The choice of Bobby Jackson to be the keynote speaker for the Riverhead Community Awareness Program’s 25th annual Say No to Drugs March was as fitting as it was obvious. It was Jackson, after all, who was accorded the same honor for the first march 25 years ago, just as he was wrapping up his playing career with the New York Jets.
“I’m glad to be back,” Jackson said. “I’m happy to be alive 25 years later.”
The anti-drug message delivered by a former NFL player like Jackson is going to carry more weight — and draw more publicity — than that, say, of a butcher or a banker. But Jackson also understands that actions speak louder than words.
“It’s not so much what I say as what I do,” he said. “If my life is not an example of what I’m saying, it falls on deaf ears.”
Certainly, Jackson’s words were heard on Friday morning when he spoke to an estimated 670 students at the Pulaski Street School in Riverhead about the importance of keeping their bodies clean of drugs. Jackson spent considerably more time afterward autographing the “DRUG FREE BODY” T-shirts worn by students than the actual remarks he made to them while they sat on the grass in front of the school. Perhaps in light of the heat on this sun-splashed day, he kept his talk brief — 1 minute 45 seconds, to be exact — but his words appeared to hit home.
“If you say no to drugs,” he told the fifth- and sixth-graders, “you automatically say yes to success because there’s no way I could have played in the NFL high on any kind of drug.”
Jackson, who was raised by a grandmother in Georgia, played for Bobby Bowden at Florida State. The cornerback then played for the Jets from 1978 to 1985. With the Jets, he played for two head coaches, Walt Michaels and Joe Walton. He played with teammates such as his best friend, Donald Dykes, Jerry Holmes and the famed Sack Exchange of Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam.
“Some of the greatest times in my life, obviously,” said Jackson, who made 21 interceptions and scored two touchdowns over the course of his NFL career.
Jackson, who is a regional marketing manager/community ambassador for Modell’s Sporting Goods, is 53 years old. He looks as if he could put on a helmet and pads and play today. His allegiance remains with the Jets.
After Jackson was introduced, he received a warm welcome from the students. Upon reaching the podium, Jackson, wearing a Jets cap, asked the youngsters if they knew the Jets’ chant. Then he reminded them: “J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!”
Earlier in the morning, Jackson joined students, who were led by a Riverhead High School Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp color guard and band members, in a short march. The march had been washed out in three of the last four years because of rain, but there was nothing but blue sky and a lot of sun for Friday’s event.
Jackson said he enjoys dealing with young people. “They’re innocent right now,” he said in an interview. “They’re like clay. You can shape them to whatever mold you want, and hopefully it’s positive. That’s why I’m out here. I want to be a part of the positive initiative that was set 25 years ago.”
Jackson also demonstrated a sense of humor. When a Buffalo Bills fan asked him if he had ever intercepted a pass thrown by Jim Kelly, Jackson replied: “No. He was scared to throw it over there.”
Politicians in attendance praised the work being done by the Pulaski Street School and the Riverhead Community Awareness Program (CAP), a private, non-profit drug and alcohol prevention agency, to spread the word about the danger of drug abuse.
“When I read the newspapers, I see that drug use is going up, and I say, ‘How can that be?'” said New York State Senator Kenneth LaValle, Republican of Port Jefferson, who had students raise their hands and pledge not to use drugs. “I know it’s not because of the students who went to the Pulaski Street School. I know that.”
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, who had proclaimed it “Say No To Drugs Day,” had town board members step up to the podium, raise their right hands and pledge to keep the CAP program alive and well for as long as they are in office.
Felicia Scocozza, the CAP executive director, sounded hopeful that the program will benefit students. “If they see the positive results that come from not using alcohol and other drugs, if they see that, then it maybe it will touch a few of them,” she said. “I hope it’s made a positive impact on their lives.”
The choice of Jackson as a keynote speaker proved to be a popular one for the students.
“The kids, they’ll listen to somebody like that, who they can identify with other than some Joe Schmo, like the principal,” the Pulaski Street School principal, David Densieski, said. “The kids just eat it up, anybody like that. They’re just happy to really go home and tell everybody at home that they met somebody like Bobby Jackson. It means a lot to them.”
Jackson closed his remarks to the students by saying, “There’s nothing special about me except that I decided to be special, so why don’t you?”