Aleteia

Must-read: The incredible story of the homeless man who played in two Super Bowls

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Attention: Pulitzer Prize committee. If you’re looking for a candidate for this year’s Best Feature Story, here it is.

A remarkable and riveting piece of journalism, from photojournalist Ted Jackson, who recounts the long and arduous journey of an NFL star who he met living under a bridge over 20 years ago.

From NOLA.com, there’s this description by Jackson of his efforts to photograph a group of homeless men—and his stunning discovery:

I practiced how I would approach the men — what I would say and how I would say it. I prepared my mind for honest compassion and understanding. This world is so different from mine, I reminded myself. My cameras were prepared for whatever might happen. I’d experienced this rush of uneasiness many times before. Some of my most meaningful photographs have been made while treading similarly unpredictable terrain.

As I turned the corner, my previsualized episode evaporated. The sofa was overturned. The tables were smashed. It was as if marauders had ravaged it. No worries. There’s always the next story, I told myself.

I meandered a bit as I returned to my car, wondering what possibly could have wrecked the scene. I was not prepared for what I saw next: a half-naked man sleeping on a rusty box spring.

I couldn’t have been more startled if he had been an alligator. His bed was overlaid with cardboard and tucked into a cleft of piers and brush. He was covered in a sheet of thick, clear plastic. His head rested on a wadded yellow jacket, also wrapped in plastic. Alongside the bed lay two discarded automotive floor mats, a five-gallon bucket for bathing, a pair of neatly-arranged sneakers, a clean set of clothes, a jug of water and a carefully folded copy of The Times-Picayune. He slept in the fetal position in only his briefs and undershirt.

I climbed the pier with my camera and made a few frames of the scene, then climbed down and woke him. He wasn’t startled in the least. I guess when you sleep under bridges, you learn to expect the unexpected.

He sat up slowly and cleared his head. I asked him if he knew anything about the homeless camp — if he knew what happened to the men.

“Yeah,” he said. “Teens driving by started shooting their guns at them, so they decided there had to be a safer place to live. Why do you ask?”

We talked for a minute or two, about my editor’s idea and journalism in general. After a brief pause, he said, “You ought to do a story about me.”

I’ve heard this line many times before, and many more since.

“And why would I want to do that?” I said.

“Because,” he said, “I’ve played in three Super Bowls.”

Read it all. Every word. It’s extraordinary. Kudos, Ted Jackson. The video above gives more background on the story.

How many other Jackie Wallace’s are out there? Pray for them. Pray for him. Pray for us.

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