From his record-setting interceptions as a Colorado State University Rams football player to his 21-year NFL career both on and off the field, you might think football is Ray Jackson’s life. But the vice president for player development with the Denver Broncos will tell you otherwise: “Football is what I do. It’s not who I am,” he said at a recent lecture on the CSU campus.
Jackson (B.A., social work, ’99) addressed a room filled with social work students, faculty, and CSU leaders for the second annual Leadership in Social Work Speaker Series on November 3, presented by the Center for Lifelong Learning, Outreach, and Education in the School of Social Work and sponsored by the Fornaro Family Leadership Program.
In the front row of the audience was Jackson’s mentor, social work professor emeritus Brad Sheafor. “I thought I was a football player,” Jackson said. “Turns out I was a social worker. That’s what Brad saw in me.”
Jackson’s philosophy and viewpoints shared at the lecture will be of ongoing value to the College of Health and Human Sciences. (Watch a longer version of Jackson’s lecture.) He recently joined the college’s Executive Leadership Council, a group of alumni and friends who provide expertise and support to the college. CHHS Dean Lise Youngblade said, “I am so pleased that Ray has joined our leadership council. He brings a wealth of experience at high-profile organizations paired with his heart for people and social work.”
Charlotte Bright, director of the School of Social Work, introduced Jackson, highlighting his impressive career: fifth-round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills in 1996; six seasons with Buffalo (1996-1998) and the Cleveland Browns (1999-2001); and player development roles with Cleveland (2002-2004), Pittsburgh Steelers (2005-2014), and Denver (2015-present). He has been a part of three Super Bowl-winning teams, and currently spearheads the Broncos’ off-the-field training and education for players, including programs aimed at maximizing players’ potential to achieve goals on and off the field.
At CSU, in his senior season of 1995, Jackson was named to the First-Team All-Western Athletic Conference and was selected to the prestigious American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team. In 2011, he was inducted into the CSU Athletics Hall of Fame. And, he found his passion for people in the field of social work.
Growing up in Montbello, a Denver-area suburb, Jackson was the youngest of four children. Only when he looked back on his childhood did he become aware of the financial challenges his household faced; his mom never let him know there might not be food, or gas on for heat. He remembered a feeling of abundance, some of which came via school social workers whom he characterized as “the least known” players in communities. Jackson recalled help coming to his family from the sidelines, via social, economic, and community support.
At Montbello High School, Jackson recalled, “We were known for our athletics, not our academics.” Jackson aligned his athletic skills with his academic drive to aim for higher education. He visited several universities before deciding to attend CSU. Though it was only an hour’s drive away, the culture shock from his 90% African American high school to CSU was immediate: “I’ll never forget walking into the Clark Building,” he said, where in the lecture halls he was one of few students from racially minoritized backgrounds.
Balancing school and sports can be challenging for all student-athletes. “When most students leave class, football players are getting started with practice,” he explained. “The coach didn’t like that social work classes were around practice time.” Sheafor took the time to understand the demands on Jackson’s schedule and encouraged him to negotiate for shorter practices to prioritize classes and his fieldwork, which he completed at a retirement home.
Jackson was drafted after his senior season, with graduation just a few credits away. He kept the academic goalpost in sight and completed his CSU degree while playing in the NFL.
College ties: ‘I want to help you succeed’
Jackson credits Sheafor for sparking his academic focus. “Brad saw something in me that I didn’t know.”
At the event, Sheafor spoke about his teaching philosophy, which is based in a social work background. “We see the primary goal as helping students succeed,” he said. “We look at their situation, their strengths, and we create opportunities for them to succeed.” Looking at his former student, Jackson, Sheafor said fondly, “Look what happened.”
Coaching rooted in love
Jackson draws a direct line in his mentoring to Sheafor’s approach to teaching. His focus on others is straightforward: “I love people,” he said.
Player development in the NFL can take multiple forms. The Broncos are one of few teams that acknowledges the importance of the role, with Jackson’s position elevated to a vice-presidential level. “Some guys [in player development] push education or investments. I push family,” Jackson said. NFL players spend long seasons traveling, away from family supports. Ensuring those ties are strong helps sustain players through difficult times and the inevitable end of their professional careers.
Jackson begins by building trust with new team members. “Every one of us has a story,” he said. So, he asks them: “Tell me something about yourself I can’t Google.” His philosophy is to “make more deposits” than withdrawals into the relationship with his “68 sons” on the team. The result is that, “All my players know I love them.”
Further, Jackson knows all too well that, “just because someone’s in the NFL doesn’t mean they have all the answers. Many are just kids.” Jackson supports his players by helping them identify specific personal goals and working with them on the kinds of life skills most don’t learn in traditional education settings, like how to assess their credit, buy a car, or mend a relationship. Some of his most important advice to players is: “Find someone you trust, who can tell you truths about yourself.”
Playbook for aspiring social workers
Students at the lecture asked Jackson questions about how he engages with players and their families. Jackson credits social work – his degree and calling – as the core of his success in supporting players. “Social work is not work. It is a privilege.”
He positions himself as a resource to the players’ families, so they can go to him when personal or family crisis arises. Injury, illness, and tragic events like the death of a loved one, miscarriage, divorce, or mental health issues can be difficult for anyone; for a player who has 75,000+ fans watching their performance, the pressure can become immense. Jackson serves as a sounding board, filter, and champion for good choices. He helps protect players’ privacy, but also won’t tolerate poor behavior. “Everything they do is [a part of their] walking, talking, breathing résumé,” he said.
As a social worker, Jackson knows how to earn trust, maintain confidentiality, and set healthy boundaries to support his players. He works with players to help them manage expectations, self-image, and relationships through the high pressure and joys of fame, while also preparing them for the low points. “Imagine getting cut – you’ve given everything [to the sport], and now the team wants younger, faster, stronger [players]. That’s why football can’t be your whole identity,” he explained.
“As a society we love negativity,” Jackson said but his relentless positivity really shines through. “The good days outweigh the bad days.” Jackson also advises his players that they can frame each situation positively or negatively. “It’s okay to fail. You learn so much about yourself. If you’re afraid to fail, you lose out on lessons.”
Jackson starts each day with a recharging ritual and prayer to help him see the opportunities to help his players succeed, on and off the field. One student asked how his personal faith comes into play with others who don’t share it. Jackson spoke about his personal history and roots of his Christian faith, which go back to childhood. “I don’t care what you believe in, I believe in YOU,” he explained. His resounding faith in people is weighty: “We’ve never seen gravity, but miraculously we stay on the ground.”
One other piece of advice Jackson shared with students: leave your work on the field. He builds in transitions from work to home, and from the end of a season of travel to the beginning of a season with family. Whether it’s a drive across town or flight across the country, he uses the travel time to reframe his thoughts on where he is going, and the people he loves at home.
“It’s not about how you start, but how you finish,” he said.
Jackson’s full, hour-long lecture can be found on the College of Health and Human Sciences YouTube.
The School of Social Work is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.