“Eventually, Hearts Were Changed,” Wilbur Jackson Shares Story of Courage
Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell will be honored at halftime of the Crimson Tide's annual A-Day game, just over 50 years after the pair broke the color barrier of Alabama football and became the first African American football athletes in program history. The duo will be commemorated with a plaque outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium that is set to debut ahead of the game at 12:30 p.m CST.
Jackson came to Tuscaloosa in 1970, becoming the first African American scholarship athlete in the history of the football program. Hailing from Ozark, AL, Jackson was not highly recruited out of Carroll High School.
"I had one scholarship offer and that was to the [University of Alabama]," Jackson said, "My choices were really limited (...) My parents were hard working, but financially we weren't that well off."
"By me having an opportunity to go to school, for free, to play football, it was just a godsend for me and my parents."
Despite the Crimson Tide having never welcomed any players like Jackson before, the Ozark native did not look at the opportunity as his chance to break barriers, but rather as a blessing.
"When you're 18 years old, you don't look that far into the future (...) I never really thought about breaking barriers at that particular time," Jackson said, "I looked at it as a godsend to be able to go to school without a financial burden on my mom and dad."
Jackson spoke candidly about his close relationship with coach Bryant who welcomed him to the program with open arms.
"Coach Bryant was the best," Jackson said, simply, "I think when I was being recruited, he told me that if I ever have a problem, come and see him. 'Don't go see anyone else, just come and see me and we'll work it out' he said."
"He was the one that pulled the trigger in making the decision to recruit [John Mitchell] and myself. (...) The entire coaching staff, at that particular time, took their marching orders from coach Bryant and however he went, that's how they were gonna go."
While Jackson entered what certainly could have been a hostile environment, the former running back described the locker room and his relationships with his former teammates, some of which are still ongoing, positively.
"For the most part, my teammates were great," Jackson explained, "Some of those guys that we came in together as freshmen, I still consider those guys friends. I tell people that there was some guys who got it right away, there was some guys who were a little bit slow to come around, a bit reluctant, but eventually, hearts were changed."
In his four years at Alabama, Jackson compiled over 1,500 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns and was a crucial member of the 1973 National Championship team. After his career with the Crimson Tide, the San Francisco 49ers selected Jackson in the first round of the 1974 draft where he would spend five seasons before joining Washington for three years to close his career and even win a Super Bowl in 1982.
As someone whose experience became an inspiration to many, Jackson gave some advice to young athletes, saying, "A lot of people made sacrifices. Now it's being passed forward to you to do the same for the ones that are gonna come after you. Carry yourself in a certain way with class and dignity and do the best you can to make things easier for the guys coming behind you."
The A-Day game kicks off on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. CST with Jackson and Mitchell's ceremony taking place at halftime.