Jackie Walker, the first African American to captain a University of Tennessee football team and the first African American to be named an All-American from the Southeastern Conference, will be inducted posthumously into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame July 17.
Last Thanksgiving, Metro Pulse told the story of Marshall Walker’s quest to get his brother honored for his gridiron accomplishments, which included not only being a two-time All-American (in 1970 and 1971), but setting an NCAA record for interceptions returned for touchdowns that still stands today. Despite his distinguished career as one of the best of Tennessee’s fabled linebackers, Jackie Walker died in 2002 without having been honored by his alma mater nor named to a single sports hall of fame.
Marshall believes Jackie was shunned because he was gay. Many friends and former teammates agree. Jackie Walker moved to Atlanta after college, and died there after a long struggle with complications of AIDS. One of the last times Marshall saw his brother alive, he made him a promise:
“I told him I was going to get him into the Hall of Fame or die trying.”
It wasn’t that Jackie asked Marshall to do this. “Football didn’t define who Jackie was as a person,” Marshall says. “Jackie wasn’t really much concerned with his lack of recognition.”
But that didn’t stop Marshall from trying to do this one last thing for his brother, and last week, the long wait ended when the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame announced that Jackie Walker will be inducted on a weekend that coincides with an annual family reunion. Walker’s family will be in the house for the celebration.
“We haven’t really had a chance to digest it yet, but we’re all just happy, and real elated,” Marshall Walker says. “I’m glad it’s finally happening for him. We’re just giving thanks to God. I’d been hoping for this for so long.”
Since the Jackie Walker story appeared in Metro Pulse last November, it has been told in several media outlets, including a story last week in the New York Times. Many of his former teammates have been interviewed, including his classmate, UT’s head football coach Phillip Fulmer, who served as an alternate captain the year that Jackie was named captain and is also being inducted this year. Fulmer remembers Walker fondly.
“Though he was always undersized, he was a great player—smart, great speed, and toughness,” Fulmer told Times correspondent Chris Wohlwend. “And he was a great person.” He called Walker “one of the best athletes ever in Knoxville.”
Marshall recalls that his fearless little brother was “scared” when Tennessee started recruiting him, and the family was worried about Jackie having to play in stadiums in the deep South. One of his teammates, Steve Kinder, told WBIR-TV that he remembered resistance to integration within the team, and “the N-word” raining down on Jackie from rival fans.
Jackie Walker’s former teammates say that his sexual orientation was never an issue while he was playing, and they were surprised to learn that he was gay later on when he made the decision to live openly. He was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, but was cut before he ever had a chance to play—maybe because of his small stature (5-11, 178 pounds), maybe because he was gay.
But by all accounts, he moved on with his life and spent two happy, productive decades living in Atlanta. When he learned he was ill, he cashed in his life insurance and traveled the world, reporting back to his family the wonders he had seen. Jackie held on until Dec. 5, 2002. 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. Lon Herzbrun, his linebackers coach at UT and his high school coach at Fulton and already a member of the Hall of Fame, was there, along with his UT teammate Tim Priest, who is being inducted this year along with Fulmer and Walker; Herzbrun presented the family with an official All-American portrait of Jackie in an orange-and-white frame.