19 April 2008


African-American UT Football Star Who Came Out While Still Playing College Ball Finally Being Recognized

Jackie Walker was a linebacker for UT (that's the University of Tennessee for any Texans that might happen to be reading this) in the early 1970s. The team had only integrated racially in 1967, so he was a pioneer in being among the first black men to play for the Volunteers.

He came out as a gay man while he was a senior and on the team. In 1973. From this article in yesterday's New York Times:
Nobody disputes the accomplishments of Jackie Walker, a local high school football star and pioneering all-American linebacker at Tennessee in 1970 and ’71.

At Fulton High School here, he averaged 23 tackles a game his senior season. He went on to become the first African-American football player in the Southeastern Conference to be named an all-American and the first to captain an SEC team. And almost four decades after his college career ended, and six years after his death, Walker remains in the N.C.A.A. record book for his ability to return interceptions for touchdowns.

Despite Walker’s accomplishments, few know much, if anything, about him. And that, largely, is because of the way he lived his life off the field after his playing days.

Walker was gay, which he made no effort to hide after his senior season at Tennessee. That is why his name has faded from memory, according to his brother, Marshall, and several of his teammates and coaches. When Walker was dying of AIDS in 2002, his brother told him he would change that, pledging to help get him into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. Walker laughed, convinced that it would never happen.

Now, it appears that Marshall Walker’s promise has paid off. The Hall of Fame is expected to include Jackie Walker when it releases its latest class of inductees Sunday.
One of his former teammates said on learning of his being gay, " 'I was totally shocked,' he said. 'But it didn’t affect the way I admired and respected him. We were confused, but everybody had too much respect for Jackie, for his character as well as for his football play. Jackie was a private person, very humble. Whenever he did speak, his words were sincere, reflecting his character. He was a silent leader. He didn’t say much, but when he did, you listened'."

It says a lot about the man that he came out in 1973 while still in college. He was drafted by the 49ers, but was cut before he had a chance to play pro ball, possibly because he was gay.

The early 70s were heady times. Due to the anti-war activism and youth movements continuing from the late 60s, there was a sense among many that the world could move forward and be a better place, and that people could be who they were without shame. I personally felt that at times, and yet when I had the opportunity to come out when I went off to college—having been pretty much known to be gay, not because of my own coming out while I was in high school, but because I was sexually active and people talk (LOL)—I copped out and helped build my own closet. So learning of this man, I felt proud for him and curious as to how my own life would've progressed if I had had the balls to come out as he did at the time.

(Found via this post at Towleroad.)

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Jackie Walker was my lab partner in zoology at UT. Who knew?
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