After those horrendous seasons of 1969 and 1970 when the Cougars went 2-19, Jim Sweeney began to turn the WSU football program around in 1971. Jim found a game-breaker in Bernard Jackson, a little sprinter out of Pierce (Los Angeles) Junior College…
- Dick Fry, in his book, the Crimson and the Gray
When Bernard Jackson’s life is measured by his ability there’s no better legacy.
He ran straight up until delivering a blow, when he shifted gears and attacked.
Crosby Anderson remembers him as “Our hope.”
To Wallace Williams he was “The Franchise.”
To Bill Moos, “Bernard Jackson was as outstanding a running back as ever attended Washington State.”
Jim Sweeney remembers him as validation.
Jackson first brought excitement and then respect to Sweeney’s program at WSU.
But beyond the record-breaking ‘71 season - his 6.7 yards a carry, his 14 touchdowns and the late-game faked punt that Jackson turned into a 46-yard TD romp to beat Oregon - is the picture of a man who came here with fierce pride and spread quiet class.
Eulogies were repeated last week in the wake of Jackson’s death Monday of liver cancer in Lompoc, Calif.
The style he honed at Washington State was built on the sly. Never very big by the standards of his game, Jackson as a ninth-grader was forbidden to go out for football.
“He was my baby,” Jackson’s mother, Bennie Hill, said Thursday from her home in Lompoc. “I didn’t want him hurt.”
So Bernard took up the drums, or so he claimed.
“He used to beat on them around the house,” Mrs. Hill said. “It was a way to get out in the afternoon.”
What he really was drumming up was interest from coaches in Peru, Indiana.
“He not only went out for football, he made the varsity team as a ninth-grader,” Mrs. Hill said. “When I found out, my husband (Arthur Hill) said it was too late to do anything about it, that they had already put him on the varsity. We still laugh about that. All these years and I still have those drumsticks.”
By the time his Air Force family relocated to Auburn, Ala., Jackson had more than his mother’s tacit approval to play. He’d won her outright support.
Jackson at the time was one of the few black players in the league and the only African American on his Alabama high school team, said Mrs. Hill, who remembers following the team bus by car on the way to a game, watching and listening for trouble.
“You can imagine some of the things that were said,” she said, “by opposite teams trying to do him in. He was the only black player on his team. It wasn’t an easy time but he was not going to let that stop him.”
If Jackson felt the hurt, he internalized it, she said. Whatever negative feelings he may have had never clouded relations with future teammates.
In fact, he was the symbol if not the voice of reason in the midst of campus turbulence in the early 1970s.
“He was unassuming - really almost bashful - and yet he kept our team together when there was a lot of tension on campuses all over the country in regard to racial issues and the war in Vietnam,” said Moos, a former Cougar guard who’s now athletic director at the University of Oregon.
“Coach Sweeney and his staff had recruited a good deal of black athletes. We developed a family feeling and really never had the tense moments that a lot of programs and campuses went through. Bernard and some other outstanding people who came in with him played a big part in that.
“Bernard was a quiet leader with a way about him that everybody loved and respected.”
As Sweeney put it, “We had to cancel a practice and handle some (racial) things behind closed doors. But we handled them. Bernard was a problem solver, not a problem creator.”
One problem at the time was how to go about winning a football game.
Williams, principal at Rogers High School, was one of the California JC transfers in Jackson’s recruiting class.
“The first year (1970) we played in Albi Stadium,” he said. “The Huskies came in that year. Cougar fans were throwing apples. The problem was, they were throwing them at us. We were disgusted and angry enough to come back with a better year (in ‘71).”
Williams recalls a 1970 game at Michigan State when the Cougars played reasonably well in defeat. There was a tendency to feel good about a twotouchdown loss.
“Bernard had an excellent game but he was standing there, crying,” Williams said. “After that I set new goals so that I would feel a loss, to care that much, that like him I would have nothing else to give.
“I knew that day that I had a lot of work to do to get my commitment to his level.”
Moos said, “What a pleasure it was to block for a running back like him. He could have played any number of positions on our team. He even covered kickoffs and nine times out of 10 he’d make the tackle. He just wanted to be on the field.”
Versatility was a Jackson trait. He left as WSU’s all-time rushing leader, then spent nine seasons on the other side of the ball as an NFL defensive back with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos.
“If I had it to do over again I’d play him both ways,” Sweeney said. “I think about how much better he would have been in the (pro-style) offense we ran here (at Fresno State). He would have caught the ball in open field. Nobody was faster. He ran 4.35 (in the 40) and I don’t think he had an ounce of body fat.”
Anderson, who lives in Monterrey, Calif., was a Cougar linebacker and one of Jackson’s closest friends at WSU.
“As a running back he looked out of place, like a little kid at 5-9 and probably less than 160 pounds (even though he’s listed in the 1971 WSU press guide at 6-0, 173),” Anderson said. “I remember seeing him on the bench, bloodied.
“In our (1970) Oregon game in Eugene they had a linebacker named Tom Graham. His job, it seemed like, was to bust Bernard in the mouth every play. Bernard would come back bleeding but he wouldn’t give up. You felt that at some point he’d break out and he did. He was tough - a little cocky on the field - and he produced. He was a very proud man.”
When his illness was confirmed in March, Jackson took care of his affairs in Colorado and spent his last months in Lompoc, with his family, his mother said.
“I had one of the world’s best sons,” she said, “a devoted son, an ideal son. Even in his growing up years he always had a positive attitude on life. He was just a helluva nice guy. He took such great care of himself. For this to happen to him I can’t accept.”
Jackson was divorced and had no children, his mother said.
He had worked in public relations and for two years was an assistant coach at Western (Colo.) State. Services are Tuesday at 1 p.m. at Grace Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Lompoc.
He is survived by his mother and step-father, Arthur Hill; his father, Frank Jackson of Los Angeles; and sisters Veronica, Renita, April and Dannette.
Memorials may be sent in Jackson’s name to any youth football or softball organization in Lompoc.
He would have been 47 on Aug. 24.
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