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To an athlete dying old

I was in my hometown of Crossett all last week for the funeral of a former Razorback. He had died on Sunday night — Wallace Wayne Jack-son, class of '64. You wouldn't know his name. You won't see him in any team pictures. His stats aren't in the books. He was no bench-warmer — just ended up playing out his life off the field.

Wayne Jackson arrived in Fayetteville in 1960, a multi-sport stud who loved football best of all and, like most guys back then, played all sides of the ball: middle linebacker, center and punter. He easily gained a starting spot on the freshman squad. (Freshmen couldn't start for the varsity back then; they played their own schedule. They received four years of eligibility after their first season.) Since the fresh-man games amounted to scrimmages, you can imagine the kind of roughhousing that kept them busy in the off-hours.

Sometime in the middle of the season, Wayne awoke to a loud knock. Stumbling out of his bed, he answered the door to stare square into the barrel of a .357 magnum. The gun fired, and Wayne fell back, sure that he was shot dead. Jerry Jones stood in the doorway laughing his ass off. He'd loaded the gun with blanks.

Jimmie Johnson, Fred Marshall, Jim Lindsey and other notables were still in high school, but the freshmen in 1960 were destined to be seniors the year Broyles led us to the national championship. Wayne never made it that far. During the off-season of 1961, player-coach Barry Switzer came to his room to break some bad news. Switzer was another Crossett boy, the local bootlegger's son, and I guess Broyles and the staff thought him the best man for the job. A crane at Crossett's paper mill had collapsed. Wayne's father was dead.

The mill owners gave the family a pittance, the least that their consciences could muster and that the law then required, but Wayne ended up returning home and hiring on. He had two baby sisters and a mama who needed him, and his athletic aspirations would have to wait. UAM caught wind of his return and tried to lure him up to Monticello to play for the Boll Weevils, but his heart was no longer in it. He worked at the mill for 43 years.

He found an outlet in independent league baseball, which he played for several seasons, pitching a few no-hitters and generally crushing the ball. Stories have it that a scout for the Detroit Tigers was headed to see him play when someone told him that the game was rained out. The weather let up and Wayne threw a shutout, hitting two home runs and a double.

When he got too old to compete at that level, he played softball, then coached his son's Little League teams. I was the best man in John Wayne Jackson's wedding, and I've never met a more natural athlete. He got every bit of his father's native intelligence for sport. (A friend swears that John can solve any golf swing, despite being entirely self-taught.) Wayne got plenty of pleasure out of watching his son on the field, and together they had much success. The Jackson-coached Little League all-stars were 16-0 in district tournament play, barely missing championships every year. The Crossett Eagles won the state championship the year that scrappy bunch finally made it to varsity ball, no small thanks to his guiding hand.

Wayne lived out his life off the field with grace and humility. He sat in his dusty blue pickup truck outside the right field fence during every practice, not worrying over glory days but simply taking pleasure in the game itself. He lived and breathed Razorback football, and never showed an ounce of bitterness at his tough breaks. His athletic achievements weren't definitional. They were only a part of his life and a part of how he lived, like his family and his laughter.

It took the cancer two years to beat him: A death no more tragic than any other and better than some, the poignancy of his unrealized poten-tial only exacerbated by the tragedy of a once-dominant athlete bested at last. He's survived by his wife, three daughters and my good friend John, as well as generations of players who knew him as a man first and a teammate or coach second.

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