On a snowy January night 10 years ago, John Madden wanted a breath of fresh air. He was taking the train to the Super Bowl in California for the last time, having arranged to reach his NFL network commentary assignments in a customized bus starting with the next season.
The train stopped briefly in Salt Lake City. Madden, who avoided airline travel because of his claustrophobia, had hit a wide array of conversational topics during the coast-to-coast journey. He and several of his fellow travelers continued their discourse as they de-trained into the frigid midnight stillness.
It was then that the former Oakland coach spoke of his range of heroes. Among them, he listed men who were secure enough to support their wives in aiming high and traveling the necessary routes to their career goals. It was a different kind of goal-line stand. But such men, Madden said, deserved honorary membership on his All-Madden Team.
Though talking in generalities, Madden meant men such as Eric Jackson - the husband of basketball star Sheryl Swoopes.
Jackson is an unsung role model. His name is not on a Nike shoe. Swoopes, who led Texas Tech to the 1993 national championship and played for the gold-medal-winning team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, became the first woman to have a Nike sneaker named after her.
I guess that made Jackson the first man to have a Nike shoe named after his wife.
He also is a man who accepted the challenge of such a life and
making it work.
Jackson, who wed Swoopes in 1995 after a courtship that began in high school, did not directly help fill the Georgia Dome game after game in Atlanta. Sheryl did. The fans came to applaud her and her teammates, who had pulled off a 51-game world tour to prepare for the Games.
Jackson remained in the background as the Tara VanDerveer-coached squad established the USA women as world-beaters. They became some of the most popular celebrities in Atlanta, hounded and hugged by autograph-seekers. I don't remember anyone asking about Eric Jackson, who functioned mostly as a silent partner in a wildly exciting American dream.
But his presence in Swoopes' life anchored her dream. As a freshman at Texas, Swoopes missed Jackson so much that her heartache contributed to her decision to leave the Austin campus and return to her native West Texas.
Now, she will need him in a way she might just be beginning to understand. The other day, the news broke that Swoopes and Jackson are expecting a baby in June. The due date coincides approximately with the debut of the Women's National Basketball Association. Swoopes, 25, was among the headliners the new league has used as its promotional bedrock.
Some speculation has indicated the WNBA probably laments Swoopes' timing, or that the league might suffer because of her absence when it opens play. She reportedly wants to play in August. The season ends Aug. 30.
The launch year naturally is important, but the WNBA should consider Swoopes' time off a short-term woe, not an air ball. Here is betting that Swoopes and Jackson, with their new arrival, can make the league even more appealing as a family-friendly place. It can't hurt that its stars endorse family life by choosing to have one.
Swoopes' basketball ability endeared her to young athletes. But as a working parent, with a marriage and a home to maintain - as well as a jump shot - Swoopes can become an inspiration for a much larger group.