By Kary Booher, Media Relations, Missouri Sports Hall of Fame
After snarling along the defensive line for the Mizzou Tigers’ bowl teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s and later for the NFL’s New York Giants, Jerome Sally could have taken the easy road. Perhaps snagged some cushy job. Maybe moved to some tropical locale.
Instead, he’s worked in the Columbia public school system since the 1990s, serving as an assistant football coach before earning his Master of Education degree from William Woods in 2004 and rising to the role of assistant principal at Hickman High School.
It’s the path he chose, and for good reasons.
“I try to give back to the students what was given to me, and that was an opportunity,” Sally said. “Somebody took a chance on me and gave me a chance to play football. My life has been filled with people who read through the exterior persona.”
Sally certainly made the most of what was given to him, so much so that the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct the former nose tackle as part of the Class of 2015.
At Mizzou, Sally was part of a Tigers program that charged to four consecutive bowl games from 1978 to 1981. He lettered his final three seasons, when Mizzou combined for a 23-13 record under coach Warren Powers and played in the Hall of Fame Bowl, Liberty Bowl and Tangerine Bowl.
Sally finished his senior year with a career-high 78 tackles in 1981 and earned the Associated Press’ National Lineman of the Week award against No. 9-ranked Mississippi State, as he registered a career-high 15 tackles (12 solo).
Sally’s National Football League career spanned seven seasons and includes a Super Bowl ring with the 1986 New York Giants.
Certainly, the Columbia community is fortunate to have him.
Sally could have gone anywhere after his NFL days ended. But Columbia was home. It was at Mizzou where he met his wife, Debbie, during his freshman season and where they ultimately raised daughters Micah and Raysha. And it was at Mizzou where he made a name for himself.
Understand, Sally could have gone anywhere after he graduated in 1977 from Proviso East High School in Maywood, Ill., just outside of Chicago. Powerhouses Ohio State and Notre Dame chased him on the recruiting trail, as did several other Division I programs.
Credit then-Mizzou assistants Dick Jameson and Dave McGinnis, plus then-Maywood High School coach and St. Louis native Mike Zelenovich, for steering him to Mizzou.
“I just came down for a weekend visit and at that time I met Johnny Poe, Eric Wright and Phil Bradley and I just kind of hit it off,” Sally said. “When I met coach (Al) Onofrio, I thought he was the nicest man.”
“And here was the kicker,” Sally said, breaking into a laugh, “in the Big 8 at that time, they gave us two meals a day year-round. In the Big 10, it was just one. Food was important to me.”
Looking back, Sally is appreciative of the way Mizzou handled his career. He did not reach varsity until three years in, after playing on junior varsity as a freshman and settling for a redshirt sophomore year.
“Back then, we only dressed 63 players, so you had to earn the right to get to Faurot Field,” Sally said. “Physically, I don’t think I was ready to play (coming out of high school). Maturity-wise, I needed time to grow. So being a red-shirt didn’t bother me. It definitely helped me academically. When my career was over with, I walked out with a degree.”
He still cherishes those Saturday afternoons. His senior year, Mizzou beat Oklahoma and narrowly lost to Nebraska, 6-0.
“I definitely liked the electricity on the field at Faurot Field. I played with pretty great football players,” Sally said. “Now, playing nose guard, you don’t get an opportunity to shine. But my job was to keep the linebackers free and force a double team. So when I got an opportunity to hit somebody, I loved it.”
Sally’s NFL career was almost short-lived. He went undrafted and was cut by the New Orleans Saints in 1982. He actually returned to Columbia, earning money as a substitute teacher and by washing laundry for the Mizzou football team.
Fortunately, the Giants took a chance on him. He played for New York from 1982 to 1986 and was a key part of a defense that led the turnaround. When the Giants won the Super Bowl, it came four seasons after they finished 3-12-1 in coach Bill Parcells’ first season, 1983.
“The defensive line – six of us stayed together for five years,” Sally said. “No one could break the lineup. We were the building block. For a five-year period of time, the defensive line helped develop Parcell’s legacy. We took a lot of pride in that.”
All in all, a great career.