This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
December marks many endings: The end of football season (except some bowls and the national championship, of course), the end of the year, and sometimes, the end of the decade. This year, the Vols finished the regular season 7-5 (5-3 SEC) with a win against Vanderbilt, 28-10, on a rainy Saturday night in Knoxville.
Years often fade in the memories of individuals and athletic departments after Decembers pass. However, the legacies of the people and teams who lived during those years endure from season to season, building history.
As the decade dies, remember history that lives on in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
Dec. 5, 2002
Described by former Vol linebackers coach Lon Herzbrun as “a little guy with great explosion,” Jackie Walker earned Tennessee fame as a 1971 football captain. The two-time All-American became one of the first three African American men to suit up in orange and white, staying in his hometown of Knoxville to play football after graduating from Fulton High School.
Walker earned the distinction of being the first black Southeastern Conference player named an All-American in 1970 and became the first black SEC football captain a year later. He battled on the gridiron for more than 300 career tackles. He battled for attention with his unusual prowess, eventually becoming one of the most interviewed players on the Tennessee squad. He battled for a spot on the San Francisco 49ers after college, but the team cut him before the season. Then, he battled for his life.
Walker died of complications from AIDS on Dec. 5, 2002.
A gay man, Walker never thought his name would be woven into the fabric of football history. His accomplishments had been relegated to the shadows, though at the time of his death, he held the NCAA career record of pick-six plays with five during his career. No hall of fame bore his name.
But that would all change in 2008.
“They’ve tried to wipe Jackie’s name out of history because of his sexual orientation,” Walker’s brother Marshall said in a 2007 interview with Metro Pulse’s Betty Bean. “I told him I was going to get him into the hall of fame or die trying.”
Marshall Walker succeeded. In 2008, the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame inducted Jackie Walker as a member. The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame followed in 2011.
“As one of the best athletes ever in Knoxville, he should be recognized,” Walker’s teammate and current Vol athletic director Phillip Fulmer told The New York Times in 2008. Fulmer served as an alternate captain during the 1971 season behind Walker.
An undersized linebacker, Walker remained larger than life. He stopped drives so swiftly, Alabama’s Bear Bryant needed to devise a special play named for Walker just to contain the aggressive back. When the Vols played in Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, a Bulldog mom held up a sign with her son’s number asking Walker not to hurt him. And off the field, his voice boomed in UT’s 1971 production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“When he walked into a room, he had a presence. Everywhere he went,” friend David Smith said in an interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel’s Drew Edwards in 2008. “If we went to the mayor’s house or we went to the ‘hood, they dealt with him first.”
Herzbrun coached Walker in high school and in college. He said he listed the All-American at 195 pounds in the game program, but he doubted “if he weighed more than 180.” After the 49ers drafted Walker in 1972, they hoped to use his smaller frame at strong safety. However, the organization cut him before the season, either impatient with his progress or, as Walker believed, because he was gay. The organization never discussed the issue publicly.
Jackie Walker moved to Atlanta where he remained until his death. His memory lives through his coaches, teammates, and family who remember him as a Volunteer and a pioneer—a resilient athlete and individual.
Dec. 2, 1989
That resilient trait remains common among Vol teams as demonstrated by this year’s Tennessee Volunteers who began the football season with a 1-4 record only to finish 7-5 in the regular season. In 1989, the Vols earned a better record, heading into December at 9-1 overall. However, they narrowly beat Vanderbilt in Neyland Stadium. Tennessee’s resilience prevailed, and the Vols won 17-10 in front of a crowd of 92,975.
David Climer, a sports writer for The Tennessean, covered the match-up in Knoxville. Expectations remained high for the Vols, who had already beaten every opponent except for Alabama.
“On nine previous occasions this season, Tennessee has won because of itself,” Climer wrote in his recap. “Yesterday, the Cotton-pickin’ Vols won despite themselves.”
Noting an “offense that sputtered with a defense that needed a halftime wake-up call,” Climer recounted the near smudge on Tennessee’s record. The Vols entered as a 3-touchdown favorite. The Volunteers seemed to just go through the motions until the fourth quarter reminded them a game remained on the line. Three interceptions from Carl Pickens and J.J. McCleskey in the fourth quarter saved the men in orange and white from an embarrassment by the in-state rival.
“[Pickens and McCleskey] have given a new personality to our defense,” coach Johnny Majors said after the game. “They give us some excitement, some verve and pizazz.”
Even Vanderbilt head coach Watson Brown praised Pickens, who called him a “great athlete” with “phenomenal” closing speed.
Pickens and the Vols carried their momentum into the new year with a Cotton Bowl win against Arkansas, 31-27, on New Year’s Day (1990). The win against Vanderbilt had also given Tennessee a share of the SEC title.
This year’s win against Vanderbilt gave Tennessee a winning record of 7-5 and extended the Tennessee-Vanderbilt all-time record to 71-25-4 in favor of the Vols. The men in orange and white will learn their bowl destination on Dec. 8.
The Tennessee men’s and women’s basketball teams continue their historic narratives this week as well. Rick Barnes and the No. 17 Vols (6-1) take on Florida A&M in Knoxville on Wednesday, looking to extend their current record home win streak to 31 games. The game tips off at 7:00 p.m. and will be televised on SEC Network. Kellie Harper and the No. 20 Lady Vols (7-0) look to hold on to a perfect record against Texas on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. in Knoxville. The game will be televised on ESPN 2.