Former NFL Player Frank Jackson talks about his gay son, Texas conservatism and what would happen if Vince Young was gay
(This story was published in 2006).
Coming out to your parents is never easy. Even if they were card-carrying hippies and dabbled with the same sex themselves, the great fear of their unknown reaction can be intimidating.
But when your dad grew up in Texas, served in the Army, and is a former pro football standout, the thought of telling him that you sleep with men could be overwhelming.
That's what Erik Jackson went through 15 years ago. Erik is the son of Frank Jackson, a former running back and flanker who played for the Dallas Texans (who became the Kansas City Chiefs) from 1961 to 1965 before being picked in the expansion draft by the Miami Dolphins in 1966.
"Certainly, it had crossed my mind that this man who had spent his life in athletics, in the most extreme of macho environments, may have some difficulties with this," Erik says.
Erik had passed pretty well for straight all his life. While he didn't take to football, he was a track-and-field star, running the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter spints, setting a school record in the former that he still holds to this day. He had a girlfriend through much of high school, right up until he headed West for USC. He was class president. All of this in Plano, Texas, meant he was straight, no question.
So, when he finally told his father that he was gay – over the phone the evening after his mother had guessed his lingering secret – he waited for the great unknown: the reaction of this former pro athlete.
"Without missing a beat, [my dad] said, 'Look, I'm going to love you no matter what. It may take a little time getting used to, but it doesn't change the way I feel about you,'" Erik recalls. "It was the dream scenario."
Frank Jackson isn't your ordinary former pro football player. On the football field, Frank was a force to be reckoned with. He came out of SMU and three years later scored nine touchdowns in back-to-back seasons (and that was in only 14 games). He scored four touchdowns in a game twice, once in his rookie year against the Denver Broncos and once in 1964 against San Diego, in which he scored all four through the air (while this was in the AFL, the NFL record is five touchdown receptions in a game).
While he was a student of the game, Frank was also a student of life. Upon leaving pro football, he stayed in Miami and graduated from the University of Miami Law School, becoming a defense attorney. He moved back to Texas but started reading The New York Times instead of the Dallas Morning News for a perspective beyond the Texas that had shaped his values most of his life.
"I tried to broaden my horizons and overcome the prejudices that you are taught when you come out of the womb in the South," Frank says. "I came to the conclusion that life doesn't just consist of racism and fundamental Christianity. There's a lot more to life than that."
As he read, his horizons opened up past his stint in the Army, past his years in pro football, and he started to question the uber-religious upbringing that had lingered with him since his childhood. In the 1980s, he says, he went from fiscal conservative and legal liberal to "hard-core, left-wing liberal, more on the revolutionary scale."
So it was almost painful for him to hear that the son he loved so much had been timid about sharing part of his life with him. While he says there was a selfish part of him that realized he would probably not have grandchildren from Erik, the compassionate man in him loved his son and came quickly to accept the new lifestyle that Erik was opening him up to.
"Erik was very apprehensive and very concerned about our reaction," Frank says. "And of course, my heart broke, because we've never given him any cause to believe we've been anything but supportive in anything he's done. But, I know why he was apprehensive, because he grew up in East Texas, which is a very conservative, Right Wing area."
"He is a champion of rights. He is somebody who innately understands that every human being is entitled to every right that every other human being has."
- Erik Jackson
It was in that conservative Texas of the '50s and '60s where Frank came of age. On the path of a football career, Jackson played all the games that the big boys played.
"The world of professional athletics is just a different world," Frank says. "It's very similar to the military. You have to prove your 'manliness' on a daily basis. Those types of attitudes really infect you. You have to try to overcome them."
He says he put up the same walls that the other players did and made the same crude jokes – sometimes racist or homophobic in nature – that they did. But, that was part of playing the game of football off the field.
Despite the machismo of the football locker room, Frank has an interesting take on what it might have been like to be openly gay in pro football of the 1960s.
"Had we suspected someone was gay, I really don't think we would have made any big issue of it," Frank says. "I think it would have been an anomaly in sports, but I don't think there would have been any ostracizing the person, if they were a good football player."
He remembers a couple men who ran counter to the whole machismo aura of a football player, most notably Hall of Famer Ron Mix of the San Diego Chargers. He remembers Mix as a gentle giant, almost effeminate at times, but a total brute on the football field. Not too much was said of Mix's gentle demeanor, Frank remembers, in large part because he'd tear you apart on the field.
"I know a lot of players I played with would have been very protective of any gay player who would have the courage to come out and face the problems they may have had to face," Jackson says. "I think there would have been a reaction very different from what most people would have assumed."
He says that this is all predicated on how the player would have handled his sexuality. If he was overly demonstrative with his sexuality, then that could change things. But, according to Frank, if he was just one of the guys who happened to sleep with other guys, there wouldn't have been a problem from the other players.
He does admit, however, that a strong negative reaction very well may have come from the owners or management.
"In those days, there may have been some reaction in ownership, especially our ownership, Lamar Hunt and that crew. They were to the right of Attila the Hun. There may have been some reaction on that level. They may have just forced a gay player out of the game."
Just as he thinks the potential reaction of players then has been misrepresented, he thinks football players today are much more ready for a gay teammate than some of them may want to let on. And the lawyer in him says that, if a player was fired from the team for being gay, "he could own a piece of the team if that happened."
Of course, Frank admits, the reaction depends in large part on the quality of athlete you're dealing with.
"It all depends on how good of a player he is. If Vince Young was to admit he was gay tomorrow, I don't think anyone would turn him down as a professional quarterback."
Though he finished his pro football career almost 40 years ago, he stays in the game, so to speak. He goes to Kansas City every year for a reunion party that Hunt throws during a home-game weekend. He says that he isn't sure if any of his former teammates know that his son is gay, because it just doesn't come up. He has been practicing law for over 30 years, is a celebrated defense attorney, and lives in Plano, Texas, with his wife, Mary Nell.
Erik is now 38 and lives in New York City with his partner, Joshua Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig is director, corporate communications & public relations, for here! Networks, America's first gay television network.
"Both my father and mother instantly took to Josh and treated him as they treated my brother's girlfriends and wives," Erik says.
Erik most recently co-wrote a musical featuring songs from Neil Sedaka, titled, "Breaking Up is Hard to Do." The musical opened January 12 in Miami.
Frank and Erik's relationship is now more solid than ever. Frank says he is so happy that his son has found a loving relationship.
"My father defies expectation," Erik says. "He's this pro football player and yet he'll sit on the couch with his arm around my boyfriend."
Frank says it's Erik's doing – he's just so easy to love.
"If the world, gay or not gay, was populated with people like Erik Jackson," says the proud papa, "boy, it would be a pleasant place to live."
It certainly seems like a few Frank Jacksons thrown into the mix wouldn't exactly hurt, either.