Feb. 7, 2012
AUBURN--Tommy "T.J." Jackson was a two-time All-SEC defensive lineman at Auburn. He won an SEC championship on the Tigers' undefeated 2004 team. He even played in the NFL for three years.
Yet Jackson says none of that compares to the satisfaction he finds when current Auburn student-athletes he now works with succeed in the classroom.
"Seeing these young men achieve academically is the greatest thing in the world," said Jackson, who returned to Auburn to earn a master's degree and work as a graduate assistant for Student-Athlete Support Services, the academic arm of Auburn Athletics."When a guy understands he really is capable of doing great things in the classroom, that's the most rewarding thing for me. You can't beat it. It's more exciting than anything I could have ever done athletically."
Jackson knows something about achieving in the classroom. He earned his master's degree in Adult Education in December. He's now working toward a doctorate.
His ultimate goal?
"I want to be an athletic director," Jackson said. "I think that I can relate to young people because of my experiences and the struggles I had growing up. Athletics is a conduit for young people to have an opportunity to get an education and gain life experience. I just want to help young people get to where they want to be."
Getting where he is today wasn't easy for Jackson, an Opelika native who was reared by his mother and grandmother. His father was in and out of prison. But what he did have--tough love from their mother and grandmother--prepared Jackson for a successful football and academic career.
"My mom and my grandmother, they were some tough customers," Jackson said. "But they did a great job letting us know we were loved."
Jackson, 28, walked away from pro football in 2009, despite several opportunities to continue his career after one year with the Falcons and two seasons in Kansas City.
"It was just time to do something else," he said. "Football is almost like an alternate universe. When you play football, you are not gaining work experience. You are playing a game."
Jackson's strong faith also led him to believe he was being called to do something more than play the game that defined his life since his playing days at Opelika High School.
"Everyone has a purpose," Jackson said. "My purpose is to help people understand what their worth is and what they are really here to do."
Dr. Gary Waters, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Support Services, said Jackson epitomizes what student-athletes can become.
"T.J. is living proof of the message we try to give our kids every day, that we want them to be prepared for the day when their athletic career comes to an end," Waters said. "He is an amazing young man who has the value system and the personal and professional goals to always achieve at the highest level."