Jackie at St. Aug, 1968, second from left. Photo by Terry Friedman
Jackie Wallace was born March 13, 1951, and was raised in the St. Bernard public housing development. He was placed on a pedestal the minute he was old enough to catch a ball. He had received accolades and honors from grade school to high school to college to the NFL. But now, he was a broken, hollow, façade of a man.
Feb. 3, 2014, one month shy of his 63rd birthday, marked 34 years and two weeks since he trotted onto the field to the thundering applause of 103,985 fans for Super Bowl XIV. But on this day, he stumbled into the New Orleans Mission. He was crashing from another first-of-the-month high.
The next morning, Feb. 4, was brutally cold. After a cup of hot coffee and breakfast, in keeping with normal mission rules, he returned to the streets. Most of the men would return for lunch.
Jackie was wearing three shirts to brace from the weather. As he wandered toward the Pontchartrain Expressway, a stiff wind hit him in the face.
He said, “To hell with this. I’m tired of this.”
He was sick of living the month-to-month cycle. He was tired of drugs taking all of his money. There was nothing left to his once-exalted life but misery.
As he saw it, there were three options left: recovery, jail or suicide.
He had already ruled out No. 2. He got to the upramp by the mission and turned. He had no power over his legs or arms. His mind was gone. He felt like a zombie.
Walking up to the Mississippi River bridge is no casual task. I’ve done it several times on other assignments. Nothing feels right up there. Each step feels unsure. The steel and the asphalt moves with the load of high-speed traffic as if it’s alive. Holding onto the railing makes it worse, inducing vertigo from the height. The intermittent wind from the traffic pushes you toward the edge, then the vacuum of the speed sucks you back. The roar is unnerving, almost violent.
As Jackie crossed the last ramp, the Tchoupitoulas exit, he looked over his shoulder to avoid the oncoming traffic. He oddly realized how it didn’t matter, but he dodged anyway. No one slowed. No one blew their horn. Nobody tried to stop him. He was invisible. He was worse than a dead man walking. He was invisible to the world and to himself. He was no man.
Before he reached the span, an odd thing happened. A cold crosswind caught his face, maybe like the chill of death. Maybe it was the wing of an angel.
Whatever it was, “it woke me up,” Jackie said.
He suddenly regained himself, then panicked.
“I’m crazy,” he thought. “I knew I was gone.”
He headed down the ramp and walked 30 blocks to the Rebuild Center near St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where he asked to be committed. The staff at the center transferred him to DePaul Hospital for an evaluation. The psychiatrist there said, “Jackie, you’re not crazy. You’ve got a substance abuse problem.”
Jackie returned to treatment at Gateway. This time, he was in treatment because he wanted to be. This time, he was afraid.
In quick order, he completed the program and was evaluated for mental health issues and received counseling. When I visited early last year, the staff said that he made great progress but was highly susceptible to relapse.
Former friends and connections on the streets are often a major stumbling block for clients like Jackie. Gateway’s director, Darryl Chandler, said he was happy that Jackie was making better decisions. One of those decisions was to continue to live within the Gateway community.
“He’s still in the same (rehab) community,” Chandler said, “still around the same people, so he still has access to the after-care group and the 12-steps meetings, if that’s what he chooses to do.”
That last phrase left me uneasy.
His counselor, Ryan Landry, echoed the others’ praise for Wallace’s recovery. Ryan said he sees the unique opportunity the former hometown hero has to help others. He remembered his first week on the job as he watched his new group interact.
“The first time I met Jackie,” Ryan said, “he was signing the back of another client’s jersey.”
Ryan asked another client who this guy was.
“That’s Jackie Wallace.”
“The Jackie Wallace?”
“Yeah, ‘the Headhunter,’ the old safety Jackie Wallace.”
Ryan was shocked. “I grew up in south Louisiana with my father telling me about players like him,” he said. “Goes to show you that the disease of addiction can happen to anybody. And now, with a few years clean … he’s an inspiration to a lot of guys here.
“And behold, now he’s a friend of mine.”