Some men are local legends and some are larger than life. Hershel Ray Jacobs was both.
The former NFL football player, coach, and probation officer exemplified what it means to be a mentor, teacher and a good neighbor.
His influence was never more evident than following his passing Monday, Nov. 15 in Dallas. The Corsicana community mourned him by remembering the man who made a difference in the lives of so many, by simply showing them how to bring out the “Tiger toughness” they already had within themselves.
Navarro County District Clerk Joshua B. Tackett, himself a former high school and college football player, said Jacobs played a big part in his upbringing.
“I viewed him almost as a myth, but most definitely a legend,” Tackett said. “He was one of the biggest, fastest, strongest and toughest people when playing sports and he carried that same vigor throughout his life in all aspects. Almost half of my life, I would work with him and my granddad Donald Tackett. He was well into his 60s when he was still throwing square bales of hay into neat stacks, picking up a bale in each hand at the same time. On more than one occasion, I would come up on Ray and Miami Dolphin star Larry Csonka sitting on a tailgate in his pasture shooting the breeze.”
Tackett said he and so many others were fortunate to experience him in their lives.
“He loved talking with people and up until two weeks ago, he was still making his circuit around the county to stop in and visit with friends, local businesses and taking care of his ranch,” he said. “Although his stories were rough and bloody, he always had a smile on his face when you heard him bellow 'Hey, neighbor!' Or 'howdy, little brother.' Ray Jacobs' contributions to the world go well beyond the game of football. He was a great friend and mentor to countless people in Navarro County and beyond. And he was everyone's ‘neighbor.’ He will be sorely missed by a loving community.”
Former Corsicana ISD administrator Danzell Lee was one of a handful of Corsicana High School graduates who went on to play in the NFL, but one of many who benefited from Jacobs’ coaching style.
“I played under head coach Don Denbow and coach ‘Bear’ Jacobs was on the staff,” he said. “I knew his history and it was very impressive to me. It was hard not to listen to him as he was very loud and aggressive.”
Lee said Jacobs made a huge impact on him when he pulled him aside for some straight talk.
“One day during off season workouts it was raining and muddy and a lot of us guys were pouting, he said with a lot of love. ‘You have been blessed with God-given athletic ability and you need to take this opportunity to get better.’” Lee said. “He told me I could go as far as I wanted if I worked hard enough.”
Lee said he spent summers home from college working on oil pipelines with Jacobs.
“He taught me Tiger toughness and true grit will get you through many situations if you have a commitment to getting better,” he said.
Corsicana Mayor and former Tigers head coach Don Denbow said he hired Jacobs as an assistant coach, a move he never regretted.
“Ray was one of the best athletes I have ever seen. He could run fast and had tremendous strength. Of course he played for Denver and Miami in the pros and had several awards of recognition for his play. He was the head football coach at Mabank and always had a competitive team. Our athletes loved him and respected his accomplishments as a player and loved to be around him when he told personal stories about his childhood and his football days,” Denbow said.
“Ray came from a farming background and worked hard all of his life. He told the story of his father never going to a game to watch him play in high school, college and the pros until Ray talked him into coming to the Astrodome (an indoor venue) to watch him play. His father came into the dressing room after the game. Ray thought his father would be greatly impressed and asked him what he thought of the game and the stadium. He said Mr. Jacobs promptly replied, ‘this place could hold a lot of hay.’ Ray told that story and many others about playing with Larry Czonka and other great athletes. He could hold a group of people spellbound during his storytelling and we all respected him. Ray loved life and enjoyed many friends who also enjoyed him. God bless you Ray.”
Susan Wilson said she and her husband Bill met Jacobs after they bought their ranch from his daughters.
“We didn't miss an opportunity to visit with him and hear his stories, even if with each telling, some of the endings changed!” she said. “In September, Ray gave a presentation along with Joshua Tackett at Kinsloe House. Looking back on that, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that it was the last public speaking engagement he would have. Those who attended have a special gift we can play over and over in our memories.”
Navarro College Athletic Director Michael Landers said Jacobs made an impact on so many people throughout Navarro County and beyond and was glad he was recently inducted into the Bulldog Hall of Fame.
“Life well lived, neighbor,” he said.
According to his obituary, Jacobs was born Nov. 21, 1938, in Corsicana to Myrtle and Arvel Lee Jacobs. He was one of 10 children and grew up on various hard-scrabble farms around Navarro County, working in the fields before and after school. Football was a means for him to finally escape the cotton fields, and he defied his father to continue to play.
He eloped with his high-school sweetheart, Gladys JoAnn Bryant, and the two of them moved to Brownwood together where they had their first daughter, Lisa, while attending Howard Payne.
At Howard Payne, he was twice named NAIA All-American, and three times was chosen as a Lone Star Conference selection. In 2005, he was inducted into the Howard Payne University Sports Hall of Fame. In 2020, he was inducted into the Navarro College Hall of Fame.
He was a first-round draft pick for the 1962 AFL draft, chosen by the Oilers (seventh overall), and by the Cowboys in the 17th round (228th overall). Ray was in the hospital recovering from knee surgery when Mickey Mantle came with legendary football coach Bear Bryant to sign him to his first professional football contract. He blamed it on the pain medication and the thick stack of cash they dangled in front of him that he signed with the Houston Oilers and the Dallas Cowboys at the same time. The ensuing lawsuit between the two teams ended with the Oilers winning but they put the trouble-maker on waivers. He was claimed off waivers by the Denver Broncos. Originally a defensive end, he switched to defensive tackle because he was fast and aggressive. He was a two-time second-team All-AFL.
In 1967, he was traded to the Miami Dolphins where he met long-time friend Larry Czonka. The two hunted, fished, drank, and played furious football together. Suffering from various injuries, Jacobs was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1969, but was released before the start of the season. Picked up by the Buffalo Bills, he was traded to the Boston Patriots. In 1969, he played only part of the season before taking a serious injury to his back.
When he played pro, Jacobs was 6 foot 3 inches (depending on the team, he was either billed as 6’3” or 6’5”), and weighed around 275 pounds. While undergoing back surgery, the anesthesia wore off and he decided to make a break for it, fleeing the operating room with blood streaming down his back, with surgeons and nurses in hot pursuit. He was eventually corralled, drugged much more heavily, and surgery completed successfully.
After playing football, he became a coach and teacher at Mabank High School, Corsicana High School, Navarro College, and Ranger Junior College. The third phase of his professional life came when he returned to Corsicana to become a probation officer for Navarro County, where he served for 20 years, retiring at the age of 72.
As a teacher and probation officer, he inspired young men to work hard, go after their dreams, and have respect for themselves and others.
He spent summers working for Carmack Watkins on the pipelines around East Texas. After his marriage of 22 years ended with divorce, his sister Marie introduced him to a fellow nurse, Bobbie. They were married for 30 years.
After retiring from the probation department, Ray was content to drink coffee with friends in the mornings, play dominoes in the afternoons, and tend to his farm on the outskirts of Corsicana. Gregarious and charming, he called everyone “neighbor.”
Prior to the pandemic, he and his best friend Gene Bullard could be found six days a week holding court at various restaurants around town, discussing politics, sports, and everything under the sun.
He was a member of Westside Baptist Church.
He is survived by his wife, Bobbie, daughters Lisa and Janet Jacobs, step-daughters Amy and Rhonda Tatum, and step-son Malcolm Tatum. He is also survived by his brother David Jacobs and wife Michelle; sister Eleanor Greer, and sister Sandra Hughes and her husband Johnny. He has two step-grandchildren, and many cousins, nieces, and nephews.