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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.

"Notre Dame, Washington State and Cal were interested in me after my senior year at Tam, when I started on both sides of the ball," said Jackson, 6-foot-1 and still 195 pounds. "But I had a 1.9 GPA. I did enough just to get by. No college wanted a kid with a 1.9 GPA."

Now came Perseverance Test No. 2. Jackson went to the College of Marin, starred at wide receiver and defensive back, received a scholarship and again stood out at the University of Pacific. His physical ability – Jackson ran a 4.4 40 – now matched step-for-step his mental approach.

But Jackson was picked in the ninth round of 1971

NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. Ninth-rounders don't usually make NFL teams, especially when they get traded in the beginning of training camp, as the Cowboys did to Jackson, sending him to the Pats.

"I wanted to play wide receiver," Jackson said. But in just two weeks upon arrival New England said he wouldn't play the position, that if he was going to make it, it had to be as a defensive back. And he would have to sit out the entire 1971 season learning the position. Again Jackson could have bailed. He passed Perseverance Test No. 3, which was followed closely by Test No. 4.

"If I was going to stay in the NFL," Jackson said, "it would have to be on special teams. I was going to have to fly into the wedge every time we kicked the ball."

Point of fact: No one in the NFL wants to make a career of flying full-speed into quickly-approaching body meat. Jackson did start 13 of his 32 NFL games, did intercept five passes, was on the field as a fifth defensive back in obvious passing situations but will readily admitted throwing his body into a human wedge-wall kept him in the NFL for four years, the last one on injured-reserve with the Giants.

The year is now 1977, two years after Jackson retired. He applied as a management-trainee for Longs. He knew the environment he was entering.

"There weren't a lot of people of my skin color in management," said Jackson, who owns a sociology degree from Pacific. "It was intimidating to a lot of people (African-Americans) and they never applied."

But Jackson was now 29 years old. He had gotten to this point by having to display determination multiple times. Long odds weren't going to stop him from making it with Longs. And Jackson made it. Before he retired from Longs in 2006, Jackson had been store manager at five stores, including ones at Rohnert Park and Bennett Valley.

"Playing in the NFL gave me the confidence to give it a shot," Jackson said.

Jackson tells his kids that their chances of playing in the NFL are slim and none. He doesn't blow smoke to them. He also doesn't tell the kids his story to make them feel insignificant. He tells them his story for one and only one reason.

Back in the day Honor Jackson decided to find out who he was, what mattered, what would make him fight like a boxer to make it happen. For him, as it turned out, it was the NFL. For others, it could be medicine, or running a restaurant, or a limo service or owning the most respected lawn maintenance business in Sonoma County. Consider the possibilities, that's all Honor Jackson is asking.

And knowing how good it will feel when you get there because, after all, anything worth achieving is worth the sweat. For sweat equity is no less empty a concept than perseverance.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blog.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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