TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson already had their place in Alabama football history. Now, Crimson Tide’s first black players also share pride of place outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The university unveiled a plaque honoring Jackson and Mitchell on Saturday in a ceremony before the current team’s late-spring A-Day game, more than 50 years after breaking the color barrier.
“It was a moment I will never forget,” said Mitchell, who became emotional as he spoke at the ceremony. “It was very touching. You grow up a little black kid in southern Alabama and those are things you never dream of.”
The two septuagenarians were also honored at halftime.
The introvert Jackson became Tide’s first black scholarship football player when he signed on December 13, 1969. In 1971, defensive end Mitchell, a transfer from Eastern Arizona Junior College, became the first to play in a game.
The longtime Pittsburgh Steelers assistant and current assistant head coach started all 24 games over two seasons and became a two-time All-Southeastern Conference interpreter.
Jackson became a star for Alabama, the only school to offer him a scholarship. He was a first-round draft pick in 1974 by the San Francisco 49ers, where he played five seasons before spending three more with the Washington Redskins.
“If someone had told me when I was 18 or 19, that 50 years later we would be recognized here today for integration, I would never have believed it,” Jackson said. “And yet here we are.”
Both are now members of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Tide coach Nick Saban showed his team a video of Jackson and Mitchell last year on the 50th anniversary of Mitchell’s first season on the court.
“These guys were people who did something that no one else was really ready to do, that created so many opportunities and changed the lives of so many people and changed the mindset of so many people. other people and was a big step in desegregating the South,” Saban said. “And I think Coach Bryant should be commended for what he did to make that happen.”
Jackson and Mitchell each said Bryant told them if they had a problem coming to see him first.
The two said they never had to go to Bryant’s office for this reason.
“A lot of people didn’t understand the situation at the time,” Mitchell said in a phone interview with AP earlier in the week. “Coach Bryant handled the situation as well as any coach could handle it. And I’ve said it before, if it had been anyone other than Coach Bryant, the situation probably could have be different.
“He didn’t treat me, or Wilbur, any differently than the other players on the team.”
Mitchell made his coaching debut as Bryant’s defensive line coach from 1973 to 1976 shortly after he finished his playing career. He still uses lessons learned under Bryant and his Alabama staff and has recorded notes from those staff meetings.
At the time, he shared a room with white teammate Bobby Stanford, who remains a close friend and served at his wedding. Stanford traveled to Tuscaloosa for the ceremony from Albany, Georgia.
Earlier in the week, he recounted how Mitchell caught Bryant’s attention in the first place. USC coach John McKay had mentioned to Bryant that the Mobile native planned to come and play for him. Bryant apologized and called Tuscaloosa back, ordering an aide to find Mitchell.
“The worst mistake John McKay ever made was telling Coach Bryant about him,” Stanford said in a phone interview.
“Coach Bryant had been trying to recruit black baseball players for years, and the power structure in the state of Alabama wouldn’t have it,” Stanford said. “Even as strong as Coach Bryant was, it wasn’t easy. He tried.”
And finally, he succeeded. Just like Mitchell and Jackson.
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