St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., adjacent to a Benedictine monastery, is where the Pittsburgh Steelers go every summer to hit one another. Players are quartered in Bonaventure Hall, behind which lies a graveyard where, it is said, the dreams of rookies go to die.
Seven summers ago John Jackson was a rookie tackle whistling past the graveyard. Few players have come into the NFL as raw as Jackson, a 6'6", 287-pound project out of Eastern Kentucky. "There were a lot of things I wasn't familiar with," he says. Like pass blocking.
Jackson had been in camp four weeks when Buddy Aydelette, the tackle ahead of him on the depth chart, blew out a knee. Thus was the rookie thrust into the starting lineup for that weekend's exhibition game against the New York Giants. His mission: contain Lawrence Taylor.
By some miracle Taylor went sackless in that game, though he spent plenty of time in the Steeler backfield. A week later in New Orleans, Saint linebacker Pat Swilling flew by Jackson for three sacks and numerous pressures. Final roster cuts were to be made the next day, and after the game Jackson made the rounds, saying goodbye. "I thought I was gone," he says.
He stuck. Coach Chuck Noll kept him, and Jackson has justified that faith, starting all but five games at left tackle for Pittsburgh over the past five years. Not bad for a 10th-round pick who didn't play football until his senior year of high school in Cincinnati. On the basis of nine games he was given a scholarship to Eastern Kentucky, where he delighted the coaches with his size and agility.
Those qualities also made him ideal for Noll's trademark trapping offenses. And his brawn serves him well in the ground-bound power game installed two years ago by Bill Cowher, though it was not love at first sight between the two. Suspecting that Jackson had grown complacent after four years, Cowher benched him for three games in '92. "He came back different," says Tunch Ilkin, the former Pittsburgh tackle. "He came back nastier. He's played the best football of his career since then."
Before the '92 season the Steelers helped Jackson by signing Duval Love, a solid veteran, to play by his side at guard. This year Love came to camp with a gift for Jackson: a UCLA T-shirt. An ex-Bruin, Love delights in making speeches about the glorious football history of UCLA while teasing Jackson about his lesser pedigree.
"I ask him what it was like, watching me on TV on New Year's Day," Love says. He makes sure Jackson is out of earshot, then adds, "The fact that he made it out of a small school shows you how hard he works."
Says Jackson, "I've gotten better every year, and I'm going to keep getting better." He knocks wood on the old desk in his room at Bonaventure Hall, where each July for the past seven years he has had the same cubicle, looking out over campus, away from the graveyard.