Keith Jackson on Barry Switzer, Troy Aikman, Mack Brown, Jim Donnan, Marcus Dupree ... and Becoming a Sooners Legend

John. E. Hoover

Keith Jackson - OU 2
OU Athletics

Nobody runs the tight end reverse anymore.

Not that anyone ever did, except a handful of times Keith Jackson took the handoff at Oklahoma.

Jackson became famous at OU in the mid-1980s as a breakaway tight end, a home run threat out of the wishbone formation, a skilled athlete in the mold of Kellen Winslow who averaged 24 yards per catch in college and helped redefine the position in the NFL.

But he was so dangerous, the Sooner coaching staff had to come up with ways to get him the football that didn’t involve a 5-foot-10 option quarterback chucking it deep.

Take the 1985 game against Nebraska. Jackson took the opening handoff of the Sooners’ second possession up the right sideline for an 88-yard touchdown. The call shocked the Huskers, the touchdown crushed their spirit, and OU won in a 27-7 rout that sent Barry Switzer’s team back to the Orange Bowl, where they beat Penn State and won the national championship.

Some Sooner fans recently weighed in on an unofficial Twitter poll and said Jackson’s run was their favorite run in OU football history.

Jackson recently told SI Sooners that play came from humble beginnings.

“Switzer could tell you just as good as I can, it was the process of a bit of frustration from not touching the ball from the tight end spot,” Jackson said. “Just knowing I could make plays.”

Jackson caught 15 passes for 223 yards and scored three touchdowns as a freshman in 1984. But as a sophomore, as Troy Aikman started hot before breaking his leg, Jackson’s production picked up. After Aikman’s injury, Jackson had emerged as such a dangerous weapon, Jamelle Holieway kept trying to find him in the passing game, and Jackson averaged nearly 26 yards per catch.

“I went into coach Switzer’s office and said, ‘Coach, I need to touch the ball more.’ ” Jackson said. “I said, ‘I know it seems selfish of me because we’re winning by 50 points, but I just think if I touch the ball more I could help the team.’

“So he snatches me up and takes me down to Jim Donnan’s office, our offensive coordinator, and he said, ‘Jim, Keith Jackson came in to talk to me like a man and he faced me and he made his request, and he’s right: We need to figure out a way to get him the ball more and (let him) become a bigger part of the offense.’

“And Jim Donnan came up with the play. He said, ‘I think I got a play, coach.’ Coach Switzer said, ‘Well line him up at running back if you have to, I don’t care how, just get him the ball more.’ And the rest is history.”

Tied at 0-0, OU started its second drive from its own 12. Holieway started left on what looked like another routine triple-option play, but as he pulled the ball from fullback Leon Perry, Jackson circled to his right behind Holieway and grabbed the handoff.

Jackson drifted deep into the OU backfield, then sharply cut up the sideline. He got a peel-back block from Anthony Phillips in the backfield, then got a kickout block from Paul Ferrer on the sideline. That’s when he turned on the jets as he followed interference from Spencer Tillman into the end zone.

“It was a perfectly scripted play at the perfect time,” Jackson said. “I came around that corner and I remember seeing Spencer Tillman waving me on, and I’m going, ‘I’m running as fast as I can. I’ll be there in a second.’ ”

It’s a play that made Jackson immortal to Sooner Nation, just like the 71-yard touchdown against Penn State in the Orange Bowl five weeks later.

Jackson also delivered a special brand of “Sooner Magic,” underscored by his 1986 one-handed catch against the Huskers with nine seconds left in Lincoln to set up the game winning points.

Jackson averaged 27.6 yards per catch as a junior and 27.5 as a senior. He finished with 65 receptions for 1,561 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he ran the football 21 times for 298 yards — 14.2 yards per carry — and scored four rushing TDs.

Jackson fondly remembers his recruitment to OU. Hailing from Little Rock, of course Arkansas was on his list. So was Florida. So was Texas. He said he didn’t really think much about Oklahoma until everyone started telling him about Switzer, the Arkansas native and player’s coach. Jackson looked into it, took a campus visit and came away profoundly impressed.

“Barry Switzer is the key reason why” he landed in Norman.

He asked players on the team about Switzer, and the reviews were strictly positive. Then he asked the assistant coaches about other players that were coming, and he liked what he heard. Then he met Spencer Tillman, who hosted Jackson on his official visit, and he was sold.

“Spencer treated me like a younger brother,” Jackson said.

“Oklahoma, I really liked them, I liked watching them on TV,” Jackson said, “but I did not think they were gonna be my last choice. But then after I visited, it was just hard to let go. It was just something special for me.”

Jackson remembers hearing one recruit’s name in particular in that 1984 class.

“You hear Troy Aikman,” he said. “At that time, we didn’t know who Troy Aikman was; we just knew he was a great quarterback out of Henryetta, Oklahoma. You hear he’s coming in, and it was like, ‘Oh man, we got one of the No. 1 quarterbacks in the country coming in and I play receiver.’ ”

That answers the mystery of why one of the best high school tight ends in the nation chose to play for a wishbone program like OU. Any history buff will recall that Switzer chucked the wishbone to accommodate Marcus Dupree in 1982. Then, even after Dupree left in 1983, Switzer kept moving away from the ‘bone — until Aikman’s injury in 1985.

“You see Buster Rhymes and Derrick Shepard and you’re like, ‘Man, there’s some pretty quality players coming out there. This could be fun,’” Jackson said.

“When I went to the University of Oklahoma, Mack Brown was the offensive coordinator. We were in the I-formation. … And Troy Aikman was gonna come in and make this offense better. Then Troy Aikman gets hurt and we go back to the wishbone and the rest is history.”

Jackson continues to make history — real history — with his non-profit organization PARK, or Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids. He began it when he was still playing, and today he's still sending kids to college. This year alone, six PARK kids will graduate college.

The guy who caught passes from Randall Cunningham, Dan Marino, Brett Favre and others says he's taken a lot of the organizational and motivational tactics he's learned from the likes of Barry Switzer, Don Shula, Mike Holmgren and others and applied them to his post-football life.

“As a matter of fact, this year we celebrated 25 years of our program,” Jackson said. "So we’re excited. We’ve had tons of kids go to college ... kids who had very low GPAs, they didn’t think college was a possibility. So I’m working with teammates again, but my teammates now are a great board and some really loyal employees and a community that believes in what we’re doing.”

Jackson said he stepped away from his 17-year radio career calling games for Arkansas so he could watch his two sons play college football. Kenyon just finished a four-year career at Illinois, and Koilan has two years left with the Razorbacks.

“I just thought it would be more important to be a dad right now than to be a broadcaster,” he said. “So when the kid gets through at Arkansas, I’m probably gonna pick it back up and go.”

Jackson said he recently saw a social media post asking if anyone made more impactful plays than he did. Averaging 27 yards per catch and 14 yards per run, the answer might be a resounding “no.”

“Well, if you know you’re only gonna get one a game,” he said, “you better make it big.”

Keith Jackson - NFL
Wochit / Getty Images

Jackson made it big in the NFL, too.

He went on to play nine seasons for Philadelphia, Miami and Green Bay. Jackson caught Dan Marino’s 300th touchdown pass, caught a TD in Don Shula’s record-breaking 325th career victory, and he won a Super Bowl with the Packers.

Jackson was nominated this year for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Though he didn't make the final cut, he has a good chance of someday being enshrined in Canton.

“So when you say, when you look back on life, man, I am just tickled by it,” Jackson said. “It’s been one of those things — I lived a charmed life. Right place, right teams, right situations, whether it was that reverse or a one-handed catch or a big catch down the middle, it was just being in the right place at the right time.”

According to Pro Football Reference, Jackson made five Pro Bowls (he said he thinks the count is actually six) and was named first-team NFL All-Pro each of his first three seasons. Jackson ended his pro career with 441 receptions for 5,283 yards (12 yards per catch) and caught 49 touchdowns — including 10 TDs in his final season in 1996.

And yet somehow, he never got a rushing attempt in the NFL.

Seems nobody runs the tight end reverse anymore.

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