October 16, 1971
It was the third Saturday in October, and the Tennessee Volunteers came rolling into town on a four-game winning streak over Alabama’s Crimson Tide. Bear Bryant awaited, intent on reversing his fortunes with a new wishbone offense, a retooled team, and a plan so brutally simple that it could be summed up in three words:
Stop Jackie Walker.
The Tide was gunning for Tennessee’s senior captain, an outside linebacker whose fearless play had gotten him named an All-American as a junior, despite his slender physique. As a sophomore—freshmen didn’t play varsity in those days—Walker and his teammates Lester McClain and Andy Bennett had become the first blacks to play against Alabama on Legion Field, and Walker had returned a bobbled pass for a touchdown. He’d pretty much owned the Tide in the teams’ last two meetings, but this game, he would receive the full attention of Alabama’s massive offensive line, which was anchored by 265-pound guard John Hannah, who later became a 10-time Pro Bowler in the National Football League and was named “Best Offensive Lineman of All Time” by Sports Illustrated.
Tennessee junior linebacker Jamie Rotella was an eyewitness to the mayhem, and the memory of Walker’s valiant, hopeless battle in the 32-15 loss still burns bright.
“Jackie literally knocked himself out trying to stop Alabama’s offense,” he says. “He bore the brunt of their attack, and they kept coming after him…. I’m telling you, Jackie took them all on. We didn’t really care about concussions then, but he probably had one and continued playing. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe Jackie was wearing down, because every game up to this, he’d been Superman. And every game after this, he was Superman.”
Rotella’s recollections are borne out in East Tennessee State University professor John David Briley’s book, Paul “Bear” Bryant and the 1971 Season of Change. Alabama lineman Jimmy Rosser paid Walker a supreme, if backhanded, compliment:
“There was a nose guard on Jimmy Grammer, but his primary blocking assignment was on Walker. It was Jimmy’s responsibility to stand him up on this play. After that, I would hit him on the right side, and then either Kraft or Hannah would come in and hit him from the left side. It was kind of like a sandwich. We did this on other people that year, but it was called the Jackie Walker Play after that.”
Rotella didn’t know the play had a name, but he’s not surprised.
“Jackie weighed 188 and these guys weighed 275—so come on—three on one? It was the only time Jackie Walker was ever neutralized,” he says. “Can you understand how shocked I am to hear that he’s not in a single hall of fame?”
Rotella, who was elected captain and named an All-American the year after Walker left, is not alone in his shock.
Jackie Walker’s talent, success and historical significance are undeniable. He was not the first African American to play in the Southeastern Conference, but he was the first African-American star. In a time when captains were elected by their teammates, he was the first African American to captain an SEC team (one of his alternate captains was offensive lineman Phillip Fulmer). He was the first African American in the SEC to be named an All-American—a feat he would repeat his senior season. His NCAA career record for interceptions returned for touchdowns has been tied, but remains unbroken. He led Tennessee to a record of 30-5 from 1969-1971, winning the SEC Championship in 1969 and the Liberty Bowl in 1971, and his quiet intelligence and winning personality made him a media favorite. The New York Times noted that he’d had a singing, dancing role in a campus production of Fiddler on the Roof the summer before his senior year, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes flew him to Miami to sing at one of their national meetings.
While it might be a cliché to say he was the Jackie Robinson of SEC football, it’s not a great exaggeration. It would also be true to say that his teammates were shocked to learn that he was gay. Marshall Walker says that’s why his brother isn’t in a hall of fame.
Jackie Walker has not been named to the National Football Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame, nor has his picture hung on the Wall of Fame in UT’s Black Cultural Center.
“They’ve tried to wipe Jackie’s name out of history because of his sexual orientation,” says Marshall, who is on a quest to keep a promise he made to Jackie before he died of AIDS in 2002, even though Jackie was dubious about it.
“I told him I was going to get him into the hall of fame or die trying, and he gave me that little smirking laugh, like ‘Yeah, right.’ I can see him now, just sitting there laughing at me.”
RUMORS THAT JACKIE WALKER WAS GAY started circulating after his senior season and just before he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1972. Rotella refused to believe what he was hearing:
“I’ve always tried to be open-minded, and when the rumors first broke—remember, it was a different time back then, and ballplayers were protected, insulated from a lot of things—when I heard it, I thought ‘What is it with these people? They’ll make up anything to gossip about.’”
But it was no surprise to Marshall, who had known the truth since the year before, when he’d run into Jackie in the lobby of Hess Hall, where both their girlfriends lived. Jackie was sitting on a rail looking forlorn.
“I asked him what was wrong, and he said ‘I told Melanie.’ I said ‘You told Melanie what?’ He said, ‘I told Melanie that I’m gay, and, man, she’s upset. She didn’t take it very well.’ Jackie had this secret life for a long, long time,” Marshall says. “The girlfriends? That was just a show. At that point, he could NOT let most of his teammates know. I promise you, it was ugly.”
Their sister Norma Jean, who has since died, told Marshall she’d known it all along, and although older members of the deeply religious Walker family struggled to understand the “new” Jackie, Marshall says the revelation never caused a real break.
Campus rumors persisted, and Rotella came to the realization that they were true.
“I was absolutely shocked. There was nobody tougher than Jackie Walker. How could I imagine him being gay? And really, whose business was it anyway? It didn’t change the way I felt about him. I admired him and respected him and looked up to him. There was nobody like him—he was just unparalleled. Statistically, he was probably the greatest defensive player Tennessee ever had. I cannot imagine why he’s not in every hall of fame there is.”
The rumors reached the ears of UT linebackers coach Lon Herzbrun and UT head coach Bill Battle. Herzbrun coached both Walker brothers at Fulton High School before he was hired at Tennessee. He had been close to the family for a decade, but recalls that as he and Battle were driving across town to the east-side YWCA to attend a party celebrating Jackie’s being drafted into the NFL, they were worrying about what they were going to encounter.
Battle told Herzbrun he wasn’t going to stay if Jackie showed up in a dress. Herzbrun offered to go in first and look around. The head coach waited in the car while Herzbrun looked for Jackie. When he spotted an attractive woman who looked a lot like Jackie, he tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Who the hell are you?”
“She said ‘I’m Jackie’s sister.’ It was pretty embarrassing.”
Jackie didn’t find much success in the NFL. Herzbrun believes that the 49ers weren’t patient enough while trying to convert him into a defensive back. Jackie told Daw-U Smith—a friend in Atlanta, where he moved after giving up his NFL dreams—that he was cut from the team when the organization found out he was gay.
Marshall says Jackie found peace in life after football. “When I visited Jackie in Atlanta, I met a lot of prominent people in his environment. Would he bring his partners around? Yes. But he was still discrete. Did I ever see him holding hands, sharing hugs and kisses? No, I never saw any of that. He always had a certain reserve about himself, and he had a lot of pride. I never knew Jackie to intentionally want to harm someone, even as an adult. If you crossed the line, he would settle it right then. Could those rumors about cross-dressing have gotten back to the Athletics Department? Yes.”
BORN APRIL 14, 1950, TO NORMAN AND VIOLET WILSON WALKER, Jackie Eugene Walker’s Knoxville was typical of most Southern cities of the day—strictly segregated by race. If he and Marshall went to town, they rode in the back of the bus. If they got thirsty, they drank from a colored fountain. If they wanted to see a movie downtown, they couldn’t. They could have visited Chilhowee Park, but only on Thursdays.
“It never crossed our minds to go to Gay Street for anything,” Marshall says. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway.”
The Walkers lived in Austin Homes until Norman and Violet divorced when Jackie was five. Norman got custody of the children: Evaline, Norma Jean, Marshall, Jackie and Rosalind. Norman was a hard-working, God-fearing man who was the custodian at Fulton High School and a deacon and a trustee at Greater Warner AME Tabernacle. Violet, who worked for the city schools and was a local and regional PTA president, was a Pentecostal and a lifelong member of the God Gospel Singers. Violet later married the Rev. Lewis Thompson. She was a beautiful woman with a sense of style and a fine singing voice, traits Jackie inherited in abundance.
“Jackie was always a sharp dresser,” Marshall says. “He got that from our mother. She could make a $5 dress look like a $100 dress.”
After the divorce, Norman Walker and the children moved in with his parents, who lived in a house on Delta Avenue that was eventually taken by the city for the construction of Walter P. Taylor Homes. The Walker children were raised to be respectful and polite and never to call adults by their first names. Childhood friends remember Jackie as a fun-loving, joke-cracking kid who was good at sports, but who would just as soon stay home and play with his sisters.
Baseball, played with makeshift bats and taped-up balls, was the sport of choice among the boys in the Walkers’ Park City neighborhood—“Before everything got ‘urban renewal-ed’ away,” says Marshall, who remembers the uprooting of neighborhood doctors and a dentist and a library, clubs and restaurants and stores and businesses. “Maybe it was considered ‘progressive’ at the time, but the individuals making the decisions were not the ones being affected.”
Norman Walker left the house early on winter mornings to stoke the boilers at Fulton. Marshall, who sometimes helped his daddy shovel coal in the basement of the big, whites-only high school, remembers that he and Jackie often tagged along so they could play basketball in the school gym, never dreaming they’d ever be able to attend the school where their father was to spend his entire working life, but in the early ’60s, a desegregation lawsuit forced the city schools to integrate. It began in the first grade, and was to proceed one grade per year. Austin High remained the only option for black high-school students until the court ruled that the glacial pace of Knoxville’s plan didn’t meet the “all deliberate speed” mandate of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision.
Marshall was in the first wave of minority students to attend the formerly all-white city high schools. It took the threat of a lawsuit to get him into Fulton (which he was told was overcrowded), but he was finally admitted to take vocational classes. He became an outstanding player for Herzbrun, and graduated in 1966, a year before the University of Tennessee started recruiting black players. He got a scholarship to play at historically black Florida A&M University for the legendary—and supremely quotable—Jake Gaither, a Knoxville College graduate who produced many of the first black NFL players and famously declared that he liked his boys “agile, mobile, and hostile.”
Jackie followed Marshall to Fulton, where he excelled at basketball and was a member of the Madrigal singers. But football was where he won acclaim. His senior year, he was voted “Most Athletic,” named to the All-State team, and played a key role for the Falcons’ undefeated 1967 “Mighty Mites,” piling up astounding numbers, including a 33-tackle performance against traditional rival Central. He’s best remembered at his alma mater for “The Hit.”
Fulton assistant coach Russell Mayes, who graduated from FHS in 1995, grew up hearing about the night Jackie Walker knocked out an Oak Ridge running back.
“As long as I’ve been in school, I’ve heard the story about the night Jackie Walker hit the guy from Oak Ridge,” Mayes says. “‘It sounded like a cannon going off.’ ‘They had to cut the guy’s helmet off.’ It was without a doubt the most famous play in Fulton history.”
JACKIE DID A LOT OF SOUL-SEARCHING over where he should go to college. UT, which had only one black player, Lester McClain, was recruiting him hard. Tim Priest, who became the Vols’ all-time interceptions leader as an all-SEC defensive back 1967-1970, was a freshman that year and remembers his first impression of Jackie Walker.
“We were looking for something to do since we were freshmen and weren’t playing the next day, and we’d heard about this guy at Fulton that was probably going to come to Tennessee, so we went out to see him. He was amazing. He was flying all over the field, tackling people. I still remember his number: 83.”
But Jackie may not have been as sure a thing as Priest thought.
“Jackie called me at school and asked me how FAMU was, and he wondered if he should come there. He was talking about Tennessee, and said ‘Man, I don’t know about that place... I am fearful of playing in the SEC,’ ” says Marshall Walker.
Specifically, Jackie Walker, who played football with what Herzbrun calls “utter disregard for his physical safety,” was afraid of playing in places like Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, land of George Corley Wallace and the city blacks had sardonically dubbed “Bombingham.”
“He was scared. He didn’t know what to expect. He knew he’d probably have to deal with racism, and that had never been an issue for him at Fulton—they probably wore out all that N-word stuff on me,” Marshall says. “He was doing a lot of reading, and was well aware that there were no blacks there. But we knew he was at home and would have that family support. We also knew he was good enough to play.”
Someone else in Jackie’s corner was Herzbrun, a tough and compassionate man who played fullback and guard at UT, graduating in 1958. He coached both the Walker boys in high school, played a pivotal role in their college careers after UT hired him to coach linebackers, and maintains lifetime connections with many former players.
He remembers meeting Jackie in 1965.
“He was there with Marshall and their dad, who was the janitor at Fulton. My earliest recollection of him was that he was talented. He had good speed, quickness, and tremendous courage. I played him at linebacker because he was in a position to hit people, and I also played him at tight end when we got near the goal line so he could help block.
“He wasn’t very big and he wasn’t very strong, but he had great timing on his explosion. I knew he could be a great football player. I recognized his potential from the very beginning. At Tennessee, I had the privilege of coaching more All-Americans than anyone in the country at that time—Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, Steve Kiner, Jamie Rotella, Ray Nettles—and there aren’t many who meet those qualifications.”
Herzbrun cared about Jackie Walker:
“He was important to me. That doesn’t just go away. I asked an awful lot of players, and he responded as much as anyone I’ve ever had. A lot of times, when a person has a lot of talent, they really don’t do the hard work it takes to be better than anybody else. That’s why he was a winner. He had both. He should have been in the hall of fame long before I was.
“If you met him, you wouldn’t have guessed he was as aggressive as he was on the football field. He was very quiet, but friendly, and was a guy that everyone liked. He was really talented in many ways—he could sing, had a great voice. Sang in the church. Most people really liked him. I think more than anything, he was so respectful, and he got back that same respect from everyone. I lived in Blount County at the time, and he’d come over to the house all the time, and we’d have spaghetti. He was dating some gal in Alcoa.
“He probably got his physical build from his dad. Everybody at Fulton loved Norman, and Jackie probably got his conscientiousness about accomplishing the task at hand from Norman. Whatever they did, they wanted to be the best at it, and Jackie just had the kind of warm personality that made people care for him.”
Marshall has high praise for Herzbrun, whom he says “…put his job [at UT] on the line so Jackie could play as a sophomore. He said ‘If he’s not successful, you can have my job.’ And the first time Jackie hit his man and stood him up, and the other team didn’t get the first down, [his teammates] realized Jackie could play. And once they saw that, they were in his corner.”
WHEN JACKIE FINALLY SUITED UP HIS SOPHOMORE YEAR, his father was waiting anxiously in the stands for his son’s home debut. The Vols played Chattanooga, and Jackie picked off his first interception. Afterward, Norman Walker, who had watched white athletes from Fulton like Ron Widby and Bill Justus grow up and win scholarships to UT, talked to the News Sentinel’s Marvin West about how it felt to see his son in a Tennessee uniform.
“I can’t tell you what a good feeling it was to see him playing for Tennessee…. There’s no better place on earth, as far as I’m concerned.” Norman said he “got a thrill out of the interception.”
Meanwhile, Marshall, who suffered a serious knee injury at FAMU, transferred to UT and started working out with the team with a conditional promise of a scholarship if his knee held up. It didn’t, but Marshall earned two degrees anyway, and is now a social worker with the Knox County Schools. He says few people know the adversities Jackie had to face down to play in the SEC—particularly at away games in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
“My father and my mother and stepfather made a point of going to all of Jackie’s games—especially the away games. They went to every game, everywhere he played—but not me. I never set foot in Mississippi or Alabama.”
Noted sportswriter Keith Dunnavant’s book The Missing Ring tells the story of how Bear Bryant’s 1966 team was denied a national championship because of the racist record of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Dunnavant, who writes about the nexus of social issues and sports, doesn’t think Marshall was wrong to worry about how Jackie would be treated.
“In terms of the tenor of the times—resistance to integration—there had been a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ among schools of the SEC to not recruit African-American players,” Dunnavant says. “It was not written in stone anywhere, just kind of understood. Bear Bryant frequently talked about how he had wanted to integrate in the ‘40s, but was rebuffed because the [university] president at the time believed such an act would risk their membership in the SEC.”
Dunnavant echoes the sentiments of every single person who was interviewed for this story:
“I cannot imagine, given Jackie Walker’s landmark role as a pioneer at the University of Tennessee and in the SEC that he would not be honored in the state hall of fame. You’re talking about a guy who took a step into the darkness, not only for UT, but for the state of Tennessee.”
UNFORTUNATELY, RACIAL PROBLEMS DIDN’T STOP at the campus borders.
Ralph Boston, winner of three Olympic medals in the long jump (a gold in 1960 when he broke Jesse Owen’s record, a silver in 1964 and a bronze in 1968), was UT’s coordinator of minority affairs and an assistant dean of students from 1968 to 1975. He got on a plane in Mexico City and came directly to Knoxville after the ’68 Summer Olympics, which were held during the depths of the Vietnam War and are best remembered for the Black Power salute given by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who accepted their medals, but stood barefoot on the podium and raised black-gloved fists as the national anthem played.
“This was a sign of the times, really,” Boston says. “Not a lot of African-American students were comfortable with the way things were happening for them on campus. You could periodically get called the N-word, and a girl who wrote for the Daily Beacon got a cross burned on her door. Dick Gregory came to campus and spoke in the old gym, and a group of white guys came in and wrapped themselves in Confederate flags. Marshall Walker got involved in that, and in another protest when Jackie wanted to play Othello. He auditioned, but they gave the role to a white actor, who played it in blackface. The excuse was that Jackie wasn’t tall enough.”
Meanwhile, the black football players wrestled with issues of playing time and style of play. Jackie’s roommate, Andy Bennett, a two-sport athlete who was the “other” black recruited in the class of ’68, got in trouble for outrunning his blockers on kick returns and for sporting a mustache.
He says he was able to survive because a black chef sneaked him food out of the kitchen, and because he, Jackie, and Lester McClain created their own support system.
“We were the Three Musketeers. We were teammates and friends and brothers. Jackie was always the peacemaker, and his family ‘adopted’ me while I was in Knoxville. They fed me and took me to church with them. It would have been hard to make it without them.”
In the spring of 1971, someone called a closed meeting of black athletes to discuss a boycott. Football players, members of the track team and representatives of a group called the African American Student Liberation Front attended, and they were on the verge of calling for a walkout. Boston was there, too.
“The few African-American athletes there just kind of decided that they were going to boycott,” he recalls. “They had students supporting them who were very much in favor of that, but Marshall Walker came in and said ‘Hey, look guys—Jackie feels that he has a chance to be captain of the football team, and if that happens, it could not only help change things here, it could help throughout the SEC.’ And they voted to stand down.”
The next fall, after Jackie temporarily lost his starting position for talking back to an assistant coach, Marshall wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Beacon that ran Dec. 1, 1970, under the headline “Racial Discrimination in Sports.”
He called out the father of Tennessee football, Robert R. Neyland, as a racist and said white coaches believed that “black athletes are supposed to use their bodies and not their minds.” He said Lester McClain and Andy Bennett had been unfairly denied playing time, and that “Jackie Walker played only because they didn’t have another white player with half his ability.” He said discrimination “not only existed on the football field, but it likewise existed in track—and especially in basketball.”
The Beacon editorial staff held the letter for awhile, and then ran it with an editor’s note quibbling with some of Marshall’s secondary points, but agreed “in essence” with his larger conclusions.
WHEN JACKIE’S PLAYING DAYS WERE OVER, he moved to Atlanta in 1974. Nicknamed “the city too busy to hate” during the early years of the civil rights movement, the Georgia capital had become a mecca for gays from all over the South. Marshall says Jackie needed to get away from Knoxville and its wagging tongues. Daw-U Smith thinks he just wanted to live in a bigger city with more opportunity and more diverse cultural activities. By all indications, Jackie thrived.
He came back to Knoxville frequently to visit his family, and when Norman Walker died in 1995, Jackie wrote a poem and read it at the funeral.
Daw-U Smith, now an artist living in Jacksonville, met Jackie in 1976 when they were both 26 years old and worked for the city of Atlanta in the parks and recreation department. Daw-U, whose name was David Smith in those days, said Jackie not only became a brother to him and an uncle to Daw-U’s children, but badgered him into going to adult literacy classes when he found out Daw-U was dyslexic and could not read.
“Knowing Jackie Walker changed my life,” he says. “He’s the reason I learned to read, and it was Jackie who encouraged me to pursue my art. He believed you should do what you love.
“By the time I met Jackie, he was really comfortable with who he was. He was the captain of our tennis team, and was such a great athlete but was so humble that he didn’t even talk much about the things he’d done. One day, we were walking home from Piedmont Park talking about football and he told me he’d played in college. I asked where, and he said Tennessee. I asked if he meant Tennessee State [then a historically black school], and he said ‘No. The University of Tennessee.’ And then it clicked in my mind, and I remembered watching him play.
“Jackie could do so many things, and he was so respected by so many people. I like to say he was a renaissance man. He lived a full life, and he touched a lot of people. Anywhere he’d go, Jackie had dignity. People knew his lifestyle, but he brought dignity and respect and honor. You can judge a person not just by how he climbed the mountain, but by how he helped other people up the mountain. Jackie made the people around him better.
“He was a really handsome man, too. I used to tell him that when he walked into a room, the women got weak and the sissies got meek.”
When Jackie learned that he was HIV-positive in 1998, he cashed in some of his life insurance and traveled the world.
When he began to be desperately sick, Daw-U became his caregiver.
In June 2002, a 20-year-old man in a Lincoln gunned it at a Knoxville side street, jetted across Western Avenue and crashed into Violet Thompson’s car, killing her as she was on her way home from church. Both Daw-U and Marshall say that her death broke Jackie’s heart and made him lose hope.
Daw-U accompanied Jackie to Knoxville for the funeral, and watched as he got up and spoke to the overflowing crowd at Rodgers Memorial Baptist Church. A video tape of the service captures a thin, frail man in a summer sports jacket standing at the podium sharing memories of his mother.
He told of going to PTA meetings with her, and how she’d take his hand and other kids would ask, “‘Who is THAT?’ And I would say, ‘That’s my mother!’ And I was proud.”
He paid tribute to her sweet potato pie and her church work, and promised to see her “on the other side.” He closed with a gospel song, his once-rich tenor hoarse and whispery:
“In times like these,
you need a Savior,
In times like these,
you need an anchor.
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor holds
And grips the Solid Rock,”
“It took a lot out of him to sing that song,” says Daw-U.
Jackie returned to Atlanta, and his health declined sharply. Andy Bennett, who lives in Tampa and owns a high-tech security business, visited him there right after he’d started dialysis. Bennett was shocked at his old friend’s condition, but says Jackie tried to stay positive.
Jackie’s youngest sister Rosalind and her son were able to spend Thanksgiving with him, and afterward, things went downhill. Daw-U says Jackie was constantly vomiting, and had wearied of the fight. Finally, he fell into a coma from which he never awakened, although Marshall, who drove down from Nashville when Daw-U called him, believes that Jackie knew he was there.
Jackie Walker died December 5, 2002. His family honored his wishes and cremated his remains. There were two memorial services: one at GSN Ministries, which serves Atlanta’s gay community, and another at House of God Holiness Church in Knoxville. Herzbrun and Priest attended the Knoxville memorial, and Herzbrun presented the family with an official All-American portrait of Jackie in an orange-and-white frame.
Marshall Walker, who spent a lifetime watching out for his little brother, still has one last thing he wants to do for Jackie. When Jackie’s kidneys failed, Marshall had wanted to give him one of his own, but had to abandon that notion when faced with the reality of the situation.
“Jackie said ‘It won’t do no good, man!’ He told me that the virus would kill the new kidney within 24 hours.”
So Marshall started working on getting Jackie into a hall of fame. It has been a solitary task, but now it appears that he’s no longer alone.
Tim Priest, who is now a Knoxville attorney and a color analyst on Vols’ radio broadcasts, is a member of the board of directors of the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. Shocked to learn that Jackie has not been inducted, he says he’s going to do something about it.
“I’ve never nominated anybody, but Jackie Walker is certainly worthy in my eyes, and I don’t have a clue why he hasn’t been included. He’s qualified for the National Football Hall of Fame, too. I’ll tell you this: His name will be put in nomination. It’s time.”
Until then, Marshall can take comfort in the certainty that as long as they play football at Fulton, when new freshmen suit up for practice and get that talk about Falcon tradition, somebody’s going to tell them about Jackie Walker and the lick you could hear all the way to Broadway.