Soul receiver gets another shot at ring

July 26, 2008 6:52:42 PM PDT
Chris Jackson already is one of the most accomplished receivers in Arena Football League history. If his Philadelphia Soul wins the ArenaBowl, he might move to the top of the list. Earning a ring is the one thing Jackson has not done in his nine-year career. He came close with the Georgia Force in 2005, catching a tying touchdown pass with 18 seconds left before losing on a last-second field goal. He will get another chance when the Soul plays the defending ArenaBowl champion San Jose SaberCats on Sunday.

Jackson is the only Arena League player who has been both Rookie of the Year (2000) and Player of the Year (2003). He is 156 yards shy of the league's career receiving record (13,362) and 31 catches short of the career receptions mark (1,022), even though the players ahead of him needed 15 years to set their marks.

This year, his first in Philadelphia, he caught 140 passes for 1,719 yards and a career-high 49 touchdowns.

"He's the best (Arena League) receiver of all time, hands down," Philadelphia quarterback Tony Graziani said. "It seems like everybody's stuck in quicksand, and he's moving at normal speed."

A lack of speed, though, kept him out of the NFL. Jackson played with Ryan Leaf at Washington State, setting a school record with 11 touchdown catches in 1997, when the Cougars won the Pac-10 for the first time in 67 years.

Leaf, a quarterback with the tangible skills that made scouts drool, was the No. 2 pick in the 1998 draft., He became one of the biggest busts in NFL history.

Jackson went undrafted and failed to make an NFL final roster in several attempts, but he found his niche in the Arena League.

"He missed the NFL by one-tenth of a second," said Soul president Ron Jaworski, an ESPN analyst and former quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles who calls Jackson the Jerry Rice of the Arena League. "The NFL puts such a premium on top-end speed, that if he doesn't have it, there's something wrong with the guy."

Jackson would not trade places with Leaf now.

"Ryan was one of the best college quarterbacks of all time, but for whatever reason, things didn't work out as planned," he said. "I'm just blessed to play in this league. A lot of people don't give it its due, but I've had a wonderful nine years."

Jackson has caught a touchdown pass in all but two games of his career, relying on his size (6-foot-2, 200 lbs), body control and precise route running.

"He's one of the most competitive guys I've ever seen play," San Jose coach Darren Arbet said. "Nine times out of 10, you're not going to stop him."

Hardly anyone stopped the Soul this season. With Jackson signing as a free agent, Philadelphia won its first nine games, scored a league-high 992 points and went a league-best 13-3. He wanted to be reunited with Graziani, his quarterback with the Los Angeles Avengers from 2001-04, but Graziani has played sparingly since spraining his left knee early in the year.

His replacement, Matt D'Orazio, threw 72 touchdowns passes and only four interceptions, earning Arena League MVP honors.

"I'd have to be a complete knucklehead to think this had anything to do with me," D'Orazio said. "Everybody is going to fight our butts off so that when (Jackson) goes down as the best ever, he has that championship, also."

It won't be easy. Philadelphia, a fifth-year franchise with a famous owner (rock star Jon Bon Jovi), is in its first championship game. San Jose is 3-0 in the Arena Bowl, winning titles in 2002, 2004 and 2007 under Arbet.

SaberCats quarterback Mark Grieb threw a league-high 100 touchdown passes.

Defensive back Omarr Smith intercepted three passes - one fewer than D'Orazio has tossed all year - in San Jose's 81-55 victory over Grand Rapids in the America Conference title game.

In April, the SaberCats led the Soul 33-7 in San Jose before losing 58-57. That lost dropped them to 3-4, but they finished 11-5 and have won eight in a row.

"It's been a long road for us," Arbet said. "Being defending champions, a lot of people gave us their best shot, but the guys responded well. They kept their eyes on the prize."