ROHNERT PARK - When Honor Jackson gets to the word, when he mentions to the at-risk kids how "perseverance" is a necessary attribute to live life, the former NFL player can see some of the kids checking out. Their face goes blank. Their eyes gloss over.
The lack of motivation is obvious. So is their disinterest. The word carries no impact. Yeah, whatever, dude.
"Then I tell them that one day it will hit them they are wasting their life, that they'll come to understand that they have to set goals," said Jackson who moved to Santa Rosa last August after living in Rohnert Park since 1992. "I tell them, &‘When you wake up, call me. I'll be there for you.' I will explain the importance of perseverance in reaching your goals."
Jackson will unwrap his life for them, knowing personal examples best sell an abstract concept. Jackson, 62, is founder and director of Fence At The Top, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of at-risk children between the ages of 7-14. Kids with GPAs of 2.5 or less meet the minimum eligibility requirements. Now in his third year of running the program Jackson speaks to middle school classes in the Bay Area.
When Jackson mentions he played in the NFL for the New England Patriots and New York Giants, that sets the hook. As he explains how got there, that keeps the hook in place, as there is very little in America that represents fame and celebrity any more dramatically than playing pro football. And once he tells them that playing in the NFL gave him the confidence to apply for and become a top-ranking African-American in the now-defunct Longs Drug Store chain, the once-blank faces are now full of curiosity.
Let's start, Jackson will say, "When I was your age." Jackson didn't play football until he was a sophomore at Tamalpais High School in Marin. And that was only for one day. It was the first day of fall practice for the junior varsity team.
"In his first speech to the team the coach, Hank Marshall, told us no horseplay, no talking in practice, to pay attention to the coaches," Jackson said. "Our first drill of training camp was calisthenics. He turned away for just a second and my friend Brian Collett snuck up behind me and smacked me over the head with his chin strap. I turned around and smacked him with mine. The coach never saw Brian's whack. Just mine. Coach said, &‘Take off.' I thought he meant I was to do laps. No, I had to hit the showers.
"When I came out of the shower, all my equipment was gone. I was kicked off the team. I was in shock. There was no second chance." Thus begins his first example of perseverance.
"I guess I could have gotten bitter and walked away," said Jackson the Northern California president of the National Football League Retired Players Association. "It would have been easy. I had never played football. And I never even played that day."
Instead Jackson came to understand respect, self-control and, most importantly the power to change. As a junior, Jackson asked for a second chance and got it – but he was the only junior to play on the junior varsity. That could have sent him south but it didn't. Jackson matured. To a point.