Catching up with ... Michael Jackson
How his outfit has changed. Last month, as heavy rains pounded Louisiana, Jackson donned a rain slicker and rubber gloves and sloughed through a trough of stinking ooze to clear a clogged sewer line in the community of Tangipahoa.
That’s life for a small-town mayor.
“Football didn’t prepare me for this,” said Jackson, 42, who was elected in 2008. “The job is far tougher than playing in the NFL.”
The man who made $1.5 million in his best year in football earns $250 a month as mayor of Tangipahoa, a cash-strapped crossroads 30 miles north of New Orleans. Nowadays, Jackson, a Democrat, wears golf shirts and slacks to work, shares an office with his secretary, and spends his days crunching numbers and keeping the lights burning in a town of about 800, where nearly half of the residents live in poverty.
It’s far from his life as a sure-handed, trash-talking receiver whose 14 touchdown receptions in 1996 tied for NFL best.
Why, then, did Jackson embrace his rural roots?
“To give back to the community,” he said. “I grew up here. My dad was chief of police. I hunted deer and rabbits in these woods, and caught crawfish.
“This was the fertile ground that I sprouted from, the place that gave me the ability to play football in college and in Baltimore — and I wanted to help build an infrastructure for the town that would give it the means to support growth.”
Having retired in 1999 due to injuries, Jackson returned to Tangipahoa, opened a night club, started a music production business — and found folks seeking charity from the big-time athlete.
“People expected me to reach into my pocket and bail them, and this town, out,” he said. “I refused. I wasn’t going to [impoverish] my own family, and dump money into a pit that we would all become stuck in.
“But I told them, ‘I will stand [for office] on behalf of you, as a community, to voice your opinions to those officials who should be helping.’ “
It hasn’t been easy. Last spring, nearby Beaver Creek backed up, leaving parts of the town under five feet of water.
“We rescued people, by boat, from 75 homes,” Jackson said.
And he’s still sparring with locals who expect the mayor to return old favors.
“People who gave me a dollar, when I was six, or who picked me up when I fell off my bike, want to turn that into financial gain,” he said. “They want extensions on things like utility bills — and it’s worse when it’s your own auntie or uncle. Balancing these things is tough; you have to separate family and friends from business.”
Three years into his term, said Jackson, “I’ve not done 50 percent of what I set out to do. It’s an uphill battle to get outsiders to recognize our needs. This little municipality is 20 years behind. State funding isn’t trickling down to places like this; we’re only getting the juice from the rice, just enough to keep us afloat.”
Though Tangipahoa doesn’t have cable television, or broadband Internet, Jackson will follow Sunday’s game between the Ravens and St. Louis Rams with interest. In the teams’ first-ever meeting, in 1996, he scored the winning touchdown on a 22-yard pass from Vinny Testaverde, with 10 seconds left in overtime. The Ravens won, 37-31.
On that play, Jackson said, Testaverde was supposed to run a quarterback sneak, setting up a game-winning chip shot attempt by Ravens’ kicker Matt Stover.
“But I told Vinny, in the huddle, that I could beat (Rams’ defender) Jeremy Lincoln in the left corner of the end zone,” Jackson said. “Jeremy and I had been talking smack all game, and I knew he was susceptible to the move.”
Testaverde agreed and called for the pass.
“Vinny would always give you the opportunity, if he believed in you,” Jackson said.
He faked an inside route, broke outside and made a diving catch as Lincoln landed beside him.
Jackson couldn’t resist rubbing it in:
“I popped up instantly, turned to Jeremy and spiked the ball, right next to his head.”
Football was “all fun and games,” he said. But this is now.
Recently, when Tangipahoa’s water main broke, Jackson discovered that the busted part was obsolete.
“We had to photograph it, take the picture to a welder and have him solder together a makeshift part,” he said.
The mayor sighed.
“This job is a lot harder than being on the field,” he said.