|AP Photos TNKV101-102|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 18 July 2008 18:02|
His brother thinks he knows why the Southeastern Conference's first black All-American isn't included in the College Football Hall of Fame or even the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
``It's because of his sexual orientation,'' Marshall Walker said.
Jackie Walker was gay.
Walker was honored twice as an All-American and became the first black voted captain by his Tennessee Volunteers teammates. The linebacker returned five interceptions for touchdowns between 1969 and 1971, setting an NCAA record that has been tied but not broken.
Tennessee recognizes him with a photo hung on the wall of its athletic department, part of a gallery honoring its All-Americans, and he was inducted Thursday into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.
Walker didn't talk about his sexual preference with teammates. But by his senior year, he didn't hide it either, even as rumors swirled around campus about the football star who dressed sharply, sang beautifully and even had a part in an on-campus production of ``Fiddler on the Roof.''
Just before Walker died of complications from AIDS in 2002, Marshall Walker promised his brother that he would get him more attention for his football accomplishments. He said Jackie chuckled.
``Sports was something that Jackie could take or leave,'' Marshall Walker said. ``Sometimes you wonder if Jackie did it because that was what expected.''
That may be why Walker was cut by the 49ers without playing in an NFL game and failed in a bid with the Washington Redskins. Walker then moved to Atlanta, where he worked for the city's recreation department.
He traveled the world, hosted parties and played tennis on a team he created. Yet his connection with Tennessee football faded - so much that even Walker's nephew didn't know the extent of his uncle's achievements.
``My nephew's head nearly exploded when he saw his uncle's picture,'' Marshall Walker said. ``His first comment was, 'Uncle Marshall, I didn't know that Uncle Jackie was famous like that or that he could play sports like that!'''
Daw'u Smith met Walker when they worked together in Atlanta, but didn't know that he had been a football star until he casually mentioned something about playing in college.
``I just assumed at the time he played with Tennessee State,'' Smith said, referencing the state's historically black college. ``Once he said University of Tennessee, then it hit me who he was.''
M, another historically black school, and voiced concerns about playing in the slowly integrating SEC.
``At that time, you either went to a historically black school or you went to the Big Ten,'' Marshall Walker said. ``I said, 'Jackie, you could play with any team in the country. You could create some history.' He said, 'Yeah, I know I can do it.'''
Walker and roommate Andy Bennett became Tennessee's second and third black players in 1968, joining Lester McClain, who had been there for a season. Kentucky was the first SEC team to integrate in 1966 and Mississippi was the last in 1971.
Smith said Walker told him stories about what they faced playing in the SEC, including having oranges thrown at him when playing in Georgia.
Former Vols teammate Tim Priest, now a radio color analyst for Tennessee football, said he knows Walker faced some unpleasant situations. Priest said the way Walker handled the adversity earned the respect of his teammates, who voted him team captain his senior year. Priest, a defensive back, remembers one interception Walker had against Alabama in 1970.
``I was trying to get ahead of him and block for him, but I never could catch up,'' he said. ``Jackie certainly was one of the best players I ever played with. He just had such great explosion.''
Priest pointed out that Walker's NCAA record for touchdowns off interception returns came at a time when an interception had to be picked cleanly without having bounced off other players.
A writer for Knoxville's alternative weekly newspaper contacted Priest for a 2007 story about Walker, and that's when Priest learned Walker hadn't even been honored by the sports hall of fame in his hometown.
A member of the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame board, Priest pledged Walker's name would be included on the 2008 ballot, and Walker was subsequently elected for induction in the same class as Priest and another former teammate, current Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.
``There's no one in this hall of fame that deserves to be in it more than Jackie Walker,'' Priest said at the induction ceremony to a cheering crowd.
And while Marshall Walker is excited to see his brother finally recognized, he wants more: the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame, ``anything that is related to college.''
``He's as deserving as any of them,'' Priest said. ``Jackie did a lot of firsts.''
Four criteria are required for entry into the College Football Hall of Fame. A player must have been a first-team All-American - something Walker achieved twice - be 10 years removed from his last collegiate game, retired from professional football and ``proven himself worthy as a citizen after his football career, carrying the ideals of football forward into his community.''
Walker meets the first three standards, and Smith believes his friend easily meets the fourth.
Smith said Walker was one of the first people to encourage him to learn to read in spite of his dyslexia. Walker pushed Smith to pursue his love of art after seeing one of his works. When Smith's marriage fell apart after his wife revealed she was a lesbian, Walker was there to support him.
And he'd do that for anyone he knew, Smith said.
``Jackie made everybody around him better. He impacted so many people,'' he said.