"It started on kind of a slow afternoon at The Times-Picayune," photographer Ted Jackson begins.
Actually, this story started well before that "slow afternoon," which was in 1990. But Jackson’s part in the story started that day in New Orleans, and for him, the story’s still in progress.
"My photo editor had noticed some homeless men had set up a small camp under the bridge and thought it might make an interesting story. So I drove by and parked my car and walked a quarter of a mile or so into the space under the bridge there," Ted says. "It’s under the interstate — under the I-10 near Carrollton Avenue."
'You Oughta Do A Story About Me'
When Ted Jackson got to the camp under the bridge, he discovered that he’d arrived too late for the photo he’d imagined.
"It was all torn up, turned upside down — couches and chairs that had kind of formed a living room setting, which is what made it interesting, was just all wrecked," he says.
Ted turned around to head back to his car. And then he noticed a man asleep on a rusty box spring. He was covered in a plastic sheet. Beside him was that day’s paper. Ted took a picture of the man. Then he woke him up.
"And I asked him if he knew what had happened," Ted says. "And he said, 'Yeah, some kids were driving by, and they were shooting their guns into the camp and had run everybody off.' But then we talked about journalism. He wanted to know why I cared. And I talked about my editor’s idea, and then he picked up the newspaper.
"And he says, 'You know, the series that you guys are doing now about life after the NFL, what happened to the heroes?' He said, 'You oughta do a story about me.' And so I simply said, 'And why would I want to do that?' And he said, 'Because I’ve played in three Super Bowls.' "
'I Still Didn't Realize The Gravity Of What I Had Found'
The claim seemed unlikely, and Ted was inclined to shrug it off. The man on the box spring was "in a bad way," as Ted puts it. Maybe it was drugs or alcohol. Maybe he was delusional. But Ted Jackson’s a newspaper man, so when he got back to the office, he stuck his head into the sports department and asked, "Any of you guys ever heard of Jackie Wallace?"
And they had. The reporters told him Wallace, a local guy, had been drafted out of the University of Arizona by the Vikings, and that he’d played for the Rams and the Colts, though in two Super Bowls, rather than three. Then, they said, Jackie Wallace had dropped off the map.
" 'And nobody knows where he is. He’s disappeared,' " Jackson remembers his colleagues saying.
"What fun you must've had saying, 'I do,' " I say.
"Oh, my goodness. I kind of looked around. I said, 'I think I know where he is.' And I still didn’t realize the gravity of what I had found."
Ted Jackson also failed to realize how the story of Jackie Wallace would come to dominate his days for years to come. He couldn’t have realized it then. But he knew he had a story. And he had a photograph in which a guy who’d played in two Super Bowls had turned up asleep on a rusty box spring.
"As a journalist, you always think that your stories may make a difference in people’s lives. And this one, I thought, would. I just didn’t know it would be that dramatic," Ted says. "His ex-teammates and coaches found him under the bridge really quickly and hustled him off to a rehab clinic in Baltimore. But he told me for the first day or so, he wandered the streets, making sure everybody knew that the guy in the newspaper was him. He was excited that his story had made the paper."
'Do You Believe In Miracles?'
Baltimore’s a long way from New Orleans. As far as Ted and his partner, reporter Jimmy Smith, were concerned, once Jackie Wallace was off the street, the story they’d written had ended.
"It was three years later, when I was typing captions at my desk at The Times-Picayune, that I heard a rap on the glass right above my desk that separates the photo department from the newsroom," Ted says. "I looked up, and it was Jackie, standing there in a three-piece suit. And he stretched out his arms wide as he was tall and just grinned and said, 'Do you believe in miracles?' He had talked his way into the newsroom to invite Jimmy and me to his wedding."
Though he didn’t make the ceremony, Ted did make a trip to Baltimore shortly afterward. He met Mrs. Wallace. He accompanied Jackie to the Baltimore Arena, where he was working, and together they visited the employee locker room.
"That seemed to be the centerpiece of his tour. And he couldn’t wait to open up the locker and show me his folder of the photos that I shot under the bridge," Ted says. "And he said, 'Every day when I come to work — every day I have to open that folder and look at them and touch the pictures and remind myself that it only takes one slip, and I end up right back under the bridge.' "
Thanksgiving Day, 2002
Jackie told Ted that since he’d seen the photos, he felt he’d been reborn.
For years after that day in the locker room in the Baltimore Arena, on every Thanksgiving Day, Jackie called Ted to thank him for that rebirth.
And then, on Thanksgiving Day, 2002, there was no call. At first, Ted thought nothing of it. Maybe Jackie felt as if he’d been thankful enough. And then he did think something of it. He called Jimmy Smith.
"And we decided that we needed to check up on him," Ted says. "Probably just that he missed it on his calendar. But we discovered that Jackie had gone missing. That something had happened. And like he had tried to tell me in the locker room, that he had had that one slip."
Ted heard rumors. Maybe Jackie Wallace was back in New Orleans. When he went out on a story, the photographer would examine the faces of the men he saw in the street. While he was taking photos for a feature on a homeless shelter, Ted was especially vigilant. And he wasn’t exactly sure why Jackie’s disappearance so disturbed him.
"What was my motivation? Was it about him? Or was it about me?" Ted says. "Was it the fact that my story was now crushed?"
Maybe not crushed. But maybe in vain. If Jackie Wallace was back on the street, how much good had Ted Jackson’s photo done him? Ted had used the story of Jackie’s recovery in his talks to school children. He wondered if now he should tell them what had happened, assuming he ever found out.
Ted heard nothing about Jackie Wallace for a dozen years. He assumed that Jackie was dead, probably from a drug overdose. And then one night at a homeless shelter, he ran into a guy who said he’d seen Jackie. Ted did some digging, and he found an address in Harvey, Louisiana.
"It was four years old," Ted says. "But you know, the more you think about it, the more you think, 'Well, why not go check it out?' "
"He stretched out his arms as wide as he was tall, and just grinned and said, 'Do you believe in miracles?' "Ted Jackson
'Straight Back To Homelessness'
In 2016, that’s what Ted Jackson did.
"I drove up. There was a man sitting in a plastic patio chair in the front yard, doing nothing in particular," Ted says. "I walked up, and I knew I was going to sound like a cop. So I ask him if he knew where I might find an old friend. And he looked up, and he looked me over really good. And he said, 'And who would that be?' I said, 'His name is Jackie Wallace.' And he looked me up again, and he said, 'It’s the door on the right.'
"And just when he said that, the door opened and Jackie walked out. And he yelled. He said, 'What are you telling that man about me?' It was no doubt who he was. And so I went walking toward the door and I said, 'Are you Jackie Wallace?' And he said, 'Who wants to know?' And I said, 'Jackie, when I tell you who I am, you’re going to smile.' And I said, 'I'm Ted Jackson.' And his face just broke into the biggest smile. He shoved the door open and just swamped me in a bear hug."
Except when he’d imagined his friend was dead, Ted hadn’t been wrong about where Jackie Wallace had been. At about the time that Thanksgiving call hadn’t come, back in 2002, Jackie had had a fight with his wife. A night later, he was sleeping under a bridge.
"Went straight back to homelessness. His drug addiction was worse than before. Had a lot of debt to the drug dealers that he had to deal with," Ted says. "So he started writing bad checks. He was arrested and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He served three, got out on good behavior and went straight back to using again."
It was under those circumstances, Ted says, that Jackie Wallace decided to kill himself.
"And walked up on the bridge on the Crescent City Connection bridge here in New Orleans and was ready to jump off," Ted says. "As he said, something stopped him. He doesn’t know what it was. He thinks it was a cold wind, hitting him in the face. Suddenly, it just scared him, and he thought he was crazy, and he turned around and walked back down and asked to be committed."
"Every time the phone rings, I think it might be Jackie."Ted Jackson
'Like A Lombardi Trophy Presentation'
Fortunately, the doctors from whom Jackie sought help didn’t buy his diagnosis. They told him he wasn’t crazy. Or at least that he didn’t have to be. They told him he was an addict.
Jackie went back into treatment. When Ted found him up in Harvey, Jackie had been clean and sober for three years. Together they attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at which that achievement was recognized. Ted recalls how the fellow leading the group that night addressed the former Super Bowler.
"He said, 'You know, Jackie, you’re still a star. But in this room, you’re still an addict.' And that was a powerful slap in the face to me," Ted says. "I thought, 'Now, that’s kind of cruel.' But I looked straight at Jackie, at his face, and he was shaking his head, 'Yep, yep, yep. You’re right, you're right.'
"When he gave Jackie his medallion at the end of the meeting, which was probably about an hour and a half, I’m guessing, it seemed like a Lombardi Trophy presentation. That’s what the room felt like. Quite a moment for Jackie — and cheers and photos and everything else."
It was not surprising that the life Jackie Wallace had led had beaten him up. Even a short football career will do that, and living on the street is hard on a body. Shortly after he got that medallion, Jackie went into the hospital for a hip replacement. Surgery and recovery meant painkillers. Ted hoped for the best. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, he was updating that Jackie Wallace story.
"There was one loose thread in my story and in my relationship with Jackie," Ted says. "When we sat down for our interviews, he kept saying that he wanted another print of him sleeping under the bridge to hang on his wall. He had lost that during his travels and adventures in homelessness. So I was excited about that. I made the print, 16x20. I framed it myself. Signed it. I wrote a little note on it."
Then Ted began calling Jackie to see when he could come over with the print. When the calls weren’t returned, he started texting. No luck.
'Let's See Where This Goes'
"And so finally I texted one more time, and I said, 'Jackie, I want to drop this print off to you. Can I drop it by now?' " Ted recalls. "And he wrote back, almost instantly. He said, 'Can you mail it to my girlfriend?' And then gave me the address. And I said, 'Well, that’d be great, but I’d rather drop it by myself. I’d like to see you.' And then I just asked a simple question: 'Are you OK?' And he responded, 'No.' "
Ted drove to the address Jackie’d given him. The woman who opened the door was surprised to see him — would have been surprised, probably, to see anyone who’d been connected with Jackie.
"And she said, 'What is this? Why would he tell you to leave it with me? We broke up,' " Ted recalls. "And she said, 'Jackie’s gone back to using again.' "
He’d left everything behind, including the medallion he’d been so proud to receive.
"And I stood there, stunned. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do," Ted says. "But then she said, 'Maybe this picture is the very thing that'll bring him back.' And promised she would somehow get it to him, and let’s see where it goes."
“Let’s see where it goes.” It’s about all Ted Jackson had at that point in what he’d hoped would be a story about how a guy saved himself, reclaimed his life. And Ted says he’ll hold on to that hope until an obituary stamps it out.
"Every time the phone rings, I think it might be Jackie," Ted says. "And every text I get, I think it might be him. I’m very encouraged. I can say that. And I do expect it to be a very positive outcome, when it’s all said and done."
Read Ted Jackson's story "The Search for Jackie Wallace."
This segment aired on March 17, 2018.