Gay Founding Fathers: Jackie Walker

October 7, 2013

Welcome to "Gay Founding Fathers," a new series that goes back—sometimes way back—through queer culture to introduce you to gay men who made a difference, made history, made us swoon, and just plain made us be proud to be who we are.

In the past couple of years, we've seen more gay athletes coming out of the closet than ever before (YES!), but only time will tell if sportsmen like Wade Davis, Jason Collins, and Robbie Roberts will be remembered for their achievements on the playing field as much as the moves they made off of it. With football season in full swing, we can't help but recognize one of the golden boys who managed to do both: All-American linebacker Jackie Walker.

Athletically gifted, smart, good looking, and humble to a fault, Walker's greatness was already being predicted when he became the first African American to attend the University of Tennessee on scholarship, in 1970. And the freshman from Knoxville wasted no time in making good on his promise. Despite not being a senior, his teammates elected him captain for the '71 season, making him the first African-American to lead an SEC team, and he shattered a number of NCAA records, including making the most number of career interceptions converted into touchdowns, a title that he still holds to this day.

After completing college as a four-time All-American, Walker was drafted to the San Francisco 49ers and he seemed destined for a bright future in football. But strangely, he was cut from the team before the season even started. And despite all of his accomplishments, it took more than 30 years for him to be recognized as one of the great college players by any major sports affiliations. Why all the fumbling? Critics, family members, and former coaches and teammates claim it was because of Walker's sexuality. Rumors that he was gay started circulating after his senior season, whispers that hounded him ever since. Always true to himself, Walker never took steps to quell the rumors. He was who he was. A champion athlete who just happened to be gay.

The story of Walker's deafened legend was made audible by a story published in Metro Plus magazine. Author Betty Bean asked the question of whether Walker's sexuality was the reason why he was never inducted into the Hall of Fame. She discovered that Walker's name was still legendary in the Knoxville area and that there was much support from previous teammates and coaches for his induction.

"[Walker] should have been inducted long before I was,” said Lon Herzbrun, who coached Walker at Fulton High School and in college. “He didn’t do any of the things some of the guys today do—no drugs, none of that. He was just the most accomplished player I’ve ever been around.”

The article helped punt Walker's historic career back into public conscience and jump-started the movement to honor his legacy. In the summer of 2008, he was finally inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame as well as the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. Unfortunately, the accolades that should have been awarded during his lifetime came too late. Walker died from complications from AIDS in 2002.

Which out and proud athletes inspire you? Do you think homophobia is still a big issue in professional sports? Sound off in the comments section below.

Tags: Sports, Football, Gay Athletes, founding fathers, jackie walker
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Comments

Don't forget DAVID KOPAY! ! Who came out in 1975 and I understand is still active in the gay movement and I think lives in Seattle.

Thanks for the tip!

I had never heard of this guy! Thanks for the history lesson.

Great to read of this man, and sad that he was denied his rightful chance in life.

Homophobia permeates large sections of our society, especially in certain parts of our country.

To think that it could have been personnel from the fabled gay city of San Francisco who snubbed his career with the 49ers! A very important and obscure history lesson. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Here's a list that could keep your new "Gay Founding Fathers" series going for YEARS!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gay,_lesbian_or_bisexual_people
I just watched a PBS special on a designer and artist named Emile Norman who does not appear on this exhaustive list. Luckily he didn't face the "macho" sports world's reticence to revere a gay icon properly for his achievements. I had the fortune to meet Morris Kight at San Diego's Pride festival, before he passed away. Neither of these gay icons appear on the wikipedia list, despite having wiki articles written about them. I hope you include both in your series and look forward to your continuing insight!

Thanks for the wiki list and additional people!

Being black, being Gay, and "born in the USA".
What man could overcome?
It must have been the ultimate irony going to the San Francisco 49ers back in the '70s.

And these are the reasons why Pride is still so relevant. The fight is not over and the hangover of societies nay sayers will linger for many generations to come.

Thanks!

It's really important that the bastions of masculinity (like sports, the military etc) accept gay male homosexuality inclusively.

We're not LGBT people - we are men, and the rest of our gender needs to see us not as abstract outsiders who are not like themselves.

Hopefully masculinity will be around forever, and hopefully the culture which has oppressed us for so long will be the culture where we shine!

there are thousand of men that fought for gay rights in many ways, this young man was true to himself and fought the sport world to be who he was and paid a big price, he gave up world fame, money and more just to be the gay man he was. I too understand this, I took on business in CA. In 1996 I worked as a manager for Budweiser, the fired me for being gay, it was legal then, I fought using my own money and took them all the way to the CA state Supreme court and won, well they decided to give me a trial so the supreme court did not hear the case, I had won in Fed. court, superior court, and the appeals court, just to have the right to a trial for be terminated just for being gay.

I could have stayed in the closet and I would be a millionaire today and living the good life, but like the young football player I stayed true to who I was. I did win in the end forcing Bud and his little brother bud light he he he, to add sexual orientation to their policy and to give all employee sensitivity training which they did. There are thousands of untold stories of every day gay men that say enough is enough and just take a stand, giving up their future just to do the right thing, stand up and be gay, be who you are and do not hide, you do not have to be in their face but just do not hide or back down. I am told I should write a book about my bud experience but it would just be another story of gay man fucked over by straight homophobic people in power.

Hi. I grew up in Knoxville and I knew Jackie Walker I knew he was gay before the rest of the country knew. I knew of the incident that led to his being known as gay. It was very sad. The rest of his teammates rejected him as did professional football. But, I think that he was happy and if he had any bitterness, he never expressed it to me. Sweet guy. Jay