GREENWOOD, Ind. – If you didn’t know where to look, it might be hard to track down Ray Jackson these days; ironic because tracking down others is what the former Washington State cornerback did best during his playing career in the late 1990s.
A member of the swarming defense that helped guide WSU to the 1998 Rose Bowl, Jackson didn’t settle in the state of Washington when he stopped playing college and professional football. Nor did he make a permanent retreat to Southern California – the other move that would’ve made the most sense for someone who grew up in Santa Ana and played at powerhouse Mater Dei before accepting a scholarship from WSU coach Mike Price.
Instead, Jackson moved east. Just not all the way east.
When you find him in the smallish Indianapolis suburb of Greenwood, you’ll know you’ve got the right Ray Jackson. Sitting on the top shelf of a wooden cabinet inside his corner office at the Center Grove Police Department, where Jackson serves as the Chief of Police, is a diploma from WSU alongside a wooden football with a Cougar head carved into the side. There’s also a commemorative football from the ’98 Rose Bowl featuring WSU and Michigan logos at either end.
Oh, it’s best not to bring up the Wolverines around Jackson.
His oldest son, Trayce Jackson-Davis, is a 19 point-per-game scorer for Indiana’s basketball team who recently elected to put the NBA on hold so he could return to the Hoosiers in 2021-22. That means at least twice a year in the Big Ten, Jackson is able to treat an old wound when IU and UM play; just don’t ask him if he’s pulling for his son’s team or rooting against the Wolverines. Before Jackson-Davis committed to Indiana, he actually had an offer from Michigan. Ray’s youngest son Tayven, a four-star prep quarterback who recently committed to Tennessee – and had WSU as one of his final nine schools – was also targeted by the Wolverines and at one point during the recruiting process, Jackson had to stomach a full conversation with UM coach Jim Harbaugh.
At different times, both boys received the same guidance from dad.
“I’m like, ‘Nah you don’t go to Michigan,’ ” Jackson said. “Two schools you can’t go to: Michigan or UW.”
Jackson’s office may be the most impressive WSU shrine in the state of Indiana. Photos of the ex-cornerback playing for the Cougars fill out the shelves and two helmets sit on a nearby table. One is a modern icy white lid that Jackson must have obtained at some point in the last few years. The other is a game-used throwback. It’s gray with “Cougars” script running across each side and a rose stem coiled between the letters. More of Jackson’s Rose Bowl wardrobe is in tow on a chilly Thursday afternoon in April. There’s the white No. 2 jersey he wore on Jan. 1, 1998, along with the thick, gold, diamond-coated ring players received as a commemorative gift for playing in the “Granddaddy of Them All.”
As for memories of the game itself – one that culminated with Ryan Leaf spiking a football at Michigan’s 26-yard line, a split second too late – Jackson’s first thought is this: “Man, just 30 more seconds.”
Which leads to this: “For me, I got torched for a touchdown by Ty Streets, so I think about that moment all the time. What if I would’ve just turned a little sooner? What if I would’ve got hands on him?”
And ultimately this: “But all those things happen for a reason. It’s fueled me to be the person I am today.”
As a boy growing up in Southern California, Jackson may have visualized himself gliding across the green turf at the Rose Bowl, but not all fantasies revolved around football. His best friend’s dad served as a police officer in the city of Santa Ana and often during long car rides, Jackson would quiz him to gain a better understanding of the job and everything it entailed. Jackson’s interest in police work also coincided with the rise of Los Angeles-based hip-hop group N.W.A, which gained notoriety in 1988 for a hit song highlighting police brutality and racial injustice.
“People were just being harassed,” Jackson said. “So I was like, you know what, I want to change the perception of police officers.”
So, Jackson was able to live out both dreams – he reached the mountaintop as a college football player in the ’98 Rose Bowl while simultaneously working toward degrees in criminal justice and sociology. When a brief stint playing pro football ended, Jackson instantly dove into his second career, passing a clearance test for the LA Sheriff’s Department before working his way through the police academy.
Ever since, he’s been the equivalent of a multipositional player, working in a variety of roles for police departments in California and Indiana. Within the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, he worked custody and patrol while serving as a member of the Emergency Response Team. When he relocated to his wife’s home state of Indiana, he logged five years as a patrol officer – 2½ of which were spent as a school resource officer . At one point, Jackson juggled work with a SWAT sniper team while teaching fourth- and fifth-grade students the D.A.R.E program.
“I don’t think I have a favorite,” Jackson said, “but I really have a passion for helping people, so whether that be giving someone a dollar or enough money to get on the bus or pulling somebody, helping somebody take a tire off their car. The littlest things. That’s when you go home at night and lay your head down and you’re like, OK, I helped one person today or I helped two people.”
The Center Grove School District sponsors its own police department, of which Jackson currently serves as chief. It’s a change of pace from the work he was doing in inner city Los Angeles in the early 2000s, but that doesn’t make it any less fulfilling.
“There’s been a lot of kids we’ve helped or we’ve mentored and we didn’t bust them,” Jackson said. “It’s always nice when you’re driving in a community and you pull over and for me, I was getting my car washed at this car wash place up here and the manager there was a kid that got in trouble here at the school. First thing he said, he goes ‘Chief Jackson, I really appreciate the way you handle things and I am where I am today because of you.’ ”
Altering the perception of police officers – Jackson’s motive for joining the force – is a challenge the former Cougars cornerback is still navigating. In many cases, it’s in worse shape than it was when Jackson started two decades ago, possibly reduced to an all-time low last summer after the murder of George Floyd.
In Jackson’s mind, “the same issues we’re having today are the same issues we were having in the ’80s, just minus the social media piece.”
Jackson approaches issues of police brutality and racial injustice from a unique perspective. As a Black man in a predominantly white profession, living in a predominantly white suburb – according to a 2010 census, 91.1% of Greenwood residents were white – he’s been subjected to racially motivated remarks or actions from coworkers. Other times, he’s watched fellow officers approach or react to a situation in a manner with which he didn’t agree .
“But I never let them dictate what I was going to do,” Jackson said. “I always tried to do everything by the book, go above and beyond. So if I’m willing to do that and if I had other partners that had the same beliefs I had, I always thought we were going to a better place. But like I said, you focus on the bad apples and it really ruins it for the guys that do the job for the right reasons. And there’s a lot of guys out there doing the job for the right reasons.”
Heading a police department isn’t something Jackson ever planned , but it’s given him a larger platform for change. Upon stepping into his current role, Jackson introduced new policy and procedure that largely centered around the message of “treat people like you want to be treated.” Law enforcement would be in a better place if more officers could adopt that way of thinking, he maintains.
“I think if we can do a better job of training officers – younger officers – and even officers that have been in the job for 20, 25 years,” Jackson said. “Sometimes they’re hardened to those things, so I think if we can take a better approach to that, our training regimens and learning how to de-escalate situations and communication, those are the three keys for me.”
Jackson insists the four years he spent playing football at WSU had a profound impact on his career in law enforcement – not only because of its tangible physical benefits. WSU’s locker room was a melting pot of cultures, races, backgrounds and belief systems, so connecting with more than 100 teammates has helped him relate to a wider net of people as police chief.
“When I go into houses or deal with people, I sometimes know the right things to say or I can relate to them a little bit because I show them a little bit of compassion, whether it’s something in language, whether it’s something in their culture – taking off shoes,” he said. “Anything.”
Jackson’s office is situated in the heart of Center Grove High School, where Tayven won a 6A state football championship in 2020, where Trayce became one of the top 20 basketball recruits in the country winning Gatorade Indiana Boys Basketball Player of the Year and where his daughter, Arielle Knafel, led the Trojans to a state volleyball semifinal before playing collegiately at UIndy and Norfolk State.
Among the perks of his current job is proximity to his children, who’ve always had to make decisions in high school knowing Chief Jackson was never too far away.
“I’ve loved it,” Jackson said. “I got to be a part of all my kids’ … games, I knew they were in trouble before they were in trouble, had good relationships with all their teachers, with the admin. And you get to help kids as well, so it’s a plus.”
Jackson maintains his favorite aspect of playing at WSU was being able to suit up with his brother Chris, a member of the Cougars’ “Fab Five” receiving corps. There were actually four Jackson siblings who went to school on athletic scholarships, which inspired Ray to sketch out a similar – and ultimately successful – blueprint for his own children.
“So going into it, I’m like OK well my kids are going to get scholarships too and so far it’s worked out,” he said. “We’re blessed. So it’s been a good thing.”
Tayven Jackson hears about the glory days often and regrets not being able to take an official visit to the place where his father created so many memories. Before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, Jackson was planning to tour the Pullman campus and meet WSU’s coaching staff, which offered the accomplished prep quarterback on Jan. 23, right before he took the court for a varsity basketball game.
“He’s talked to me about (WSU) forever,” Tayven said. “Just about how when he was in college, it was the best time of his life and he’s made so many good memories and so many good friendships and relationships. … I definitely want to check it out and see my dad’s reaction and see how happy that place probably makes him.”
Jackson-Davis had a basketball offer to play at WSU, though the Cougars never had a legitimate chance under Ernie Kent with the likes of Indiana, Michigan State, UCLA, Ohio State, Purdue and Butler also pursuing the 6-foot-9 forward. Knafel at one point was a WSU volleyball target, but the Cougars’ pedigree under coach Jen Greeny wasn’t enough to persuade her to move west.
“And that hurt,” Jackson said, “but it’s her decision, so I’ll never force that on them.”
Jackson is a dedicated father, loyal husband and proud police chief who’s still as committed as he once was to the rather overwhelming task of changing how Americans view those in law enforcement. That keeps him busy enough and come the fall/winter, he’ll have to figure out how to balance a full schedule as Center Grove’s Police Chief while making obligatory trips to nearby Bloomington and not-so-nearby Knoxville to support his sons’ athletic endeavors.
But, sometimes when he lets his mind wander, or takes in the football artifacts inside his Greenwood office, Jackson can’t help but revisit the football game in 1998.
“We lost to Michigan, but we could’ve easily won that game, we could’ve easily been national champions. Coulda, coulda, coulda,” he said. “It didn’t happen, but I try to look at the positives. We’re all healthy, got to play in an awesome game that I can share with my kids.”
Even with the wisdom and perspective Jackson gained at some point in the last 23 years, some things never change.
He may not have any more kids to dissuade from attending the University of Michigan, but the sight of navy blue and maize yellow still sets off an internal siren.
“I still hate Michigan,” Jackson insisted. “Still hate them.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.