Searching for Bernard Jackson

THE WHOLE NOTION seemed absurd: rooting for a team besides George Blanda's Oakland Raiders or Willie Davis' L.A. Dodgers. But by mid-October 1971, I had one more favorite team -- the Washington State Cougars. Considering they hadn't won a conference game since 1968, this might have seemed a rather odd attraction, except when you factored in the centerpiece on offense: running back Bernard Jackson.

One of the brightest stars on the West Coast that season, he wasn't just good -- he was electric. Ranking among the elite players in WSU history, he single-handedly turned me, then an impressionable 9-year-old, and my cousin John into zealous, lifelong Cougar fans.

Bernard could run and cut like no one else and then bulldoze for another yard -- all 5-foot-11, 165 pounds of him. He also had a flare for the dramatic, returning a kickoff 101 yards against UCLA and taking a fake punt 46-yards for the winning score in a wild one against Oregon and Bobby Moore at Spokane's Albi Stadium.

WSU's first superstar since Hugh Campbell and Clancy Williams a decade earlier, he, more than any single player, helped rebuild a then-teetering program. He was optimism, excitement and a reason to cheer. The first single-season 1,000-yard rusher in WSU history, he was first-team all-conference and all-West Coast and started in three college all-star games.

Bernard later played nine seasons in the NFL, becoming a mainstay at defensive back for Denver's famous "Orange Crush."

News of him was sketchy over the years. You'd catch a glimpse on TV or a mention in a wire story. But after he retired in 1981, it was as if Bernard Jackson disappeared. His name came up only when Rueben Mayes or Steve Broussard was challenging a record.

I always wondered what came of Bernard. So in 1996 I decided to find out. The peg would be a column commemorating the 25th anniversary of WSU's stunning 1971 upset of Stanford.

I called WSU to get addresses for Bernard and other players. Ty Paine was in Billings. Steve Busch in Moscow. Wallace Williams in Spokane. And Bernard Jackson . . . nowhere to be found.

I called the Broncos. I called directory assistance in Denver -- and in his hometown of Los Angeles. I called former Cougar coach Jim Sweeney. Dead ends all.

For all anyone knew, Bernard could have been hit by a truck years ago. Worse, I thought, he could have a heart attack tomorrow, and I will have just missed my chance. Suddenly, it became urgent that I find him.

As I touched base with players on that '71 team, I'd open with one question: Any idea where Bernard is?

No luck.

Finally, progress came from Ron Mims, the former all-conference defensive back. He had a phone number for Bernard in Colorado, but it was a good three years old.


I call. It's an answering machine with a woman's voice saying she's not home. Another dead end, I figure. But what the heck -- I leave a message pleading that if she knows Bernard, has heard of him or would check the local phone book, I'd be eternally grateful.

The next evening I arrive home to a blinking light on the answering machine. "Hi, this is Bernard Jackson."

Not since WSU's victory over Washington in '92 had I hooped and hollered with such joy.

Bernard and I chatted for an hour that night. He follows the Cougars through the newspapers, he told me. Since graduating, he returned to campus once, for the UCLA game in '93, and it brought back great memories.

And what had he been doing since he left the NFL? A little bit of everything --working in Democratic party politics, selling travel packages to Bronco away games and, at the moment, coaching running backs at a small college in Colorado.

Bernard was about as nice a guy as you'd want to know. I pledged to do a feature column on him during the '97 season.

I did. Unfortunately, Bernard never saw it. My urgency to contact him proved fateful. He was diagnosed in January 1997 with a rare form of liver cancer and died four months later. His feats on the field were recounted by fans and friends. But more than that, people remembered him as a great guy and unassuming team leader. His mom called him "one of the world's best sons."

For me, ol' No. 26 was a bubble that didn't burst. Some sports heroes are better left in childhood memories. Not Bernard Jackson. He was truly a Cougar for the ages.

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