Long before most of the Q’s modern players were even born, San Quentin’s gridiron was a battlefield where players faced off against their greatest foe – the inner self.
San Quentin’s gridiron (football field) is possibly the only place in the prison where it’s legal to hit someone and get away with it. Not in the name of violence, but in the spirit of sportsmanship and winning.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the incarcerated men played tackle football against outside teams — à la the movie The Longest Yard (1974), where Burt Reynolds played a jailed former pro quarterback who led his team to victory against the Warden’s hand-picked squad.
But in real life, these SQ convicts donned shoulder pads, helmets and cleats to take on community teams such as Concord Naval Weapon Station and Alameda Naval Air Station. Can one imagine prisoners and free people suiting up and hitting each other? That’s classic.
Since the beginning of the prison, all the San Quentin sports team were called the Pirates (baseball, football and basketball). Maybe it’s because the prison was started on a ship back in 1852, or perhaps the prisoners took on the Pirates name to find some sense of pride as societal outcasts.
In 1979, the Pirates went undefeated, winning all seven games of their season. The historical team had a balanced attack of running the ball and superb passing. The defense was smothering. The team held their opponents to only 31-points for the entire season while they racked up 221 points. They beat Moffett Field 24-3, sunk the Coast Guard 46-0, trampled Mare Island 38-16, and buried Treasure Island 34-0, according to SQNews 1979 Nov. 23 issue.
“Although we’re losers for being in here doesn’t mean we have to be losers on the football field,” said “Luscious” Jackson at the time. “Besides having a lot of talent, we had the ability to play as a team.”
The Pirates were known to have a “doomsday defense.” Rico Thomas led in tackles, sacks and fumble recoveries, while Jackson and Lester Worthy were the only ones to score defensive touchdowns.
“Camaraderie, plus the people we had out there wanted to play,” said Pirate Lawrence Parks. “They weren’t just weekend athletes, just coming out one day. They were always busy working out to better their game. Not to sound conceited, but we were tough!
“They could’ve brought in the Raiders, and the results would have been the same,” Parks added about the wonderful season.
The games were played with eight players instead of the regulation 11 men on the field. The team was led by Coach Baker and Assistant Coach Mike “Little Napoleon” Ferretti.
San Quentin prison guards also found pride in their ’70s and ’80s tackle-football team, called the San Quentin “Green Machine.” They didn’t play the prisoners but had their own league playing other institutions. In Nov. 1979, The “Green Machine” defeated Deuel Vocational Institution’s “Gladiators” 21-14 at the Arnold Field in Sonoma, according to SQNews archives.
In the 1990s, the administration phased out tackle football in favor of flag football. Community participation went down until the early 2000s, when Chaplain Earl Smith established a Christian fellowship program, bringing in volunteers from local churches to compete.
At the same time, San Quentin’s football team changed its name from the Pirates to All-Madden, after Hall of Fame Coach and Bay Area native John Madden. The baseball teams chose the SQ A’s and Giants. The basketball teams converted to the SQ Warriors and Kings, respectfully in a nod to Bay Area professional clubs.
But it was “The Chosen” football team that became the rival to All-Madden. For the past eight years, the Jackson family, which consisted of Andre, Antione and their father, Pastor Wayne Jackson, of the Transformed Through Hope Ministries, who volunteered to head the football program. The Chosen players are church members that come to the prison to fellowship through football.
The three men with their prayer squad will get in the mud – literally – to minister to San Quentin prisoners. The games are hard-hitting, exciting and competitive. The contests are more than just wins and losses. The half-time break consists of a short inspirational sermon, and the game ends with a prayer.
Pastor Jackson’s motto “It’s not how you start — it’s how you finish,” has become the slogan of the entire football program. The motto refers to life, rather than a football game.
“God is the one who gives strength, so don’t play with sin,” said Pastor Jackson. “Do things with the spirit of God, believe, and trust He will bring you out. Victory comes from worshipping in private. So, remember it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
The SQ squad had a chance to test their skills against a former NFL player in 2017, when retired Oakland Raiders quarterback Andrew Walter made his San Quentin debut with The Chosen and led them to a 28-20 victory over the SQ All-Madden. The most impressive thing about Walter was that he played the whole game in flip-flops—you talk about having a quick release.
“We are all people,” said Walter to SQNews. “You must compete no matter where you are. Being here is special. It’s about community. It’s about my faith in Jesus Christ.
“I know what it means to have everything taken away from you. It made me a much better person. We all have a unique trial to get to know who God is and do things differently,” added Walter.
Pro athletes’ visits are not the only highlight of SQ football; it’s the annual “Mud Bowl” that has become a football tradition in the prison. Every year before the California droughts, the patchy San Quentin field turned into a slushy slip-and-slide, in which both past and present players hit, passed and ran in cloudy rainfall. You could see child-like joy on the faces of the men as they were drenched in mud.
All-Madden outlasted the Chosen 32-31 in a defensive nail bitter in the 2018 Mud Bowl. In contrast, during the 1982 Mud Bowl, Alameda Naval Air destroyed the Pirates 44-14. Alameda’s blitzing defense and the rainy conditions forced multiple fumbles by the Pirates that contributed to their defeat, reported SQNews archives.
“I was surprised and happy the administration let us play in these conditions,” said D. “Zayd” Nickolson, All-Madden defensive end, about their game. With less than 10 seconds left, The Chosen threw a Hail Mary pass for a touchdown. With the score 32-31, the Chosen elected to go for a two-point conversion for the win, instead of the one for the tie.
Under a lot of pressure, Chosen quarterback overthrew the receiver into the end zone, officially ending the game, to a chorus of oooh’s and ahhh’s.
“We come to give and receive positivity,” said AJ Haynes, Chosen star wide receiver, about the game and the power of fellowship. “When you see the smiles, when we come down the hill you know it’s all love.”
All-Madden had a 4-2 record before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all prison sports. Long-time head coach Dwight Kennedy paroled, and Bryant Underwood has taken the helm to develop the next generation of players.
The incarcerated players turned to the intramural football league to keep up their skills. The Silverbacks won the 2021 Championship, pulling out a narrow 35-34 victory over the undefeated Hit Squad. The game wasn’t without controversy and spirited arguments with the referees, but the league was a success coming off a yearlong pandemic lock-down.
“I’m extremely proud of the guys in the league,” Jeremiah “JB” Brown, Hit Squad coach told SQNews Sports editor. “We started this league to give the guys in prison something to look forward to and to build good character,” “I understand when it’s all on the line and it’s the Championship, tempers will flair and passions will get high. But, overall, that was a very good game.”
The prison continues with a slow reopening to programs and the sport teams are holding try-outs just to be ready to compete when the outside teams can come back in. The games provide the incarcerated residents a real sense of normalcy.
“The Chosen and All-Madden rivalry is about brotherhood and fellowship, where both those inside and visitors can witness the love of Christ,” said Andre Jackson, Chosen head coach and SQ football sponsor. “Where everyone, both inside and free, can gain from the sports program experience.”
As different COVID strains continue to appear, the prison programs are subjected to postponement, but the players stay hopeful for the season to resume.
“I look forward to playing them,” said John Windham, veteran All-Madden player. “This is therapy. You learn to improve your social behavior because we got here on anti-social behavior. This program works because I think society would want us to be more social.”
It’s like Pastor Jackson says, “It’s not how you start — it’s how you finish.”
Windham has since paroled