You are currently viewing Jackie Walker’s true 1969 Tennessee story forgotten and unjustly overshadowed by 1970 USC-Alabama folklore

Jackie Walker’s true 1969 Tennessee story forgotten and unjustly overshadowed by 1970 USC-Alabama folklore

Although no one in the documentary says it, there seems to be a feeling that Southern Cal’s rout of Alabama was the shock that the University and a majority of the fans needed to support integration of the football program. But in fact, that same shock probably came the previous year when the Tennessee Volunteers, the team that Bryant always regarded as the Tide’s most bitter foe, thrashed the Tide 41-14 at Legion Field in Birmingham. (I know—I was there.) Two of the Vols’ best players—receiver Lester McClain and linebacker Jackie Walker—were Black. Why history has chosen to ignore this game and focus exclusively on 1970 Alabama-USC is a mystery.”
— ALLEN BARRA, THE ATLANTIC, NOV. 15, 2013

Visit my website homepage, Sports news that connects us all| Tom Shanahan Report | Writer of “Raye of Light”

By TOM SHANAHAN

Allen Barra raised a good question, but on the kitchen table of college football lore, an onion sits with more layers to peel.

Why is USC fullback Sam Cunningham in the College Football Hall of Fame but not Tennessee linebacker Jackie Walker?

Throw a flag on popular culture.

Walker’s omission is an injustice that began with revisionist history crafted two decades after the 1970 USC-Alabama game was played. The racial significance of USC fullback Sam Cunningham’s performance was overstated through a myth spread in the 1990s. The false narrative also served to whitewash Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s segregationist track record.

The folklore’s claim was Bryant slyly orchestrated events, scheduling USC as a game to lose to outfox his racust fanbase. His wanted the embarrassment of the loss to allow him to recruit Black athletes.

No evidence exists he pulled such strings, but the popular misconception worked its way into the national folklore with the aid of poorly researched sports writing. Cunningham, an African American, emerged in folklore (read the following with sarcasm) as an iconic figure for ending segregation – part Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., part Jim Brown.

Let’s set aside for a moment a preposterous narrative that claimed an American racial problem was solved overnight. After all, MLK didn’t pack his bags and return home, mission accomplished, after he delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

A plausible narrative was Walker’s 1969 moment capped a mosaic pieced together by a decade of progress from true 1960s pioneers. Tennessee – in its third season as an integrated program — embarrassed Bryant’s team on the same Jim Crow turf that USC visited a year later. By the time USC and Cunningham showed up, Legion Field’s end zones were “integrated.”

In the 1969 Tennessee-Alabama game, Walker’s first-quarter pick-six was a dagger good for a 21-0 lead. The Volunteers led 34-0 before Alabama scored. The 41-14 final score represented the most points scored against a Bryant-coached Alabama team in his then-12 Tuscaloosa seasons.

Tennessee’s Jackie Walker

——————————————

“It’s very obvious that we were beaten badly by a far superior team,” Bryant was recorded saying in the post-game notes.

The Tennessee result, though, was a harbinger of an approaching new decade.

Two months later in the Liberty Bowl on December 13, 1969, Colorado’s integrated team defeated Alabama 47-33. By the time USC won the 1970 season opener, 42-21, Alabama fans grew accustomed to opponents with African Americans rolling up 40-plus points.

Walker played in an era before the NCAA permitted freshman eligibility, but he established himself as a sophomore starter in 1969. He broke barriers in his 1970 junior season as SEC football’s first Black All-American pick as well as its first Black all-conference selection. In 1971, he repeated All-American and All-SEC honors in addition to his distinction as Tennessee’s first Black team captain.

For College Football Hall of Fame ballot eligibility, an athlete has to be honored by at least one of the organizations the NCAA sanctioned to select All-American teams. In 1970, Walker was named All-America by three of six, Associated Press, United Press International and Newspaper Enterprise Association. In 1971, Walker was picked by four of five, AP, UPI, Football Writers Association of America and Walter Camp.

Cunningham was named an All-American only ONCE in his career — as a senior, in 1972 — and by only ONE organization, the American Football Coaches Association. Cunningham never earned All-Pac-8 honors in three varsity seasons. Is there another College Football Hall of Famer who didn’t make his all-conference team at least once?

Walker’s College Football Hall of Fame resume outdistances Cunningham on All-American seasons, 2-1, and All-American teams, 9-1.

Statistically, Walker led the Volunteers in tackles in 1970 with 132 and was second in 1971 with 126. He intercepted 11 career passes in only 35 games – a linebacker with nearly one theft every three contests. He returned five for touchdowns and has shared the NCAA record for TD returns going on 53 seasons.

Tennessee’s Jackie Walker returns one of his 11 career interceptions.

——————————-

Cunningham never led USC in rushing. After his 135-yard, two touchdown performance against Alabama, the next 10 games he ran for only 353 and three TDs. As a junior, Cunningham was second on the team in rushing with 742 and five touchdowns. But as a senior he totaled only 311 yards in 11 regular-season games, although with nine touchdowns.

Cunningham was a blocking back, and his resume in real time – not the myth spread two decades later – explains why he wasn’t elected to the College Football Hall of Fame until 2010. True icons, after all, don’t wait four decades for enshrinement.

Ernie Davis, the first Black Heisman Trophy winner in 1961, was enshrined 18 years later. Interestingly, the next two Black Heisman winners who were both from USC waited a similar period of time spanning two decades. Mike Garrett won the 1965 Heisman and was inducted in 1985. O.J. Simpson won in 1968 and was enshrined in 1983. In other words, the measuring stick fits Cunningham’s Heisman moment, so to speak, that was spread in the 1990s and his enshrinement.

To be clear: The question isn’t why is Cunningham in the Hall of Fame? It’s why isn’t Walker?

Walker’s 1969 transcendent moment shook foundations while he wore the uniform of Alabama’s bitter rival. Cunningham’s moment took place at a time college football integration was fait accompli, and he didn’t awaken a church mouse. The 1970 USC-Alabama folklore’s success celebrating Bryant and Cunningham over the true 1960s pioneers remains a sports journalism failure.

The Columbia Journalism Review, 60 Minutes and Real Sports with Bryant Gumble were among the brand names that failed to expose the deception. Worse, ESPN programs, E60 and Outside the Lines, and a Showtime documentary, “Against the Tide,” promoted the unvetted story.

“There’s more fiction in those 1970 USC-Alabama stories than anything,” said Lester McClain, Tennessee’s first Black player in 1967 and Walker’s teammate in 1969 and 1970. “You’d think that’s when the SEC began recruiting Black athletes. I was almost out of school by then.”

Times had changed so much by 1970 that two integrated Pac-8 Conference teams opened the season on September 12 in the South: USC-Alabama as well as Stanford-Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium in Fayetteville.

Yes, Stanford-Arkansas was played on the same night and involved a revered southern coach, Frank Broyles. Stanford fullback Hillary Shockley, an African American, overran Broyles’ No. 4-ranked all-white Arkansas defense. Shockley outdid Cunningham’s performance with three touchdowns and 149 total yards. And, it should be noted, Stanford-Arkansas was nationally broadcast by ABC-TV, while USC-Alabama was limited to local radio networks. American college football fans saw only one of the two games.

But no one in Shockley’s camp crafted myths 20 years later around the mythology of Frank Broyles outfoxing his fanbase. Or, for that matter, a true story about Tennessee coach Doug Dickey signing Walker as a hometown kid from Fulton High in Knoxville who later shocked Alabama into the 20th century sensibilities.

As for media failures, it overlooked Bryant had signed Wilbur Jackson as his first Black player in 1970, months before USC arrived.

It ignored Jackson’s commitment meant Alabama was thus the seventh of 10 SEC football programs with a Black player and 33 of 37 major southern programs were integrated.

It disregarded the fact that Alabama high schools had desegregated in the late 1960s, meaning Bryant’s younger players had competed with and against African Americans before enrolling at Alabama.

In fact, for the younger Tide players, joining Bryant’s all-white roster was a step backward in time to Jim Crow. But somehow the Bryant/Cunningham myth succeeded at contending Bryant was a crusader, and he scheduled the 1970 game to lose to educate his players. He invited Cunningham into the Alabama locker room to stand on a bench, stripped to his football pants.

Bryant tells his players:

“Gentlemen, this ol’ boy, I mean this man, and his Trojan brothers just ran your slow-motion asses out of your own house. Raise your heads and open your eyes, this is what a football player looks like.”

Alabama’s players said the scene never happened, and Cunningham admitted later the same. Not to mention the mythmakers and people who spread the fairytale failed to recognize the scene depicted a slave auction.

But by the 1990s revisionist history took hold and was soon entrenched. The media remains comfortable with Bear Bryant hagiography rather than considering the facts.

Does anybody believe Bryant spoke that way? The farcical quote attributed to Bryant was taken from a proposed screenplay that John Papadakis, a 1970 USC linebacker, helped write.

What if a Hollywood screenwriter used Walker’s performance as metaphor for the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.

INTERIOR

Tennessee locker room. Media members encircle Jackie Walker with notepads and microphones as he stands on a bench.

WALKER: “I draw the line in the dust and throw down the gauntlet before the feet of racism: Integrated football today … integrated football tomorrow … integrated football forever.”

At least such a satiric quote was based on the notorious public statements of Alabama’s racist governor, George Wallace. Bryant’s attributed quote was befitting a Saturday Night Live skit.

Lane Demas, an author on college football integration and a Ph.D professor at Central Michigan University, is one of the few voices willing to challenge Bryant hagiography.

“Alabama football integrated because an organized, sustained movement of Black Americans nationwide forced it to, against its will,” Demas said. “That’s the only answer that makes sense if you study the broader historical context.”

Demas added another comment:

“The USC-Alabama story is in a long line of white myths that serve to deny Black people their agency in terms of changing America. Focusing on figures like Branch Rickey or Bear Bryant create narratives in which it is ultimately white people who make cautious, thoughtful, calculating decisions to create change and integrate on their own terms. They become the agents of change, not Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or the thousands who struggled in the streets.”

But that’s not all. The 1970 USC-Alabama folklore ignored other facts found in the game’s play-by-play sheet and box score.

USC’s one-sided score was not a start-to-finish rout that unquestionably was the Tennessee-Alabama result. In the USC game, Alabama quarterback Scott Hunter, a future NFL player, directed a second-quarter touchdown drive to make it a one-score game, 15-7.

Three of the four passes Hunter completed were good for first downs. They were, in order, 11 yards for a first-and-10; a 7-yard reception on a second-and-6 play; and then 19 yards for a first down at the 8-yard line. Running back Johnny Musso scored two plays later.

However, in the Showtime documentary “Against the Tide,” Papadakis gets away with saying, “I don’t recall them making a meaningful first down in the first half.”

Papadakis, who by the time of the mythmaking was a bon vivant restaurateur and wannabe movie producer, forgot HE was the defender forced to tackle Alabama receiver Steve Doran AFTER his first-down reception for 7 yards.

Nevertheless, Papadakis was trotted out again by ESPN. He stated, “They couldn’t make a meaningful first down in the first half. They couldn’t move the ball. Therefore, we ran over them.”

His memory was faulty yet both Showtime and ESPN didn’t note Papadakis’ conflict of interest while granting him a license to rewrite history. The “Against the Tide” film is based on a book, “Turning the Tide,” that Papadakis is credited with writing along with Don Yeager. The book was based on a story Papadakis helped write.

The Showtime and ESPN films also overlooked three Trojans fullbacks scored against Alabama, one of them white, Charlie Evans. He was a senior returning starter who went on to play five NFL seasons. After Alabama trimmed the deficit to 15-7, Evans and Cunningham shared carries to respond with a scoring drive. Evans broke off a 15-yard gain, the longest of the possession, and found the end zone on a 7-yard run just before halftime.

The Bryant/Cunningham folklore first spread out of USC, but it was embraced in Alabama for the same reasons. The myths obfuscated both USC’s poor history on diversity and Bryant’s track record dragging his feet on integration. The hidden facts aren’t hard to untangle.

— USC omitted All-American Brice Taylor, the school’s first Black player, from its media guide until the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s Black newspaper, exposed the Trojans in the late 1950s.

— USC followed an unwritten quota limiting Black athletes to a half-dozen. The Trojans numbered only five Black players on their 1962 national title team and seven on their 1967 national championship roster. It’s true the 1970 Trojans included 18 Black players, but only four were starters – a product of shedding the quota years – and 13 of the 18 arrived in 1969 or 1970 as transfers (12 of the 13 were junior college transfers).

— Bryant was a segregationist coach for 25 years at four schools — Maryland, 1945; Kentucky, 1946-53, Texas A&M, 1954-57; and Alabama, 1958-69.

And then there’s the 1960s timeline of college football integration that makes a mockery of folklore painting Bryant a crusader.

— In 1963, seven years before the 1970 USC-Alabama game, Maryland coach Tom Nugent played Darryl Hill as the first Black player in a major southern conference at the Atlantic Coast Conference member. Hill was a transfer from Navy.

— 1964, Wake Forest coach Bill Tate signed Bob Grant and Houston coach Bill Yeoman signed Warren McVea, making them the first Black high school recruits at major southern schools.

— 1964, Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1964 team was the first fully integrated roster to play in the South. Michigan State College Football Hall of Famers Clinton Jones and Gene Washington integrated North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium end zone, although the Spartans lost to the Tar Heels, 21-15.

— 1965, SMU coach Hayden Fry signed Jerry LeVias, a College Football Hall of Famer, as the first Black scholarship player in the old Southwest Conference.

— 1966, Kentucky coach Charley Bradshaw was the first SEC coach to recruit Black players, signing Nate Northington and Greg Page. Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg followed a year later to total four by 1967.

—1966, When the Game of the Century was played, Notre Dame lined up only one Black player, Alan Page, against Daugherty’s Michigan State roster of 20 Black athletes, 11 Black starters, two Black team captains, College Football Hall of Famers George Webster and Clinton Jones, and the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C.

Tennessee’s Lester McClain was the SEC’s first Black player to score touchdowns with six as sophomore in 1968.

—————————-

— 1967, Tennessee coach Doug Dickey signed Lester McClain as the Volunteers’ first Black player.

— 1968, Jerry LeVias caught a touchdown pass and two-point conversion toss to integrate Auburn’s end zone in SMU’s 37-28 victory at Hare Stadium.

— 1968, Lester McClain was the first SEC Black player to score a touchdown. He caught six touchdown passes as a sophomore.

— 1968, Bob Grant (Baltimore Colts, second round) and Warren McVea (Kansas City Chiefs, fourth round) were the first Black players from a major southern school drafted by the NFL.

Despite such a long string of historic events largely ignored by a 1960s sports media custom of avoiding race, popular culture created Cunningham’s legend while also painting over the true pioneers.

What about Walker?

He died in 2002 at age 52 from AIDS. Walker was a forgotten man in his own hometown and at his own college until a Hall-of-Fame campaign was mounted. Tennessee media, Volunteers teammates and former Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer asked voters to disregard Walker’s sexual orientation.

Walker was enshrined in the Greater Knoxville Hall of Fame in 2008 and the University of Tennessee Hall of Fame in 2011.

Walker’s name first made the College Football Hall-of-Fame ballot in 2014, but he wasn’t elected. Players have to be elected within 50 years of their last college game, so Walker’s window expired in 2021.

Outside of Tennessee, Jackie Walker has been unjustly overshadowed by a Bear Bryant/Sam Cunningham myth, even though Walker had played a role bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

-30-

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Below are links to click on to purchase my books focused.

My books tell the true story of college football integration in the 1960s and address the myths and fiction that allowed a false narrative surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game to usurp the credit from the true pioneers. As I said when I spoke at the National Sports Media Association book festival, no two books provide an accurate portrayal more than RAYE OF LIGHT and THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

I’ll put my facts up against anybody, anytime, anywhere. Watch here.

Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read the summary as a first-place story.

***

Click here to purchase The Right Thing To Do

THE RIGHT THING TO DO

The True Pioneers of College Football Integration in the 1960s

Foreword by Ruffin McNeill

***

Click here to purchase Raye of Light.

RAYE OF LIGHT

Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

Foreword by Tony Dungy

***

Click here to purchase my children’s book, Bubba’s Dad, Duffy and College Football’s Underground Railroad

The book for now is only a Kindle version on Amazon. Print and audio platforms available soon.

***

My next children’s book coming soon: How Duffy Put Hawaii on the Football Map

Leave a Reply