HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Bobby Jackson gingerly pulled his sock up his right leg, and then ran his hands over the stocking to smooth out the wrinkles. He didn't want to remember that Sunday's game against New England may hold a special, grim memory for him, but the pain he still feels in his leg is a not too subtle reminder.
It was just moments before the Jets were to play their first game against the Patriots last year, and Jackson was going through some last-minute stretching exercises in the locker room, when the players heard a loud snap. Jackson had so severely pulled the hamstring in his right leg that he missed the rest of the 1984 season. Coach Joe Walton has said that the team's secondary problems last year could be attributed to that injury to his cornerback. This year, Jackson suffered a sprained knee on the same leg, and missed the exhibition season.
He has played in five games this year, all in pain, but his interception Monday night of a Dan Marino pass late in the fourth quarter--which stopped the Dolphins' last chance to score--was his third of the year, and puts him in third place in the Jets' record book for most career interceptions with 20. Former Jet Billy Baird leads with 34. Three other former Jets are tied for second place with 21 interceptions apiece.
Jackson doesn't like to think of the pain, but it's always there nudging him lest he forget, and he says that it has somewhat inhibited his play.
"Mentally the pain is still there," he said Thursday. "And physically the pain is still there. When you make certain moves, it hurts a lot more than other times. And there are times when you're just going to get beat and you wonder, is it just because they outran me this time, or is it because I lost a step. It's in back of your mind. My concern right now is not to pull it (the hamstring) again, not to overextend myself where I'm going to pop it. When you finish a year without pulling it, then I know that next year it's going to be back to normal.
"It doesn't help practicing against a Lam Jones, a Bobby Humphery, or an Al Toon. All of them can run, so you really can't take a break, especially playing bump-and-run."
But even a less than healthy Jackson can be much better than most cornerbacks. He has not given up a touchdown pass in the five games in which he has played this year. And after looking at the films of Monday night's game, he said, "Bobby Jackson played a great game."
Jackson, who is in his eighth year, is the glue that keeps an often-injured backfield together, constantly frustrating opposing quarterbacks with outstanding defensive plays.
" I'd like to feel that I'm like the elder statesman back there," he said. "We have some guys out there who don't miss a beat. I kind of draw strength from them too. I can't let them down. I respect their abilities a great deal, guys like Russell Carter and Johnny Lynn. Also defensive coordinator Bud Carson knows when to call the right play at the right time."
Jackson doesn't like to talk about the pain and discusses it with reluctance. "I can't keep harping on that," he said. "That's over with. Next year I'm going to be in really top form."
But, as he patted his leg, he said, "It's been kind of up and down for me this year. I have yet to play three games straight. The hamstring is still kind of sore. I've still got a long ways to go. I still feel I'm not back to where I was early last year. My leg still bothers me somewhat. It aches. That's what I have to get used to right now. It's made me tentative in my cutting. I'm not cutting the reckless way I'm used to in driving for the ball. Next year, it's going to be a lot stronger.
"But, hey, we're in first place ... the first time since I've been here. It feels great, but the pressure is on now to stay there. Like coach Walton says, once you reveal yourself, teams start shooting at you. But it feels good. I'm enjoying playing the game."