The Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame's annual induction banquet at the Knoxville Convention Center last Thursday was a bittersweet reunion for Jackie Walker's teammates, family, friends, and coaches who came to see him posthumously honored. Many of them were pioneers in their own right. There was Lester McClain, who enrolled at the University of Tennessee in 1968 and was the school's first black football player. And there was Walker's classmate Andy Bennett. The three of them formed their own support system. At the banquet, Bennett and McClain represented sort of a Missing Man formation, Two Musketeers.
Lon Herzbrun, who coached both Jackie and his brother Marshall Walker at Fulton High School, was there, along with FHS legend Bob Black, who loves to tell the story of perhaps the most famous play in local high school football history—the time in 1968 when Walker hit an Oak Ridge running back so hard the lick could be heard all the way down to Broadway.
And there was Fulton teammate Oscar White, who, along with Marshall Walker, helped integrate FHS football and became a career military man. He reached the rank of colonel before he retired, and he lost his wife, Sandra, in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
Herzbrun, who moved on to become Tennessee's linebackers coach during Walker's freshman year, was flanked by All-Americans Jamie Rotella and Ray Nettles. Under his tutelage, Rotella and Nettles, along with Walker, Steve Kiner, and Jack Reynolds, established UT as "Linebacker U." Marshall Walker credits Herzbrun with laying his own career on the line to help Jackie. Two more Walker teammates, Tim Priest and Phillip Fulmer, were among the 2008 inductees, as well.
Nettles—a fiery, fearless player who invented the team tradition of celebrating defensive touchdowns by greeting the scorer with a flying tackle on the sidelines—is fighting cancer, but in a demonstration of the same gritty resolve that characterized him as an athlete, he flew to Atlanta from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., and caught a ride to Knoxville with Rotella. The banquet turned into a weekend of remembering the good times, like the way they used to wish each other good night through the walls from one room to the next, Waltons-style, when they were on the road.
"Good night, John-Boy," Nettles said. "It was just like tucking the team into bed, and the linebackers, we kind of hung together... that's normal. I played ball nine years up in Canada, and Jamie and I have stuck together all these years. With some teammates, all of a sudden it's over and you lose track of people, even though each of them have had something to do with shaping your life. It's like Lon (Herzbrun) always said: ‘Choose your teammates wisely. Surround yourself with champions.' And that's what we did. You know your teammates are going to be there for you."
Condredge Holloway, the Alabama prep star who signed with Tennessee in 1971 after Bear Bryant told him, "Son, Alabama's just not ready for a black quarterback," is one of those teammates Nettles talked about. Now an assistant athletics director at UT, he was at the banquet sporting an orange tie. At the meet-and-greet before the dinner, he was reunited with an old rival—Thom Gossam, a Birmingham native who grew up dreaming of being Bryant's first black football player, but instead became a three-year starter at Auburn who has built a career as a screenwriter and actor. Gossam, the first black athlete to graduate from Auburn, was in Knoxville researching a screenplay he plans to write based on the Jackie Walker story. He didn't know him personally, but remembers Walker as a ferocious foe.
The 2008 inductees into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame were introduced in alphabetical order, and Walker's was the last name to be called. When Marshall stepped into the spotlight in Jackie's behalf, there was an extra dollop of applause and some audible murmurs of "Hell, yeah." A well-dressed man at a table in the rear pumped his fist and said "About time!"
And what would two-time All-American Vol linebacker Jackie Walker, who entered UT in 1969 and became Tennessee's first black football captain his senior season in 1971, have done if he had been able to attend his induction into the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame? Most of his old friends, colleagues, and teammates think he would have said very little beyond a simple thank you. They say that he would have flashed his big signature smile. And he wouldn't have had to pretend that he wasn't gay. On this night, it wasn't an issue.
Marshall Walker thinks Jackie would have had a tough message for today's young Vols:
"Jackie'd say, ‘Study hard. Go to class. And don't make sports your only goal.' When athletes at UT, especially African-American athletes, take these scholarships for granted, they're not showing any respect for history. Jackie and Lester and Andy went through a whole lot to give them this opportunity."
The night represented a promise kept for Marshall. Jackie Walker died of AIDS in 2002 without ever having received any of the post-career honors normally conferred on players of his stature and historical significance. During Jackie's final illness, Marshall promised him that he'd find a way to get him into a hall of fame. Jackie was skeptical, and sure enough, the years went rolling by and nothing happened, despite Jackie's having been one of the most outstanding Knoxville high school athletes ever, as well as the first black All-American in the Southeastern Conference and the first black captain of a Tennessee Volunteer football team and the holder of an NCAA record for defensive touchdowns that still stands today. Marshall wasn't the only one who believed this was because Jackie had come out as a gay man after his senior season at UT.
Tim Priest, who captained the 1970 Vols when Walker was a junior, is a Knoxville lawyer and UT's official radio color analyst. He probably had as much to do with Walker's induction as anyone, although he is too modest to claim credit. He was given the task of introducing the honorees, and he summed up the team's feelings about Jackie Walker:
"When you looked up and saw number 52 our there, you just felt better about our chances. You couldn't knock him off his feet. On his sophomore team, he played with Kiner and Reynolds. The next two years, he played with Nettles and Rotella. And Jackie was the equal of all of them. I am proud to be part of the class that has Jackie Walker in it. There is nobody that deserves to be part of it more than Jackie Walker."
Jamie Rotella, who was elected captain the year after Jackie, was thrilled to see three players from the 1970-'71 teams honored.
"That had to be one of the best teams Tennessee ever had. And there was no question who the leader was.
"That was Jackie.
"Something Coach Herzbrun has been talking about this weekend is being involved with people who are willing to pay the price. The team records, individual records, and all the people who were involved in that team, including the people who didn't letter, the people who weren't blessed with as much talent as the starters, the people who came out and helped us—that was love. There were some very successful people who came from that team, and it's just very rewarding to recall everything that team did. And when I tell you Jackie was the leader, the star, I hope the NCAA Football Hall of Fame is taking notice. I'd like to see them come up with a better ballplayer than Jackie Walker."