CENTRAL FALLS — In his wildest dreams, Mo Jackson couldn't have scripted a better, more fitting end to his career as the Central Falls High grid mentor.
OK, so his 13-year tenure isn't quite over, as his Warriors still have a Thanksgiving Eve battle against host Lincoln. But what happened Tuesday night, in his final home tilt ever, left the retiring Jackson fighting back his emotions with every fiber of his being.
Somehow, his gridders claimed a thrilling 8-7 victory over North Smithfield in the Macomber Field muck. It was a Division IV win that few folks on hand would've predicted, as the Northmen had fielded a squad that – if wagering on high school football were legal – would have been a bare minimum of 10-point favorites.
Once the final horn sounded, Jackson's players danced around the field – call it a swamp following Tuesday afternoon's constant rains – as if they had just snared another championship.
They didn't, of course, but reigning at home, in their coach's finale, had been just the gift they wanted to deliver.
“It was pretty special,” Jackson grinned while relaxing in the gymnasium at Calcutt Middle School, where he works as a teaching assistant/behavioral specialist, not even 24 hours later. “For those kids to come back and win against a team that had lost two games all season, and were playing for a higher playoff seed, was terrific. For them to shut down a team that had beaten some really good teams in our league, shut down a team for over three quarters … they just played inspired football.
“I know me and Jeff (Lapierre, his defensive coordinator) asked the seniors before the game, 'How do you want to be remembered in your final home game of your careers? A lot of you will never wear a football jersey again, so do you want to be remembered as a team that just rolls over and dies? Do you want to be the team that almost wins, or do you want to play the role of spoiler?'
“Obviously, they chose spoiler,” he added. “They wanted to win this game. I don't know how much of it had to do with me, but I hope not. I hope it had a lot more to do with they wanted it for themselves.”
Call it vintage Jackson, a man described even by his foe's leader that night as one who “just loves kids, coaching them and helping them become better men.
“I've known Mo a long time,” stated North Smithfield head coach Wes Pennington, who was shocked to hear Jackson would be hanging up his cleats after this season. “I actually coached with him during our 2005 championship year (as his special teams assistant). He's a great guy, a great coach. He always gives his kids a 110-percent effort.
“He's that way with everything he does, and he's had a ton of success doing it.”
Following the interview, he ran over to Jackson, who was addressing his enthused squad.
“Excuse me, Coach. I just heard that you retiring, and I just wanted to wish you well,” he said, shaking his hand. Then he looked at the players and promised, “You guys did an awesome job for Coach. I hate losing; it's killing me right now, but it's appropriate you won it for him at home, in his last game here. Congratulations!”
With that, he hustled off to his own team bus for the long ride back.
That's the kind of respect Jackson has had throughout his career in Central Falls. When he told his daughter, Erica, that he'd retire at the end of this school year, not only as the Warriors' head coach but as a Calcutt educator, she refused to believe it.
“She kept saying, 'Dad, are you sure you're going to retire? I don't think you're ready,'” Jackson laughed Wednesday afternoon. “I kept saying, 'Erica, I'm done. It's just time.' When she knew I was serious, I think she started to believe me, but little did I know she was going to go behind my back and start calling coaches.
“She told them, 'I need this information on my dad,” he continued. “When I got to the field, some of my players presented me with a sign. I'll tell you, it was one helluva well-kept secret.”
Erica had taken those statistics to Dion Signs, a company just down the street from the historic ballyard, and had the owners assemble something memorable for her dad to keep.
The red, white and blue sign – the school colors – read, “Coach Maurice 'Mo' Jackson,” then a couple of his favorite quotes. Among them: “Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”
It also stated, “Thank you for 13 seasons of service,” then “Two Super Bowl appearances. Champions 2005. 56 wins.”
“When I saw it, I got a little choked up,” Jackson confessed.
When asked why he's calling it a career, he hesitated.
“Like I said, it's just time; first, I'm going to be 65,” he noted. “And with Jeff, (offensive coordinator) Anthony Ficocelli and Noel Grant being on the staff, everything's set in place. I trust them to take over because, honestly, they could've done it going back a few years.
“This year has been a little disappointing,” he added of a team that will enter that holiday clash at Lincoln with a 3-7 overall mark (3-5 in league). “I felt we would make the playoffs, like we did last year (when CF went to the D-IV Bowl game but lost by a touchdown to Mount Pleasant, the favorite this season).
“If we had played the way we did (Tuesday night), we definitely would have, but all good things must come to an end. I will say this team has been good to me, and my coaching staff has been extra special.”
For those who don't know Jackson, athletics have always been in his blood.
He began his stupendous career at Warwick Vets High in the fall of 1963, but only after he turned down a basketball scholarship to Bishop Hendricken.
“I did that because of Tom Shola, who was the Warwick Vets wrestling coach,” he confided. “I thought he wanted me to wrestle because he had seen me wrestle for Lockwood Junior High at the Middle School state championships, but then he said he had other ideas for me. He wanted me to play football.”
He graduated in 1967 as the first four-year, four-sport lettermen in school history. In that time, he earned All-Division first-team laurels in football, basketball, baseball and track, not to mention second-team All-State honors in all as a senior.
While with the Hurricanes' baseball team that final spring, legendary Boston Red Sox scout Frank Malzone attended some of his games, and described him this way, “An aggressive hitter with an excellent, accurate arm as an outfielder.”
Back then, the Red Sox organized an All-Star game between the region's best interscholastic players; they had tryouts for Rhode Island and Massachusetts top prospects at McCoy Stadium during that summer of 1967. Scouts were so impressed by him, they asked him to play in that tilt at Fenway Park.
“My biggest highlight was doubling off the Green Monster,” he laughed.
Later that summer, Jackson left home to attend a two-year school then known as Arizona Western College, a junior college for dedicated, would-be Arizona State University athletes.
“A couple of the big names to go to school there out of Rhode Island – they also played in either the NFL or Canadian Football League – were Bobby Thompson from Central (High) and Charlie Weaver, who went on to be a defensive end for the Detroit Lions,” he said. “I had gotten a scholarship to play football out there; they wanted me as a running back.
“I made the team, and was fourth on their depth chart at back and third as a free safety,” he continued. “One of the kids got hurt, then another, and the head coach, Butch Lee, said, 'Alright, Jackson, let's see what you've got!' I ran with the 'Gold' (first-team) offense and scored two touchdowns.
“He looked at me and said, 'OK, you got the job!' The first game I started was against Taft JC out of California. When they got off the team bus, they looked like the Green Bay Packers, they were huge. I was, like, 6-foot, 185, and their backs were 6-4, 225-230. One defensive lineman, who was about 6-6, 285 and looked like (ex-Green Bay Hall of Fame linebacker) Ray Nitschke),walked past me and said, 'You're goin' down, little man!' I just thought, 'OK, I'm goin' down.'
“We ended up beating them, I forget the score, and I had 85 yards rushing. I figured I was on my way.”
Jackson, however, wouldn't return. Before Arizona Western's Junior College Rose Bowl playoff game, he discovered his mom had become ill.
“My older sister Edna called me and said, 'You've got to come home. Mom's got breast cancer,'” he explained. “I was crushed. I was going to enroll at CCRI (then Rhode Island Junior College), but I couldn't. I had to take care of my little sister, Marian, who was in elementary school. Dad had to work, so it was my job.”
Upon that return, at age 18, he said he began coaching.
“Walter Henry, the Warwick Parks & Recreation Director, came up to me one day and said, 'I've got a good job for you; I want you to be one of my playground supervisors,” Jackson said. “I knew what they did. At the time, it was a dream job, $125 a week. I had to coach baseball, football, bowling, track and leadership training. I loved it.”
In the interim, he went to RIJC and earned an Associate's degree in liberal arts, then went to work for a moving company. He got married in 1970 at age 21, then decided he needed a higher-paying job to support his new wife.
“Edna worked for Gov. Dick Licht's office, so I asked her about the State Police,” he claimed. “She said she'd check for me. I put in an application, and got a phone call, I remember it was a Sunday night. A guy told me to report to the State Police Training Center in Foster at 6 the next morning.
“The next thing I knew, I was a State Trooper.”
That lasted four years, but he left in early 1974 for personal reasons, as his wife had problems dealing with Jackson facing danger day-in and day-out. He then worked as a security officer for the old Narragansett Race Track in East Providence before moving on to a job as an assistant plant manager.
He later spent 14 years laboring at Health-Tex, a children's clothing manufacturing company, and – between 1992-2000 – worked as the gym coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket.
Through all that time, Jackson coached Pop Warner, Little League baseball, you-name-it. In fact, in 1988, he became Tony Rainone's assistant with the Central Falls High gridders. In Rainone's final year, 1997, his and Jackson's Warriors went to the divisional Super Bowl but lost.
“Tony thought it would be a good time to retire, and that I'd be a good fit,” he stated. “Mike Goodson, Tony's long-time assistant, didn't want the job. Tony told me I should apply for it, so I did.”
After interviewing before the selection committee, Jackson was chosen unanimously, despite the fact a man from Minnesota had applied as well.
“I just loved working with kids, from the time I was 18,” he added. “I think it was because I was so fortunate growing up. I had two parents who worked, so we didn't have to worry where our next meal was coming from.
“I had been the vice president of my senior class, and that was big back in the '60s. I think there were only 11 kids of color in the entire school, and I was one, but – with me – they didn't see color; I think they saw what I represented as a student and athlete.
“I've always treated people the way I wanted to be treated, so I think that's important when you're coaching. I remember Tom Shola, my mentor, used to tell me, 'Always give back, don't ever forget where you came from and be good to people the way they were good to you.' That's always stuck. That's why I decided to coach at CF, and that's why I coached at St. Ray's (fast-pitch softball) and still do at Shea.”
He was hired by the Central Falls School District in 2000, just two years after taking over for Rainone, as a teacher's assistant, and remains one to this day.
As the Warriors' football chief, he compiled a 56-78 record (prior to the Lincoln tilt), and has been to two Super Bowls, winning one (against Narragansett in 2005). But he also spent seven years as the SRA fast-pitch mentor (1997-2003), then opted to come back for the 2005-06 campaigns. In that span, his clubs captured six state titles and produced numerous first-team All-Staters.
He also has led the Shea girls' track and softball teams, with the latter qualifying for the playoffs the last two seasons. He three times was named the Rhode Island Interscholastic League's “Coach of the Year” while at CF, with two coming at SRA and one at Shea.
“I'll stick with (Shea) track and softball probably for one more year, then I'm going to hang it up,” he said. “But I still have my clinics, teaching fast-pitch and doing hitting lessons. I'll continue to do that.”
As for the final home win, he still can't get over it.
“Those last 12 minutes (of the fourth quarter) seemed like they took forever,” he chuckled. “It took forever for that time to pass. We were sitting on that one-point lead (8-7), and your opponent has one of the best running backs in the state (in senior Paris Correia); I was thinking, 'Can we do it?' We've gone all year shooting ourselves in the foot, and the breaks wouldn't go our way.
“But (Tuesday) night was a totally different story,” he continued. “They played the way they were capable of, and we caught some breaks. We always tell them, 'You've got to be strong. You've got to be aggressive, play with all your hearts and souls. Leave everything on the field.'
“(Tuesday) night, I know they did. I'm so proud of them.”
And vice versa, Coach. Vice versa.