Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the life and career of Ozark native and football legend Wilbur Jackson.
Longtime Ozark native Wilbur Jackson is known nationally as the football player that “broke the race barrier” on the University of Alabama football team but in Ozark, where he still calls home, he’s simply the “hometown hero.”
Jackson is being honored by his hometown with a giant 26-foot mural on the side of a building in downtown Ozark that features Jackson alongside legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and the logos of DA Smith High School, Carroll High School, Alabama, the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins, all of Jackson’s former teams.
The Dale County Republican Committee presented a check to the city on July 21 to help with the cost of the mural, which Ozark Mayor Mark Blakenship said is completely paid for now. All of the funds used for the mural are from private donations. The notoriously humble Jackson said he was reluctant to agree to the mural but eventually his daughter talked him into agreeing to it. Despite his reluctance, Jackson said that it “blows him away” to know that after all these years his career and his life continues to have an impact.
“I’ve told people that I don’t need it but I do appreciate it,” Jackson said of the mural. “I appreciate everything the city has done for me. I have lived here my entire life and I love this city and this city has helped me out when I needed it.”
Jackson grew up in Ozark and despite growing up as a big football fan he initially only played basketball and baseball.
“I played basketball before football because my mom didn’t think I could get hurt playing basketball,” Jackson recalled. “Then, I messed around and broke my toe playing basketball and had to wear a cast for six weeks my sophomore year.”
Now, seeing that her son could get hurt playing any sport and with Jackson’s siblings and other family members pushing for him to get to play, his mother relented.
“Everyone was pushing for me to play and I wanted to play and finally my mom agreed, but she had my dad sign the papers,” Jackson said as he tried to hold back a laugh for the rest of his story. “So, if I got hurt it was on him. Once I started doing well, though, she was like, ‘Yeah, that’s my boy!’ That’s how that went.”
Ozark City Schools began the integration process in the 1960s but Jackson remained at the all-black DA Smith High School – as it was closer to his home – until his senior year when DA Smith became a middle school and all Ozark students moved to Carroll. Despite this, Jackson said he never saw or felt any racial tensions at Carroll.
“Carroll was already integrated when I got there,” Jackson said. “I don’t remember any racial problems. Every year they would have the yearbook and do things like most popular or best looking couple or whatever. The student body selected me as the most popular that year.”
Jackson started his football career as a running back and defensive back at DA Smith and during the second semester of his junior year all the DA Smith players went over to Carroll for spring practices to get ready for their season season together. That’s when an injury changed his position.
“I got hurt during spring training and when I came back at the end of spring, Coach (Tom) McClendon said, ‘Just go out there to slot wide receiver and we’re going to try something,’ and told me to just run straight down the field,” Jackson said. “(Backup) quarterback George Williams was in at quarterback that day and I ran past the defensive back and had to stop and come back and get the ball and scored a touchdown off it.”
Jackson played the rest of his high school career at receiver and he said that Williams, to this day, jokes with him that it was him that made his career with that first pass. Legendary Auburn coach Pat Dye – who was recruiting the Wiregrass as an assistant coach at Alabama at the time – came to Ozark to check up on Alabama signees Dexter Wood and Ellis Beck and that’s when McClendon showed Dye film of Jackson’s performance in Carroll’s spring jamboree. Jackson said he never even gave a thought at having a chance to play at a school like Alabama, who had never signed a black player to a scholarship to that point.
“No one else had even offered me. Back then, it wasn’t like it is now with all the camps and things like that,” Jackson said. “Pat Dye had come down here to look at those guys that had already committed and were a year ahead of me. Coach McClendon showed Coach Dye that tape and they came over to DA Smith and he said they were going to be watching me the next year but I didn’t really think a whole lot about it.”
Jackson said that throughout the first half of his senior year at Carroll, Dye would receive updates about Jackson from Southern Star editor Joe Adams and just five games into his senior year, Dye and Alabama offered him a scholarship. He had played less than 15 games ever.
“After I committed I got an offer from Alabama State, Hampton and even Iowa State,” Jackson said. “I had already committed myself and I wasn’t going to go back on my word anyway.
“I look back it now and think I played nine games at DA Smith and they offered me a scholarship after five games my senior year. You play 14 games in high school and get offered a scholarship to go to a major college, that’s pretty special.”
Jackson said he didn’t think much about being the first black scholarship player at Alabama and was just glad he was getting to play and have his education paid for.
“My mom and dad had put both of my sisters through school at the same time,” he said. “There were no grants or scholarships, it was just my daddy’s sweat. So, when that scholarship came along I figured that would be the best shot for me to go to school.”
Jackson said the first time he met Alabama coach Bear Bryant was on a recruiting visit his senior year, the night following a Carroll loss to Eufaula.
“He walked up to me and shakes my hand and it was almost like he was looking right through me,” Jackson recalled. “He asked me, How’d y’all do last night?’ and I told him we lost. He responded by saying, ‘Well, y’all are better than them!’ I was thinking how in the world does he know that?
“The second time I met him he had all the recruits over to his house and we were in his basement all standing around mingling and eating chips. He came over and took me around the corner to another room and he says, “If you come here I’ll make you the best receiver in the country and if you ever have a problem don’t go see anyone else, just come to me.’ That really stuck with me.”