They called him 'Dr. Sweet': Jackson remembered as great athlete, friend, father

'The doctor is in. Look in the end zone, the doctor is in. Is it third-and-two? The doctor is in. Whenever the Bears need a short gain, the ball goes to Dr. Sweet. And he then turns it into a loooong gain.'

-- Sun-Star "Bear Facts" on Stephen Jackson, circa 1989

A gridiron warrior resplendent in orange and black, who blocked like a Mack truck and powered through defensive lines like an M1 Tank.

To those who knew him best, a gentle giant, skilled handyman, good friend -- and most of all, loving father.

Such words form only a mere snapshot of the man Stephen Jackson was, and the legacy he left behind.

Jackson's name made headlines this week after a jury convicted his killer, James White, of first-degree murder and other charges.

Twenty years ago, however, many Mercedians knew Jackson by the name "Dr. Sweet." Back then, Jackson was a running back for the Merced High Bears, playing an active role in winning the Sac-Joaquin Section football championship for the school in 1989 and 1990 (the former was the first year Merced High won the championship, the latter was the year the school was No. 1 in the state).

During the trial, there was no shortage of friends and family members who attended, hoping justice would prevail. At the close of the trial, many shared fond memories of "Steph" both on and off the football field.

Jackson was born and raised in Merced, the oldest child in a family of two brothers and three sisters. His late parents, Wallace and Shirley Jackson, instilled a keen sense of discipline and morals in their children. Wallace worked at the county's probation department for 30 years, and spent the last year of his career as superintendent of juvenile hall. Shirley worked as a special education teacher at numerous Merced schools.

As a football player at Merced High, Jackson is regarded as one of the greatest running backs who ever played at the school. Standing 6-feet-1-inch and weighing 190 pounds at the time, at fullback Jackson was part of a three-pronged attack, with flyback Anthony Volsan and tailback Jhay Roland.

Joe Cortez, a Modesto Bee copy editor who worked as a Sun-Star sports reporter from 1986 to 2000, said the trio of Jackson, Volsan and Roland was one of the most explosive combinations to ever take the field in local high school sports. "Merced was really loaded back then," said Cortez, noting that the team went to section finals for three consecutive years from 1988 to 1990, winning in the final two years. During that time, the team won 41 out of 42 games. "They were one of the top programs in the state at that time," Cortez recalled.

Jackson came into his own as the school's leading ground-gainer in 1990, rushing for 1,358 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. His skills resulted in being named Central California Conference MVP in 1990 and a coveted spot in the 1991 North vs. South Shrine California All-Stars game at the Rose Bowl. "He was a really good blocker. He would lay you out," Cortez said.

Even though he was a big player, he garnered the named "Dr. Sweet" from teammates because of his style and finesse. James "Tyger" Harris, who played free safety with the Bears, likened Jackson to a young Barry Sanders. "He was a hard-nosed guy, like a Walter Payton," Harris remembered. "He was one of those guys that was always bigger and stronger than everybody else."

Mark Speckman, Merced High football coach from 1986 to 1993 and current head football coach at Willamette University in Oregon, said Jackson was a rare combination of size and speed. Off the field, Speckman recalled Jackson as a solid student and family-oriented young man with a calm demeanor. "I don't think people really knew how good Stephen was," Speckman said. "He wasn't into the gang thing and he wasn't a troublemaker who got into a bunch of fights. He was a lot of fun to be around," he said.

Speckman still remembers how Jackson was a crucial part of Merced High's victories over Nevada Union in the 1989 and 1990 section championships, bringing home its first section crown the former year. "He was always very calm, then when he would get the ball, he'd explode," Speckman described. "He had a long stride, and once he had that going, no one could catch him. He was an explosive football player."

Roland, 39, who now lives in Atlanta, said he began playing Pop Warner football with Jackson around age 11. Together, they'd become a force to reckon with at Merced High. "Those were good times. We were unstoppable," remembered Roland. "It was a winning environment."

Harris, 38, said although winning the section championship was "a big deal for us," it was ultimately a combination of "excellent coaches" and hard work. "We expected to win. We really did. We were bigger, faster and stronger than anyone," he recalled.

Colleges nationwide took great interest in Jackson, as his sister Wanda Jackson, 36, remembered the offer letters pouring into the family's mailbox. He graduated in 1991, and played football at Washington State for a year. Jackson moved on to play two years of football at Fresno State.

Unfortunately, his college football career didn't equal his glory days at Merced High, and he didn't make it to the pros. "I think he was disappointed in a way, but he never gave up that dream," said Wanda Jackson, adding that her brother pursued semiprofessional football, and played flag football in his spare time.

Regardless, Jackson went on to lead a small but successful handyman business, a trade he learned from his father. Kevin Weatherby, a friend who knew Jackson from high school, said whether it was fixing a heater, car stereo or setting up drywall and painting, "Steph" was literally a "jack of all trades."

Still, friends and family say Jackson's proudest moment was becoming a father in the mid-1990s. He and son Khalil were inseparable. Jackson had custody of his son, Harris recalled, and spent a great deal of time working on being a good parent. "Khalil was Stephen's pride and joy," said Wanda Jackson.

Jackson was also a common sight at his son's football practices, often seen giving him tips and pointers. "Everywhere you would see Stephen, you would see his son," said Harris. "(Khalil's) dad was his everything. (Stephen) was not only his dad, but his friend, his mentor, everything."

Wanda Jackson said her brother also had a heart for helping young men who needed work, but had difficulty finding employment. "His way of giving back was hiring young black men and paying them a decent salary," said Jackson.

Unfortunately, there were those who took Jackson's kindness for weakness. "Sometimes my brother, he tried to help people who didn't deserve his help," said Wanda Jackson.

One of those people was James "Pedro" White, a man whom Jackson had hired to work on some projects. But White became enraged after Jackson began dating an ex-girlfriend. White began stalking Jackson and making threats, all of which culminated in the fatal events of March 8, 2007.

Jackson was driving to a hardware store with 11-year-old Khalil when White pulled alongside their SUV and mimicked a gun with his hand. Soon after, Jackson and his son saw White, who said he wanted to fight.

Jackson told his son he was only going to talk with White. But near Cone Avenue and G Street, White drove into the path of Jackson's SUV with his van, got out of his vehicle and threatened Jackson with a metal baton.

Jackson got out of his car, and the two men began to fight in the middle of the street. Witnesses said Jackson had the upper hand during the fight. One witness said on the stand Jackson had "whipped his butt."

Rather than accept his defeat, however, White retrieved a .32-caliber handgun and shot Jackson twice. One bullet went through Jackson's right arm and lodged in his neck, while the fatal bullet went into his chest.

Jackson's son witnessed his father's shooting. His dying words were that he loved him, and "stay in school." He was 33 years old.

A Merced County jury on Tuesday convicted White of first-degree murder for killing Jackson. White has a prior strike conviction for armed robbery. On Tuesday, Judge Carol Ash likely will set a sentencing date for the murder conviction.

White has yet to express any remorse to Jackson's family.

Despite the passage of time, Jackson's friends and family said he's still deeply missed.

Wanda Jackson remembered how her brother and her son would show up unannounced on her birthday with a cake, and ready to throw a barbecue party. Every time her birthday arrives now, she misses her brother's impromptu visits. "He was an all-around good person. I could go to him and talk to him about anything," Jackson said.

Speckman said he was also deeply affected after hearing about Jackson's death. "It was like being hit in the stomach. It was such a waste," Speckman said. "He was just hitting his stride as an adult."

Roland recalled the last time he saw Jackson was in 2001, when they'd gotten together at La Hacienda restaurant/bar in Merced, to reminisce about the old days. Little did Roland know, it would be the last time he'd see Jackson alive. Roland said he was also shocked about Jackson's death, particularly because he was so well liked by everyone, and stayed out of trouble. "I couldn't believe it. Steph was a no-problem guy," Roland said. "He was just a good dude. He always had a positive way of saying something."

Although Jackson will be remembered as a phenomenal athlete, those who were closest with him said he was an even better friend and father. "Everyone needs those kinds of friends. It's a shame he was taken so soon," said Weatherby.

"We all loved Steph."

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.