During the Ravens’ first season in Baltimore in 1996, quarterback Vinny Testaverde led an offense that was one of the most prolific in the NFL and still stands as one of the highest-scoring groups in franchise history. On the receiving end of many of Testaverde’s passes that season was Michael Jackson, a tall and slender Louisiana native with a wide smile and a warm disposition.
Jackson, who established several franchise records in 1996 and had the best season of his eight-year NFL career, was killed early Friday morning in a motorcycle accident in his hometown of Tangipahoa, La. He was 48 years old.
“Today, our hearts are saddened by the awful news involving Michael,” said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who was in the Cleveland Browns’ scouting department when they made Jackson a sixth-round draft pick in 1991. “He was a vibrant person who became one of the first Ravens heroes and a popular player among Baltimore fans. Well known for his big smile and welcoming nature, it was easy to feel a special connection with Michael.”
Jackson spent three seasons with the Ravens from 1996 to 1998, accumulating 183 catches for 2,596 yards and 18 touchdowns. His 1,201 receiving yards and league-high-tying 14 touchdown receptions in 1996 are single-season franchise records.
He became a free agent after an injury-plagued 1998 season, and after a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks, Jackson decided to retire at age 30. He returned to Tangipahoa, where he ultimately served one term as mayor from 2009 to 2012.
“He had a big, beautiful smile all the time,” said former NFL tight end Brian Kinchen, who was Jackson’s teammate for the receiver’s entire career, first with the Browns and then the Ravens. “There was an upbeatness about him that made us all fortunate to be his teammates. It’s easy to see how Michael became mayor; he had a personality where everybody was his friend.”
According to a news release from the Louisiana State Police, Jackson was riding a 2013 Kawasaki motorcycle northbound on US 51 in the village of Tangipahoa at a “high rate of speed,” at approximately 1 a.m. A 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, driven by Destiny Alexus Gordon of Kentwood, backed out of a parking space across both lanes of the highway and into the path of Jackson’s motorcycle.
The motorcycle crashed into the driver’s side door and “penetrated into the driver’s compartment of the Malibu,” according to the release. Gordon, 20, was also killed in the collision.
Jackson was wearing a helmet when the accident occurred. An investigation into the accident is ongoing and toxicology reports will be examined by the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab for analysis, police said.
“As we remember Michael fondly, we extend our condolences to everyone who knew him and those families affected by this tragedy,” Newsome said in a statement released by the team.
Newsome called Jackson’s development as a receiver one of his most rewarding achievements after he retired following a Hall of Fame playing career.
“When I joined the Cleveland Browns’ scouting department, my first opportunity to work out receivers involved Michael in that group,” Newsome said. “I evaluated probably a half-dozen guys, but Michael was the one who stood out to me because of his speed and range. He then became a sixth-round pick of the Browns, and I watched him evolve into an impactful receiver throughout his career in Cleveland and Baltimore.”
Jackson, who was a college teammate of quarterback Brett Favre at Southern Mississippi, had some solid years in Cleveland, catching 26 touchdown passes from 1992 to 1995. However, his breakout season came after he moved with the franchise to Baltimore in 1996.
For an organization that was trying to find its footing in a new city, Jackson became one of the team’s more recognizable players. Arriving from Cleveland in a Mercedes-Benz convertible with a wide array of suits, a gold hoop earring and a shaved head, Jackson embraced his new community. He even opened a recording studio in an old warehouse on Biddle Street in downtown Baltimore.
He also flourished on the field in a new role as the team’s go-to receiver. In 1996, he and teammate Derrick Alexander both eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau, the only Ravens’ receivers to ever accomplish that feat in the same season.
Jackson told The Sun in 2007 that he used to tell cornerbacks what route he was going to run and still would come down with the catch, using his long arms and leaping ability to outmaneuver defenders.
“Some [cornerbacks] would take heed, but most didn’t,” Jackson said. “In those situations, the truth is the last thing a person will believe.”
Before a road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1996, Jackson told a heckler seated in the end zone that he was going to catch a touchdown and then throw the ball to the fan. He did just that, earning a $500 fine from the NFL in the process.
After he retired, Jackson returned to Tangipahoa, which is about 90 miles north of New Orleans, and owned a nightclub and the music production company that he started in Baltimore. He became involved in local politics a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the small town in 2005.
“We are a ‘Third World’ district here, and no attention is being brought to it,” Jackson told the Sun in 2007. “It’s time to make this a better place.”