On Sept. 24, two weeks after the jury struck down the NFL's Plan B free-agency policy, U.S. District Court Judge David Doty ruled in favor of Jackson and the three other NFL holdouts—defensive end Garin Veris, wideout Webster Slaughter and running back D.J. Dozier—in their bid for freedom. But Doty's ruling gave the players only a five-day window to make a deal with any NFL team, and suddenly Jackson was whipped into a frenzy. "My agent got tired of hearing from me," said Jackson, who parked himself at agent Gary Wichard's Malibu home to wait out negotiations. "I was right there going, 'Who'd we talk to today? Who'd we talk to today?' I really became hyper.
"The night before my decision I couldn't sleep. I phoned my mother in Arkansas—it was 4 a.m. in Malibu and 6 a.m. in Little Rock—and woke her up. I told her Miami was very interested, and I thought it would be a great situation. She said, 'Wait a minute. Why don't you pray? The devil could be just putting thoughts in your mind. Pray that God will show you overwhelmingly what to do.' Funny. A few hours later Gary called and said, 'The Eagles said they're not going to up their offer, and Miami has given us a great offer.' I said, 'That's it—overwhelmingly.' There wasn't even a choice to be made."
So Jackson, a three-time All-Pro, the biggest prize among the free agents ("the Jackson Four, as they call us now, but we don't sing"), signed with Miami on Sept. 29. "I had five days of freedom," Jackson said over dinner. "It felt great. Now I want freedom for everybody who wants it. For every punter and every quarterback. Plan B was like a bone thrown at us. They abolished slavery, but then they set up a system like sharecropping. That's what Plan B was all about. But to have total abolition—a player can pick and choose exactly what he wants to do—man, there's no feeling like that."
Jackson said he wasn't so much an activist as a grateful beneficiary of the triumph of right over wrong. Clearly, though, the longing for emancipation from the NFL structure had been with him for two years—since Eagle owner Norman Braman told him, "I own you," and refused to budge on Jackson's request in 1990 to renegotiate the last two years of his contract. That was Jackson's second holdout; the first had come at the start of his rookie season, when he signed a four-year, $2.15 million contract that last season paid him a base salary of $350,000.
The hardest part of his new deal, said Jackson, was leaving behind close friends like quarterback Randall Cunningham and defensive end Reggie White on an Eagle team that "is going to be in the Super Bowl this year." However, he had to isolate his bitterness toward management, which he says offered him $800,000 for this season, from his affection for the players and coaches. "A Super Bowl ring is important," he said. "But...."
Many NFL observers were surprised that the Dolphins were the team to snap up Jackson. He and Shula could not be further apart on the issue of free agency. Shula had given a deposition before the McNeil trial stating his opposition to unrestricted free agency. But ideological chasms have a way of closing in the face of pragmatism. "To be competitive, we have to play by the existing rules, whether we like them or not," said Shula last week. "I'm on record as saying that there has to be some sort of system in order to have competitive balance in the NFL, and I still feel that way. But if I were to stand by and let the parade go on, then our club would not be operating competitively."
Even in the wake of Sunday's triumph, which left the Dolphins on top of the AFC East with a 4-0 record, Shula was unrelenting in his principle. "I still believe in what has made the game so great over a long period of time," he said.
Jackson wouldn't say how many teams Wichard negotiated with, but "I told him to be sure to call Miami and Denver, because those were the two teams I really wanted to go to. Miami because of the offense overall and Denver because [quarterback John] Elway didn't have the tight end he needed to be effective downfield. Then [Bronco owner] Pat Bowlen said on TV that I was a receiving tight end, and so I was not worth the money."
Thus Jackson focused on the Dolphins and watched their Sept. 27 game against the Seahawks in Seattle on TV. During a break in the action NBC commentator Ahmad Rashad said he had spoken with Marino before the game, and Marino had told him that if he had Jackson on the team he would throw to him a lot. "That a player of his caliber wanted me on the team helped me make my decision," Jackson said, "because the first thing you worry about when you go to another team is whether you'll be accepted. When you come in, that means somebody has to be cut. Players are going to look at you like you were the one who did it. So for Dan to make a statement like that made me think, Well, he wants me down there."
The player cut turned out to be Marino's best friend on the team, 12-year Dolphin multipurpose player Jim (Crash) Jensen. But Marino was mindful of the feelings of all parties last week, especially those of Ferrell Edmunds, the tight end whom Jackson is sure to replace in the lineup eventually. "What I told Ahmad," Marino said, "was that any quarterback would like to have Keith Jackson on his team, because he can catch the ball and he has NFL experience at getting open."