In most places, nobody has to be reminded that August is the dogdays of summer. Here in Knoxville, however, August means fall football practice. Pretty soon, we’ll be dividing Saturdays into pre-game, game-time and post-game, and we will speak of little else until December – or maybe New Year’s, if we get a good bowl game. We’ll watch the Vols on TV, listen to them on the radio, argue about them on-line and read about them anywhere we can.
I’ve never been a sportswriter, aside from bogarting my way into writing some about the glorious Pat Summitt era and its tragic, infuriating but ultimately victorious conclusion, but I did produce one football story that ended up becoming one of my most rewarding work experiences ever. I got to meet smart, interesting people like Ralph Boston and Lon Herzbrun, and learned a lot in the process.
The seeds of this story were planted years ago when I got a freelance assignment to do a story about a reserve quarterback who had become a crowd favorite because of his Dukes of Hazzard-worthy name.
The interview was to take place in the little hall of fame room that used to be adjacent to the old indoor practice facility. While I waited for Jim Bob Cooter to arrive, I browsed through the exhibits dedicated to Vol All-Americans looking for Jackie Walker’s. That took a while because was in the very back, almost like an afterthought.
I don’t remember much about Jim Bob Cooter, who has become a successful coach (he’s the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts) but I do remember thinking that I hadn’t heard anything much about Jackie Walker in a long time, which seemed odd, since he was a two-time All-American and had set national records during his playing years – I couldn’t remember for exactly what, but I did remember he was a really big deal. And he was a homeboy – the star of Fulton High School’s storied 1967 Mighty Mites – the player who delivered a hit on an Oak Ridge running back that Falcon fans still talked about decades later.
I mentioned Jackie’s name in a 2007 story in the Shopper-News (back before it was purchased by E.W. Scripps) about Fulton High’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Mighty Mites. The team wore throwback jerseys and fans swapped stories about the time Jackie put a lick on an Oak Ridge player that you could hear all the way down to the Broadway Shopping Center.
The following week, I got a message to call Jackie’s brother, Marshall. Fearing I’d somehow offended the Walker family, I returned the call and was relieved that they liked the story. Marshall had called to thank me. I asked him if we could get together and talk, and six months later, with a lot of help from Marshall, Metro Pulse published the Jackie Walker story.
We asked if one of the most spectacular athletes ever to wear the Tennessee orange had been erased from Vols history because he was gay.
It caused considerable talk, both positive and negative. The local sportswriter/talker establishment unanimously denied that Jackie had been intentionally ignored.
I remain skeptical of those denials. So do many of Jackie’s teammates, friends and family with whom I spoke.
Jackie died of AIDS in 2002 and was inducted posthumously into the Knoxville and the Tennessee football halls of fame after the story ran. He didn’t make it into the national hall of fame – probably, I’m told, because his professional career didn’t pan out, but a couple of years ago, UT erected a full-sized statue of Jackie Walker near Neyland Stadium.
Vols fans remember their heroes.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.