Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of a two-part series on the life and career of Ozark native and football legend Wilbur Jackson.
Following a stellar high school career with Ozark’s DA Smith and Carroll High Schools, Wilbur Jackson headed to the University of Alabama to play for Paul “Bear” Bryant.
While Alabama recruited the 6-foot-2-inch speedster to play receiver, it didn’t take long for that to change as Alabama moved to the legendary “wish bone” offense going into his sophomore season. Jackson said he most remembers about the “wish bone,” how tightly kept a secret it was before the 1971 season.
“Back then you didn’t have an SEC Media Day like you have now, all the writers would come to each school and you would see them walk across the field and come over to the coaches and talk to them,” Jackson said. “When (the writers) showed up we ran the last year’s offense and after they left we went right back to the ‘wish bone.’ They even had the fields covered in canvas around the fences, so you couldn’t see in. He went through great lengths to make that a surprise.”
Jackson was assigned the No. 80 as a receiver when he came to Alabama but when Alabama moved to the “wish bone” most of the receivers were moved to running back or fullback. Jackson’s number stayed and he wore it for the rest of his career. Years later Jackson found out that his unique number influenced other players, as well.
“When I ended up at (the) Washington (Redskins) there was a guy named Ike Forte from Arkansas and we got to talking in a meeting one time,” Jackson said. “He said at Arkansas he wore No. 85 because he saw me wearing No. 80 at Alabama and wanted to wear a number in the 80s.”
Coming from Carroll’s traditional pro-style offense to Alabama’s new “wish bone” – and moving from receiver to running back – was a steep learning curve for the young speedster.
“It was tough, especially for me,” Jackson said. “In the “wish bone” the key is you must be able to block on the corners. It didn’t matter to Coach Bryant how great of a runner you were if you couldn’t block the corner. The key to it was you had to attack that outside leg, that way the running back can go around you.”
Jackson said another Alabama legend, Johnny Musso, was instrumental to him learning the position and the offense.
“Johnny Musso was the gold standard. He would get his guy every time and he was a tough runner,” Jackson said of Musso. “He was an outstanding guy, too. Early in my sophomore year, he knew I was having trouble and during two-a-days the young guys would just want to go back to the dorm, get some water and rest before the afternoon practice.
“I’d be in bed trying to rest and Johnny would come in with a note pad and talk me through some of the plays and everything. He was just an outstanding guy.”
Jackson said no game that Alabama ever played could ever have been as tough as their practices.
“Every single day at practice at ‘Bama you had the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense,” Jackson said. “We had this drill called the ‘middle drill’ and it was just inside the tackle runs. So, the defense knew they didn’t have to honor any fakes or counters because it was always going right in the middle.
“Our linebackers would be so low you could barely see their helmets above the behinds of the defensive linemen. It was just tough, any yard you gained was a win. I never played a game at ‘Bama that was tougher than the practices we had. The games were easy in comparison.”
Jackson said that with everything players learned from Bryant he found out in later years that Bryant also learned at the same time.
“When I was a sophomore we would go entire practices with one or no water breaks,” Jackson remembered. “When a guy would get hurt we’d huddle around him because he had ice bags and we’d open the bags for ice.
“(Bryant) said later he thought he was making us tough but really he was pretty much killing us. By the time my senior year came around we were getting so much water you wouldn’t want any.”
Of all the stories Jackson said he has of Bryant, the one that stood out to him most was the day he got a call that his mother was ill.
“I go to the office about 6 a.m. and Coach Bryant wasn’t in but (assistant coach) was and he called Coach Bryant,” Jackson continued. “The next thing you know he hands me the phone and it’s Coach Bryant. ‘Wilbur, what’s wrong?’ he asked me and I told him about my mom. He said he’d get a ‘state car’ to drive me home.
“I told him I was okay and I had my own car but he kept insisting someone drive me because he thought I sounded upset. I finally convinced him I was okay to go home and I stayed for three days until I knew things were okay. Coach Bryant was just an outstanding man. He was hard but fair and he learned a lot during my time there just like us players did.”
Jackson’s Alabama career was a stellar one, as he totaled 1,529 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns in three years in Tuscaloosa. In his senior year, Jackson totaled 752 yards on the ground with eight touchdowns as Alabama won a national championship and its third straight SEC Championship. Jackson’s 7.9 yards per carry was a single-season Alabama record and his 7.2 yards per carry career mark was also an Alabama school record. Both those marks still stand to this day.
All of that success, though, might have changed one day his freshman year but Jackson said he found out when talking to a teammate years later he wasn’t the only one that had thoughts of skipping town.
“I said, ‘Chuck (Strickland), there was a couple of times I almost left.’ That’s how bad it got,” Jackson said with a smile. “He just started laughing and said, ‘Wilbur, there were times when we all almost left.’
“I knew what a bus ticket cost because my freshman year I had to ride the bus home sometimes. One day after one real bad practice, just a huge gut check the whole way, I went to my wallet and I think the ticket was seven dollars and I had six dollars. I knew I had Ellis and Dexter (from Carroll) here and there were guys from Dothan and Elba and Troy or Brundidge that I could get a dollar from any one of those guys, but I thought they would ask me what I needed it for. I couldn’t tell them I was going to get a bus ticket to go home and that’s what made me not ask for the dollar and stick it out.”
Sticking it out meant that Jackson was drafted in the first round, the ninth overall pick, of the 1973 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
“I never thought it was even an option,” Jackson said of his NFL possibilities. “One day Coach Bryant called me in his office and told me he heard the 49ers were interested in drafting me and I just sat there kind of stunned.”
Interestingly enough, Jackson was sitting in a hotel room in Tuscaloosa with future Alabama head coach Gene Stallings, who was an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys at the time, when the 49ers selected Jackson. The Cowboys intended to select Jackson but the 49ers beat them to it.
Jackson said that while he enjoyed his time in the NFL – which was a successful career – it just wasn’t the same as his high school or college days.
“That’s when I first saw football as a business,” Jackson said.
Still, Jackson made the best of it playing for five years with the 49ers and three more with the Washington Redskins. His final year in the NFL, 1982, the Redskins even won the Super Bowl. Jackson finished his NFL career with 3,852 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns from the fullback position, while also catching 183 passes for 1,572 yards and four touchdowns.
Even with all that national success, Jackson always came home in the offseason and he never intended on spending the rest of his life anywhere else other than Ozark.
“It never even crossed my mind for it to be any other way,” Jackson said of staying in Ozark. “Ozark is my home. I told someone the other day this story.
“I drove into the city (in Washington) one day and parked my car in the garage and I got out and started walking and people were store front to store front, shoulder to shoulder, and then there was a guy laying passed out on the sidewalk. I think I was the only person that even stopped and looked at him. If that was in Ozark or anywhere else around here you’d have people huddled around you trying to help you. I’m a small town guy.”