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'You Ought To Do A Story About Me' Tells True Story Of A Photographer And His Subject

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One day in 1990, a photojournalist for The New Orleans Times-Picayune went to an encampment of homeless people under the Pontchartrain Expressway. He noticed a man sleeping on a rusty box spring covered with cardboard who had wrapped plastic around his chest for warmth. The man woke up and asked, you looking for a story? Ted Jackson and Jackie Wallace, what happened then?

JACKIE WALLACE: Well, I just looked up and was surprised to see somebody standing over me. And the rest is, I guess, history.

TED JACKSON: (Laughter) I walked up and took a quick picture. And I told him I was a photographer with The Times-Picayune. He kind of stopped for a second. Then he said, you ought to do a story about me because I've played in three Super Bowls.

SIMON: "You Ought To Do A Story About Me" is a book about that story and a relationship that lasts to this day. Ted Jackson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, is the author. Mr. Jackson, thanks for being with us.

JACKSON: Thank you.

SIMON: And Jackie Wallace, the great former cornerback, thank you for being with us.

WALLACE: Thank you for having me here.

SIMON: Mr. Wallace, how do you tell people about the turns in life that brought you to sleeping under a bridge?

WALLACE: Well, I try to be as truthful as I can and try to give an accurate account of what happened. Because of the whole football injuries and a concussion, some of it is a little fuzzy and everything else. One of the things that I can say, for the last 30 years, Ted Jackson has shown me what a true Christian is.

SIMON: And, Ted Jackson, you write in the book Jackie cut a different figure from the other men there. How so?

JACKSON: It was mostly because of the way his camp looked originally. He had a newspaper that was folded next to his elbow. And I didn't notice that at first. But looking back on it later, I realize that it was folded open to the sports page, where Jimmy Smith had been writing a three-part series on football heroes - where are they today? Piecing all this together, it was clear that Jackie had fallen asleep while looking at that story, which was actually about a former teammate of his. And I'm sure he was wondering at that time, you know, maybe someone would be interested in doing a newspaper story about him.

WALLACE: Yes. One of the things I need to bring forth is that when Ted and I met some 30 years ago, the NFL at that time wasn't really doing anything for the retired players. You know...

SIMON: Yeah.

WALLACE: ...They were just letting us play and then would disappear.

SIMON: Yeah. And you're convinced, Mr. Wallace, that you - and doctors have told you that you might have suffered damage playing football that - let's put it this way - contributed to the problems you've had for the last 30 years.

WALLACE: Yes, because I could not understand why I would make decisions that wasn't normal to me. Matter of fact, the decision...

SIMON: Yeah.

WALLACE: ...To use drugs after my mother passed - that was not normal for me. Normally, we would go to church, ask for God's forgiveness, have his power to get us over the loss. But I went straight to drugs.

SIMON: Ted Jackson, help us understand what happened after you published that first article, 'cause things turned around for a while, didn't they?

JACKSON: One of Jackie's high school teammates was now an assistant coach at St. Aug, the high school. And Burton Burns, who is now a coach with the New York Giants, was given the marching orders from the school to head straight to the location under the bridge and try to find Jackie and brought him back to the school. And they fed him, clothed him. And on Monday, I believe, they sent him to Baltimore to a rehab clinic. Things just changed, you know, in my mind, overnight.

SIMON: Mr. Wallace, I'd like to try and get you to talk about the many difficult years that you had. You had this initial breakthrough. You got married to a wonderful woman. And then 1994, things went bad. What happened?

WALLACE: That's where I believe the CTE comes in, in the combination of the substance abuse. Addiction is a powerful element in itself. My second wife, Deborah, she was such a wonderful girl. She started seeing some changes in my character, you know? And when I used that curse word on that one day - that was after, like, eight or nine years of marriage - it just blew everything up.

SIMON: You did hurt people who love you, right?

WALLACE: Yes. I basically embarrassed my family members because, you know, I was not raised like that.

SIMON: And how long have you been clean now, may I ask?

WALLACE: From 2001 up until April of this year, I've had 12 years clean. I've had three years clean. I've had a various amount of time clean. That wasn't the dilemma. The dilemma was it was almost like when the devil leaves the clean house (ph), he comes back and bring about seven or eight more devils with him. That's what has been going on. Now I'm getting more and more spiritual power in my life.

SIMON: Yeah. And I wonder if, Mr. Jackson, if you think of this. All those people you saw that day under the Pontchartrain bridge, we've heard of Jackie Wallace. Other people probably under the bridge that day we'll never hear about.

JACKSON: Absolutely. And I think one thing that set Jackie apart, besides his name, was simply that he had this unbelievable desire to get better, and he wanted help. But there are so many others that need this attention and help. And I found that one of the major parts of addiction is people don't have a life that they think is worthy, so they turn to drugs. They turn to an escape.

So, yeah, there's a lot of people out there. And I think this - I hope this book reaches out to people who have given up on their family members, who have been trapped in drug addiction and can find a new heart for them to try to give them the love that they're so desperately needing.

SIMON: Ted Jackson has written a new book, "You Ought To Do A Story About Me," and Jackie Wallace is the MVP (laughter) of that book - his story. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for being with us.

WALLACE: Thank you for having me.

JACKSON: Thank you. It's an honor. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.