Commentary

Generations of inspiration

The first black football players at UF remain an inspiration to others

Updated: February 24, 2012, 1:20 PM ET
By Michael DiRocco | GatorNation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In his job as Florida's director of player and community relations, Terry Jackson is essentially a mentor and life coach.

He tries to get the players to understand that they have a responsibility to live their lives the right way, help others and make a positive impact on their community. To do that, he talks about his father.

Willie Jackson Sr. was the first black football player to play in a game for the Gators. He fought through plenty of adversity -- racial slurs, taunts, threats -- and went on to become a three-year starter at receiver. Terry Jackson wants the current players to understand that his father, and teammate Leonard George, who was the first black scholarship football player at Florida, are just as much pioneers as people like Booker T. Washington, Buck O'Neil and Frederick Douglass.

"I talk to guys about that all the time, and I remind them that people went through a whole lot so you could be where you are today," Terry Jackson said. "You've got to figure out if you're honoring those guys by your behavior and what you're doing."

Willie Jackson, however, didn't view himself as anything more than a football player and student when he signed a scholarship offer to Florida on Dec. 18, 1968 -- one day after George signed his scholarship offer. Jackson did not return numerous phone calls and interview requests for this story, but he talked about his past with The Gainesville Sun in 1991.

"We wanted to show them we were just like anybody else, and we had the ability to compete in the classroom," Jackson, who was from Sarasota but played his final high school season at Valley Forge (Penn.) Prep, told The Sun. "Back then we didn't look at ourselves as pioneers. We just wanted to play football and get an education."

He did both at UF, although it wasn't without some drama. In 1971, the Black Student Union staged a protest because it felt the university hadn't done enough for black students, who first had been admitted to the school in 1958. Sixty-six students were arrested, and when President Stephen C. O'Connell decided to pursue charges, nearly a third of the black students and several black faculty members left the school.

Willie Jackson was the one who spoke to The Independent Florida Alligator student newspaper on behalf of the 10 black athletes on campus. He said they had decided to remain in school. "There's got to be somebody left here to keep the pressure on so changes can be made," Willie Jackson told the Alligator.

While enduring those events and the atmosphere on campus, Willie Jackson also had to deal with racial taunts and slurs when the Gators were playing on the road. At Ole Miss, Rebels fans waved Confederate flags. It wasn't much better at Alabama or Mississippi State. Terry Jackson is awed by his father's perseverance.

"I couldn't imagine," Terry Jackson said. "I played in the '90s, and I encountered racism, but I couldn't imagine the outward racism. They went to certain stadiums and they would outwardly get called names, couldn't do certain things. I couldn't even imagine how you could even focus and play at a high level with all that other stuff going on in the background."

Willie Jackson did, though, finishing his career with 75 catches for 1,170 yards and eight touchdowns in an era when the Gators averaged around 200 yards passing per game. But his legacy is obviously much more than what he did on the field, and nobody understands that better than Terry Jackson. Both he and his older brother, Willie Jackson, Jr., would go on to have successful careers at UF -- Terry as a running back and Willie as a receiver -- and are grateful they didn't have to endure what their father did.

Terry Jackson says he's not sure if he would have been able to handle things as well as his father and play football at the same time.

"I think it really helped me and my brother to have confidence to know that he was able to do what he did in those times," Terry Jackson said. "We just had to go out and play ball for the most part. If he could do it, there was no doubt that we could go out and achieve in life."

That's the attitude that Terry Jackson is hoping to instill in UF's current players. Former UF receiver Reidel Anthony said he hopes today's players not only adopt that attitude, but also truly appreciate the sacrifices that Willie Jackson made and the significance of his accomplishment.

"It's kind of hard to put into words when you do something that just sets the tone for a lot of people for the rest of their lives," said Anthony, who played with Terry Jackson. "You can't put it into words why it transcended the whole racial barrier and what they did and to be the first to do it.

"They downplay it, but to us, it's a lot."

Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at espndirocco@gmail.com or on Twitter @ESPNDiRocco.

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