Jackie Burkett admits he wasn’t close to being a star football player at Andalusia High School, but says those days with the Bulldogs were the building blocks to a career that would lead to All-American honors at Auburn and an 11-year tenure in the NFL.
“I dressed out a little bit with the varsity, but actually played in the JV games,” Burkett said of his freshman and sophomore seasons. “I went in (varsity) when the game was decided or someone was hurt and went in for a few plays.
“But I got my start there (at Andalusia). You spend a lot of time practicing and you spend a lot of time learning the fundamentals of football and learning how to tackle and how to block.
“I got a lot out of it because that is where I learned how to do all those things.”
Burkett learned pretty well.
After starring two years at Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where he and his family moved to after his sophomore season, he had a legendary career at Auburn and in the NFL. He was mostly a center on offense and a linebacker on defense.
This Saturday, Burkett will be honored for his achievements with induction into the Wiregrass Sports Hall of Fame.
It will add to a list of honors for Burkett, which includes being in the first class of inductees into the Andalusia Sports Hall of Fame, being named to the Auburn All-Century team, to the Auburn Walk of Fame, to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the Panhandle (Florida) All-Sports Hall of Fame and as an SEC Legend of Football. He was also selected to represent Auburn in the American Sports Academy Award Statue dedication commemorating the Iron Bowl as the nation’s top rivalry game.
Born in Thorsby in central Alabama, Burkett’s family moved to Andalusia when he was 5 years old. He was a three-sport athlete at Andalusia High School, playing football, basketball and baseball.
Though he said he wasn’t a standout, his time in Andalusia had a big impact on his life.
“I had an Andalusia boy that was my hero – Charlie ‘Big Boy’ Little,” Burkett said. “He was right ahead of me and he ended up going to Auburn and his going to Auburn probably had a lot to do with me going to Auburn.
“I just admired him so much and I remember watching him play, both in high school and in college. He always played so hard. I was thinking, ‘Boy if I could play football like that, I would be very real pleased with myself.’”
Burkett said he began to come into his own in football as a junior at Choctawhatchee.
“I grew some and we had good coaching,” Burkett said.
Though he was a center and linebacker, Choctaw coaches moved him to quarterback his senior year because of his athletic ability.
After finishing there in 1956, Burkett made the decision to go Auburn. He said other schools, including Alabama, offered him, but as a quarterback.
“If I had gone to Alabama with Ears Whitworth (as coach) up there and as a quarterback if I had made that decision, you wouldn’t be talking to me now because you wouldn’t know I played football,” Burkett said. “I would have ended up so far out of sight of everybody. Alabama had a poor football team at that time plus I wasn’t a quarterback.
“I went to Auburn and they moved me back to center and linebacker. You had to play both ways back in those days. I was primarily a linebacker, but I played center on offense and did a pretty good job of it. That is where I needed to be.”
While at Auburn, he played basketball as a freshman and baseball throughout his years, but it was in football that he would make a name for himself.
He arrived at Auburn at a special time – when Ralph “Shug” Jordan was revitalizing a Tiger program that had been struggling. After sitting out the required year as a freshman, Burkett began playing in 1957 – a year Auburn would go undefeated and win the national championship.
“People think about how big a national championship is now. For us, it was just as big,” Burkett said. “People (media) came down from New York and we went to the stadium (Cliff Hare Stadium) to celebrate. We all sat out there and did a big ceremony. At that time, it was the biggest thing you could imagine. Being No. 1 in the nation in football at that time was a big item. Trust me.”
That Auburn team was spearheaded by a defense that recorded six shutouts in 10 games and allowed only 28 total points – no more than seven in any game.
“Shoot, as far as a college defenses goes, we are the best I have ever seen and I am not kidding you,” Burkett said. “Our linemen were very, very aggressive. We had a bunch of good athletes up there and they would rip everything apart and then us as linebackers, me, Zeke Smith and Billy Atkins, with whatever got through we would take care of. Then we had Tommy Lorino and Lloyd Nix behind us and they were good athletes and good tacklers.”
Burkett, who called the defensive signals all three of his seasons with the Tigers, provided a few highlights to the national championship season.
He forced a safety on a Mississippi State punt to spark a 15-7 win and had one of Auburn’s two interception returns for touchdowns in a thumping of Alabama in the season’s final game that helped seal the national title, which was decided right after the regular season was completed.
“We knew we needed to beat them convincingly because Alabama didn’t have much of a team,” Burkett said. “We went into the game with fire in our eyes and we beat them 40-0.”
Burkett earned SEC Sophomore of the Year for that season, quite an accomplishment considering some of the other top sophomores that year.
“I am not trying to brag or anything, but that was the same year Billy Cannon (eventual Heisman winner at LSU) started playing and a lot of other guys who were pretty darn good and to have a center-linebacker make Sophomore of the Year in the SEC, that was pretty special,” Burkett said.
He would be named the top center and linebacker by SEC coaches in 1958 and as an academic All-American. A year later, he was Auburn’s captain and again made All-American. During his three playing years, Auburn went 26-3-1.
In 1959, Burkett was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts, the 12th selection overall.
“It was a big surprise (to be drafted in first round),” Burkett recalled. “I got calls from several teams that were planning to draft me and the Rams were one of them. I thought I was going to go to California because they were the Los Angeles Rams at the time.
“The guy with the Rams called me afterwards and said, ‘Jackie, we were going to draft you, but we never thought you would go in the first round. That blew our mind.’ He said they were going to draft me in the second round.”
Burkett would play seven seasons in Baltimore before landing with the New Orleans Saints in the expansion draft in 1967. After one season in New Orleans, he was traded to Dallas where he played two seasons. He was traded back to New Orleans where he finished his career in 1970.
During his NFL career, Burkett, who was listed at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, finished with 45 tackles, 10 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, according to profootballreference.com. He also served as center and long snapper.
Overall, Burkett would play under five eventual hall of fame coaches – Jordan at Auburn (College Football Hall of Fame), Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula (Baltimore head coaches, NFL Hall of Fame), Chuck Noll (Baltimore defensive coordinator, NFL Hall of Fame) and Tom Landry (Dallas head coach, NFL Hall of Fame).
“I was fortunate enough to play for some of the best coaches that ever existed,” Burkett said.
He said he owed a lot to Auburn defensive coordinator Hal Herring and especially to Jordan.
“Shug Jordan was a wonderful man,” Burkett said. “He was so important to me. My dad had just died right before I finished high school and Shug Jordan was my second father.
“I could go and talk to him if I had problems or about things that were worrying me or if I was having troubles in school. I would go in and ask for his advice. He did a great job of keeping me straight and on the path to doing something worthwhile.”
After his NFL career, Burkett was a sales manager for a pipe business and also co-owned a restaurant in New Orleans, Café Banquette, for five years (1968-73). He then became vice president of marketing for an engineering company, Post, Buckley, Schuh and Jernigan. One of the PBS&J projects included work on Dothan’s bypass, the Ross Clark Circle.
Burkett retired in 2011 and is living today in Fort Walton Beach.