“Unblockable” is a word that has often been used to describe some of football’s greatest defenses. It conjures up images of the breath rising from the helmets of the ’85 Bears as they harass quarterbacks on an icy day in Chicago, or of Tom Brady picking turf out of his face mask with a host of New York Giants standing over him. It has sometimes been applied to exceptional defensive units, but rarely is such a compliment given to an individual player. On a chilly Third Saturday in October in 1970, Paul ‘”Bear” Bryant had the misfortune of coming into contact with a player who was “unblockable.”
One would be hard pressed to find any player across Bear Bryant’s nearly fifty year coaching career that gave him greater fits than Jackie Walker. Jackie Walker was a football colossus. The Tennessee linebacker was a two time All-American in the early seventies. Statistics were not preserved from Walker’s first year of varsity football in 1969, but in ’70 and ’71 he recorded nine interceptions, caused six fumbles, made 258 tackles, and set an NCAA record that stands today, with five interceptions returned for touchdowns, all in the course of just twenty-two games. What makes his interceptions more impressive, is that he did it from the middle linebacker position, not safety or corner, and not in an era when passing was necessarily prevalent.
Jackie Walker was a legend, but I bet you’ve never heard of him. Why? In addition to being the first black All-American from the SEC, and the SEC’s first black team captain (he narrowly edged out some guy named Fulmer in 1971), Walker was an openly gay man in the south in the 1970s. Likely because of this, his story has been largely forgotten, and today’s Tennessee football fans know little about one of the programs greatest players.
As excellent as Walker was on any given game day, he was at his best against Tennessee’s most hated foe, Alabama. In his career against Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide, Walker achieved what few players from any team have, a winning record. In the 1970 meeting, Walker delivered his masterpiece. He was everywhere. They could not block him. He landed tackle after tackle, slicing through blocks and battering backs. That day Tennessee forced Alabama into a school record eight interceptions, two of which were Walkers’. He returned his second pick for a game sealing touchdown, delivering Bear Bryant his first shutout loss since the 1950s, and evening the Tennessee/Alabama all time record at 23-23-7
The following season, the Bear was determined to do something about Jackie Walker, a defensive force that no one had been able to mitigate. He came up with what he called “The Jackie Walker Play”, a prehistoric version of the ’89 Pistons “Michael Jordan Rules.” On every play, the Tide triple team blocked Walker. The center was sent to hit him head on, while one guard cut his legs, and the other, NFL first ballot Hall of Famer John Hannah, hit him high from the other side. Bryant bet on the inability of the other Tennessee defenders to capitalize on the opportunity this created, and sold out to stop Walker. For the most part, it worked. Walker was not the disruptor he had been in games past, and Bryant handed him his first and only loss to the Tide as a senior. Amazingly, during this game Jackie still recorded an incredible 17 tackles. Were it not for the Tennessee offenses multiple turnovers, the Vols could have sealed a fifth straight win over the Bear.
Walker went on to have another terrific consensus First Team All-American campaign. His countless tackles, blocked kicks, and interceptions lead Tennessee to a top ten finish and regular season ending victory over unbeaten Penn. State. But no accolade or honor compares to the ultimate compliment he received from the man who would be the first face on a college football Mt. Rushmore. Nothing speaks to his greatness more than Bear Bryant’s decision to name a new offensive scheme after him.
I grew up on stories about Peyton Manning, Hank Lauricella, Reggie White and so many others like them. It took twenty four years before I found out about Jackie Walker. This isn’t due to any malevolent forces stifling his story, or some vast right wing conspiracy. His story wasn’t told for many years because of his sexual orientation, and over the past fifty years, many of those who were old enough to remember him play have passed on or forgotten altogether. Walker was one of the greatest to ever put on the orange and white. Beyond that, he was a huge part of breaking the color barrier in the SEC. He is a legend, and it would be tragic if the story of such a giant was lost to history.