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Oklahoma football: The Sooner quarterback who could have been king

KERRY JACKSON — What's it like to have your dreams snatched away just as they're coming true? Ask the former OU quarterback, who 40 years ago on Thursday saw the course of his life — and Sooner football — changed by an NCAA ruling. His answer will surprise you.
by Berry Tramel Published: April 16, 2013

Kerry Jackson loves to cycle. He lives in the Denver suburbs and averages about 3,000 miles a summer on his bike.

“The sights you get here are just breathtaking,” Jackson said.

Full moons on the Eastern plains. Sunrises and sunsets over the mountains. The snow-capped Rockies.

“This is a gorgeous place,” Jackson said. “I ain't thinking about going nowhere.”

Except in his mind. Sometimes, Jackson allows his imagination to drift to an equally mystical place.

What if he had made his grades back at Galveston Ball High School? What if he had become the Oklahoma quarterback? What if, 40 years ago Thursday, the Big Eight Conference hadn't ruled him ineligible?

But quickly, the majesty of Colorado brings Jackson back to the present, and without a hint of bitterness, Jackson leaves What-If Land for What-Is Land, with a spring in his pedal and a spark in his voice.

Want to feel good about humanity? Want to remember that people can amaze you with their grace? Talk to Kerry Jackson, the man who would be king.

* * *

Steve Davis died the other day, an iconic Oklahoma hero. Quarterback of Barry Switzer's first three OU teams, which went 32-1-1 and won two national championships.

Would most of us even remember Davis if Jackson hadn't been shelved?

“Kerry Jackson was going to be our quarterback,” Switzer said. “Steve Davis would never been the damn quarterback if Kerry had been eligible. Kerry was really a good talent. He was going to be a great player.”

That's an opinion supported by fact.

In 1972, the NCAA made freshmen eligible for the first time in 20 years. A few Sooner rookies scratched their way to playing time. Joe Washington from the start. Tinker Owens by season's end. And Kerry Jackson.

Jackson earned the backup quarterback slot in August, then pushed senior starter Dave Robertson for playing time. Switzer, Chuck Fairbanks' offensive coordinator in 1972, began spotting Robertson with Jackson.

Through four non-conference games — routs of Utah State, Oregon, Clemson and Texas — Jackson was OU's third-leading rusher, with 286 yards on 44 carries. Greg Pruitt led the Sooners with 316 yards.

“He was awfully good in '72,” said Scott Hill, who was the plum quarterback recruit that season but was injured and eventually moved to safety, where he had a stellar OU career.

But Jackson's success wasn't historic just because he was a freshman.

* * *

Prentice Gautt broke the OU color line in 1957. Jerry Levias broke the Southwest Conference color barrier in 1965. Texas Longhorn football integrated in 1970. Alabama in 1971.

But black quarterbacks were years away from being accepted by most college fan bases. Jackson was OU's first.

It came so suddenly, a freshman rising to the ranks of varsity, that there was little time for opposition.

“Chuck let me recruit him,” Switzer said. Jackson's high school coach, Joe Woolley, was born in El Dorado, Ark., not far from Switzer's hometown of Crossett. “I knew Joe really well. Good relationship with him. I thought we could get Kerry.”

Since no big schools south of the Arbuckles would even look at a black quarterback, that was solid thinking.

Jackson signed with OU, reported and immediately earned playing time. But that didn't mean every Sooner fan liked it.

Jackson received hate mail and racial slurs in public. But now he says it helped him grow.

“Those are the things I had to actually endure to make me a stronger person,” Jackson said. “It just goes with ignorance. People are going to be what they want to be, do what they want to do.

“I was raised not to see colors. My mom raised me to not ever see colors. When that happened, it was bothersome. But it was something I had to get over and keep moving.

“I got a ton of support. From coaches, players. Especially players. That's what kept me there, the support. They let me know I was wanted, I was needed. That did a lot for me. And a lot of times, if you know you're needed and you're wanted, it makes it a lot more bearable when other things are going outside the box.”

Let it also be noted that plenty of Sooner fans were thrilled at Jackson's trailblazing. A 6-foot-1 quarterback who could run like a halfback, with a strong, if not always accurate, arm? These were the early days of the wishbone. Nothing seemed impossible for the OU offense, when you combined immense talent with cutting-edge schematics.

So when Jackson started running wild with the '72 Sooners — 109 yards on 10 carries against Utah State, 87 yards on 12 carries against Oregon, 79 yards on 17 carries against Clemson — OU football figured it had found its quarterback of the future, if not the present.

“I never expected to do that,” Jackson said. “My main goal was to get to play, but I didn't think I was good enough to move up as fast as I did.”

Jackson suffered an ankle injury against Colorado, OU's fifth game, and played only sporadically after that. But the future appeared set.

On a team that would sport Joe Washington and the Selmon brothers and Rod Shoate and Randy Hughes, Kerry Jackson would be the quarterback.

* * *

In January 1973, Fairbanks left OU to coach the New England Patriots. A few days later, Switzer was elevated to replace Fairbanks.

Then on April 18, 1973, more shocking news arrived. Administrators at Galveston Ball High School in Texas had changed the transcripts of Jackson and teammate Mike Phillips, so that they could qualify for OU. The Sooners forfeited eight victories from 1972, assistant coach Bill Michael resigned because of his knowledge of the transgression and Jackson and Phillips were declared ineligible for the '73 season.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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