Bowl, while becoming a Philly fan favorite.
"They always say, the Eagle fans, they booed Santa Claus. I was one of the guys who was never booed in either Franklin Field and Vet Stadium," Jackson says. "And so, I felt like I had the fans on my side. I think they felt like they had a pretty good player. They supported me and I did everything I could for the fans."
One month before the Eagles' 1973 Training Camp opened, Jackson found himself heading back to Los Angeles as part of a trade for veteran quarterback Roman Gabriel.
"When I got traded back to the Rams, I cried," Jackson says. "I cried because I did not want to leave Philadelphia. Everybody looked at me and said, 'Man, you've got to be crazy. You're going to California.' But I felt like I had so much going for me when I was in Philly. I was always doing something for somebody and almost made more money in appearances than I made on my contract.
"Eagle fans, they're just die-hard fans. They love their players. And especially the guys that really put something back to the fans. They enjoyed that. Sometimes when I was leaving after a ballgame, I might be the last guy because I tried to give everybody an autograph that wanted an autograph. That's the way I was because I enjoyed the fans. I felt like I played for the fans and I feel like they made me into what I was."
With the Rams for five seasons, Jackson went on to play another four seasons with New England, one season with Minnesota, and one season with Seattle. All told, the five-time Pro Bowl receiver had a 16-year career, playing in 208 games, and totaling 579 receptions for 10,372 yards and 76 touchdowns.
"I get letters every day, and each one of them wants to know why you're not in the Hall of Fame. Because when you retired, you had over 10,000 receiving yards and 76 touchdowns. And back then during that time, we weren't throwing the ball like they're throwing it now," Jackson says.
"I had some folks in my hometown, they had a petition going around, and they were pushing that petition about why Harold Jackson is not in the Hall of Fame. If I was on TV as a sports announcer or whatever, I'd have been in the Hall of Fame. But when you're out of sight and you're out of contact with the sport, people forget who you are."
One person who didn't forget Jackson is Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry, who was his position coach with the Patriots. And when Berry became New England's head coach in 1985, Jackson called to congratulate him. Little did he know that conversation would lead to a successful second gridiron career.
"He said, 'Give me your phone number where you're going to be when the season opens,'" Jackson says. "I then had flown home to Mississippi, and the phone rang. It was Coach Berry. He said, 'Harold, I've got this idea. I want you to coach my receivers.' And when he said that, my jaw dropped because something I did not want to do is coach. I used to look at the coaches and they never went home. They were always in the office.
"So, I said, 'Coach, I'll be back in L.A. in about a week.' And he said, 'Well, just think about it and give me a call.' Twenty minutes later he called back and said, 'This is the amount of money that I'm going to be able to pay you.' I said, 'OK, Coach. I'll give you a call when I get back to L.A.' I hung up the phone and 20 minutes later he called back, 'Have you thought about it?'
"And when I got back home to L.A., a contract with the Patriots was sitting in my mailbox.
"I talked to (to Rams Head Coach) Chuck Knox, and he said, 'Go give it a year and if you don't like it, get out of it. Because in this game, they'll forget who you are real fast.' So, I called Coach Berry and told him, 'I think I'm going to take the job.' And that year, we ended up going to the Super Bowl (XX against Chicago). I said, 'Wow, this ain't bad.' So, after that, I coached for 10 years in the league."
Besides the Patriots, Jackson had stints as a wide receivers coach for Tampa Bay and New Orleans. His 23-season résumé also includes being a position and head coach in the Arena Football League, the United Football League, and for five college football teams including Baylor.
"I said, 'You know what? Somebody put something into me. They thought that I had a chance to play in the league. So, this is a fine time for me to put something back into somebody.' And that's one of the things that I always enjoyed," says Jackson, who is now retired and living in Los Angeles with his wife, Carolyn.
"I used to tell them, 'Never let nobody tell you what you can't do.' That's what I'd done. I never let nobody tell me that I could not play football. That's what I tried to teach them. And that's how I always treated my players no matter where, in college and the pros."