June 22, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN - Just call him Dr. T.J.
Tommy Jackson, a former All-Southeastern Conference Auburn nose tackle, got the most of his college football experience. He was a star on the unbeaten 2004 Southeastern Conference championship team and finished his career with a stellar year in 2005. He lived almost every college player's dream and spent three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
And then he walked away. The Falcons wanted him back, but he had other things to do.
On May 4, Jackson, known affectionately as T.J., was awarded a Ph.D. from his school. The poor kid from Opelika had done what even he had not seen as possible not so long ago. Dr. James Witte, the professor who taught him and encouraged him, was there to present the hood that signified his accomplishment. Virginia Jackson, who insisted that her son and his younger sisters excel in school, watched proudly. So did his wife, Ashley, as she held their young son, Judah.
Jackson's doctorate is in educational foundations, leadership and technologies and adult education and higher education administration cognate. "Just say adult education and higher education," Jackson says with a laugh
"That was the greatest thing at graduation, having my mom and my wife and my son and my mom and my two sisters," Jackson says. "Being hooded was the coolest thing. You hear `Dr. Tommy Jackson is hooded by Dr. James Witte.' It was just so cool."
From the time he was a high school star at Opelika, Jackson has loved people. To this day, he'll hug total strangers. But it wasn't always that way. There was a time when anger boiled inside of him. Life wasn't easy. His father left him, his mother and his sisters early in his life, returned briefly and was gone again.
In football, Jackson found an outlet.
"It's the easiest thing in the world to feel bad about your circumstances," Jackson says. "I've done that before. That's why football was so important to me at that point in my life. It was a way for me to deal with my anger. It was either that or do other things."
As he heads toward the rest of his life, Jackson wants to one day be an athletics director. In pursuit of that goal, he plans to eventually get an MBA. But most of all, he wants to make a difference, to use his own experiences to show young people there are great things to be accomplished by those who reach high and work to get there.
"I would say what God does with people is allow them to go through hard things," Jackson says. "How you respond to them is how people will view you. You can either fold and turn to another kind of life like I've seen before with guys I grew up or some family members. Or you can say `I'm going to work with what God gave me and make the best of it.'"
Jackson lived the dream of so many with whom he grew up. He was an Auburn football star, playing as the cheers of tens of thousands rang in his ears. He wasn't drafted, but he grabbed the brass ring anyway and played in the NFL.
None of that, he says, compared with walking onto that stage to receive his doctorate or with working to make a difference in the lives of young people.
"One of my issues with my community is we, for some reason, seem to believe success has to be sports-related," Jackson says. "I thank God that he used sport to help guide me through and learn some stuff, but that should not be the primary focus. The primary focus should be to make a better and more educated society of people that want to do something to help folks. I don't think every symbol for hope should come through sports. That's dangerous. Everybody doesn't run a 4.2 or can put their arm through a hoop and dunk."
With uncanny quickness, Jackson was a handful for offensive linemen. He was, by any measure, a great football player. He says he's grateful if what he has done on or off the field is an inspiration. But he cautions that looking for role models is risky business.
"If a young man can draw something from anything I've done, I'll just say `Man, keep at it because you can make an impact anywhere if you want to,'" Jackson says. "But you should be your own kids' role model. If I'm expecting LeBron James or any other athlete to be my kid's role model, I'm a fool. It's up to me to be my kid's role model."
When Jackson walked away from the NFL, there were those who questioned if he was thinking straight. But he knew what he wanted. He got a job as a graduate assistant with student-athlete support services, the academic support arm of the athletic department. He'll be there until August.
Jackson quickly became a mentor and confidant for dozens of Auburn football players. He'd not so long ago been where they were. He'd felt the frustrations they felt, and when he talked, they listened.
Along the way, Jackson met and married his wife, Ashley. On March 11, they welcomed their son, Judah. Ashley, a licensed marriage and family therapist, will soon have her Ph.D. in human development and family studies.
Ashley, Jackson says, has been his rock in good times and bad, the driving force behind his dogged pursuit of academic excellence.
"My wife is the smartest person I know, no joke," Jackson says. "I always tell her if it wasn't for her pushing me, I wouldn't have even thought about a Ph.D." And he certainly wouldn't have known the joy of their first child.
"Man, my joy is coming home to him and my wife," Jackson says. "I enjoy every day of it. I am blessed."
When Jackson's aunt insisted at his uncle's church that Ashley should meet her nephew, Ashley was not enthusiastic.
"His aunt was trying to hook us up," Ashley says. "I was like `Miss Mary I don't do hookups.' He looked like a mountain man. I'd had other plans."
But eventually Ashley was impressed.
"The first time I heard him talk, I was like `This guy is impressive,'" she says, "but I didn't really believe what he was saying at first." Soon, she realized that there was nothing phony about T.J. Jackson. Three weeks after they met, she says, they knew they would be married.
"He's a great husband and the sweetest father I have ever seen in my life," Ashley says. "He is one of those people who, if he sees a task in front of him, he's going to knock it out as quickly as possible. He is really motivating me to hurry up and get done with my Ph.D. Just do it. That's what he does."
When his graduate assistantship ends in August, Jackson intends to take the first steps toward reaching his goal of being an athletics director. He doesn't know what those steps will be, though he would welcome staying in Auburn.
"If that's what the Lord wants, absolutely," Jackson says. "This is my home."
Auburn team chaplain Chette Williams has known Jackson since he was a wide-eyed freshman. Williams says he could see from the start there was something different about the defensive lineman with an infectious smile.
"It speaks to his character," Williams says. "He has his priorities straight. He's been like that from the very beginning."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: