We now go to the Tennessee football legends who were NFL-caliber and held back for something maybe other than football. Jackie Walker is one of the greatest players in Vols history and gets held back for a lot of things because of who he was.
Walker was a legend on his own by being one of the first three black players in the history of the Vols. He also became the first black All-American to represent the university in 1970 and 1971. And he was the first black captain in 197.
But Walker was also openly gay with his team, over 40 years before Michael Sam received national recognition for it. So despite being a two-time All-American linebacker who was a star, he never really even got a look.
As a leader alongside Phillip Fulmer on the other side, Walker was a huge reason for the Vols going 30-5 those three years under Doug Dickey and Bill Battle. He did go in the sixth round of the NFL Draft in 1972 to the San Francisco 49ers. They tried to convert him to strong safety but then cut him because he struggled with the position switch.
It was always odd to cut a guy so early who was switching positions. Why not give him a year to learn it? Nobody would want to sever ties with a draft pick so soon. And it leads us to this Metro Pulse article in 2007, which states Walker’s claim that he was cut because the team found out he was gay. He still, for some reason, isn’t even in the College Football Hall of Fame despite being a back-to-back All-American.
All of this is likely why Walker is on this list. He should have been an NFL star, but he isn’t. So he’s one of the greatest Tennessee football players to ever play in the NFL. And he leaves one of the greatest legacies of tolerance ever, being an openly gay black football player all the way back in the early 1970s for a school just starting to accept black players.