I know if you were here right now you would pop me upside the head and say, “Boy, chin up, head up and keep going.”
But Mom, it hasn’t been easy.
You are the one who taught me about wins and losses in life, especially early on. We lived in gang neighborhoods in Los Angeles: first 52nd and Hoover and then we moved to 5th Avenue and 60th Street. We lacked money. We were a lower-class family in a tough environment. I grew up seeing so many losses, including people getting shot, killed, beaten up and drugged out. At 16 I watched my older brother go to prison. Two years later my older sister’s lungs collapsed and she died.
You wanted better for me. That is why you put me in sports, which became my safe haven. Football was where I found my wins. I was a quarterback at Dorsey High School and in 1982, my senior year, we won a city championship.
During high school I watched you wake up at 4:30 am. You would take me to school, go to work as a school cook, pick me up, drop me off at football practice, cook dinner for our family, go to your second job and then come home around 10:00 pm.
You were trying to prevent the losses around me from influencing my path in life. It was your work ethic that laid the foundation not only for my city championship in high school but for my entire career.
You always told me, I was going to be where I want to be.
You would always say, “My baby is going to make it.”
As you know Mom, I wanted to be 1 of 32 NFL head coaches. In my career I have gotten the opportunity to be an NFL head coach not once, but twice. As a black coach getting those opportunities wasn’t easy, but I found a way.
The first time around I went 8-8 with the Oakland Raiders. Owner and general manager, Al Davis, believed in me but he died during that season. The new regime wanted to go in a different direction the following year.
After I lost my first head coaching job I had to start over. I went and coached on defense in Cincinnati as what was essentially a quality control coach and worked my way up to offensive coordinator. Mom, I tried to be the best I could be like you taught me. Despite suffering a heart attack in 2014, I ended up being Pro Football Writers of America’s 2015 NFL Co-Assistant Coach of the Year. At that point, my chance to be 1 of 32 resurfaced. The Cleveland Browns hired me as their head coach. This was my opportunity to show that the Raiders should have kept me.
By this time, in 2016, you suffered from dementia. You not only didn’t know that I was the head coach of the Browns but you no longer even recognized me. That was tough, but I was still trying to make you smile and prove you right.
The Browns were appealing because I already knew the division. At the time I accepted the job they had a real nucleus of good players and just needed some tweaks. Plus, I thought I could build an unbelievable legacy there because the franchise had struggled for so long.
However, instead of winning we lost, a lot. In 2 ½ seasons we went 3-36-1. People are not built to lose. It leads to too many negative outcomes. Some athletes and coaches turn to alcohol, drugs or other unhealthy habits because they just need that win for a moment. To be a good leader, I had to abstain from outlets that weren’t productive.
To stand before a football team and keep them motivated to play, I had to stay motivated myself. Mom, people won’t see it this way because I lost but my time with the Browns was some of my best coaching. I took a group of men and kept them playing and competing at a high level. That takes a lot of skill and determination.
While there is a record that for some defines a lot of my wins and losses, my greatest loss during my time in Cleveland was you. You passed away during training camp in 2018, just two weeks after we lost your son and my older brother, John Jackson Jr. Even after you died, I could and can still hear some of the conversations we had when I was younger. Those conversations helped me endure the challenges I faced as a coach as well as the loss of my dream job, as I was fired during the 2018 season.
I realized that there is a human side to wins and losses. Whether it be the personal defeats or the ones on the football field, what is important is how you navigate coming out of all of them.
It’s easy to become isolated, as people seem to have so easily forgotten all my hard work, progress and accomplishments as an offensive coach.
You would be most proud to know that I haven’t given up. My memory of you won’t let me. If you were here you would tell me tomorrow might bring another opportunity and I need to be ready when it comes. You would tell me to stay focused on my goal, not to let people deter me and not to worry about what people say. You taught me how to really believe in myself and to push forward toward whatever it is I want to accomplish.
All the losses didn’t break me. Instead, I am making sure I don’t let the past create my future. And that’s because of you.
I know without question that you still believe I am going to be a successful NFL head coach.
I know you are in heaven saying, “My son is going to coach and win in the Super Bowl.”
Mom, I don’t know how my story will end but I know it’s not over yet. Many around me see my record and my personal tragedies as a lot of losing. However, you taught me that my will to continue to fight through all types of challenges and hardships means in life, I am winning.
I miss you and I love you always,