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Time for Alabama football to properly recognize John Mitchell Jr. and Wilbur Jackson

Photo of John Mitchell Jr. comes via Pittsburgh Steelers site

He was a five-time Pro Bowl running back, two-time first-team NFL All-Pro, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, the league’s Offensive Player of the Year and a Pro Football Hall of Famer for the Buffalo Bills, but Thurman Thomas was a superstar at Oklahoma State before all of it.

He was twice named first-team All-American (1985, 1987) and ended his career with 4,595 rushing yards, 5,146 total yards and 43 touchdowns for the Cowboys in the Big 8 Conference; however, Thomas also knew that a legend paved the way for him.  

He does not go into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008, if not for Chester Pittman breaking the color barrier in 1957 at Oklahoma State. If one chose to do a Google search on Pittman, it would neither find a Wikipedia page nor a site with his greatest games. A native of Wewoka, Okla., Pittman played on the Cowboys’ freshman team and started three years on the varsity squad. He averaged over five yards per carry in 1959 and 1960, while helping the program to an 8-3 record in 1958 with a victory over Florida State in the Bluegrass Bowl.  

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According to an article from The Oklahoman, Pittman is viewed as Oklahoma State’s unknown pioneer and Thomas believes it is high time for the institution to properly honor him.  

Upon seeing the tweet from Thomas, Cornelius Bennett turned his attention to the University of Alabama in hopes it would do the same thing. Bennett, who was given the nickname “Biscuit” as a young athlete, played linebacker for the Crimson Tide from 1983-86 and was a first-team All-American three times (1984-86). He made an All-SEC team three times (1984-86) and as a senior, Bennett was special – earning the Lombardi Award, SEC Player of the Year and placing seventh in the 1986 Heisman Trophy voting.

His career ended with 287 tackles, 21.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and a College Football Hall of Fame induction in 2005, but he knows that none of it would have been possible if not for John Mitchell Jr. and Wilbur Jackson opening the door. 

Mitchell, a native of Mobile, Ala., always wanted to play for the Crimson Tide, but he was not big enough at the time and the university was not recruiting black athletes. He had scholarship offers from Grambling State University and Tennessee State University, but Mitchell took the community college route of Eastern Arizona Junior College. Mitchell saw immediate success as a two-time JUCO All-American and he added much needed weight and muscle to his frame. 

Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, who was Alabama’s coach at the time, was able to persuade Mitchell to come to the university in 1971 and promised him that race would not be an issue. In two seasons with the Tide, Mitchell was a strong defensive end – starting in 24 career games. Alabama was 21-3 with him from 1971 to 1972, including a pair of SEC titles. Mitchell was the first African American to be named a co-captain for the Tide in 1972, while winning All-American and All-SEC honors that year.

He graduated a semester early with a B.S. degree in social welfare and despite being taken in the seventh round of the 1973 NFL Draft, his success came as a coach. As he enters his 47th year in the profession this fall with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mitchell has been mentoring athletes since 1973.

He spent time at Alabama, Arkansas, Birmingham Stallions (United States Football League), Temple, LSU, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.  

In coaching, Mitchell has one national championship (1973), four SEC titles, one Southwest Conference title and two Super Bowl championships (2005, 2008). 

He was inducted into the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012. 

Jackson, who hails from Ozark, Ala., played running back for the Tide under Bryant from 1971 to 1973. He concluded his tenure with 1,529 yards rushing and 17 scores on 212 carries.  

His average of 7.2 yards per carry (career) remains a school record, and he totaled eight touchdowns each in 1972 and 1973. Jackson averaged over seven yards per carry in both seasons, while assisting the team to a national title in 1973 and three SEC championships. 

He was selected No. 9 overall in the 1974 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers and played nine years in the NFL with the 49ers (1974-79) and Washington Redskins (1980-82).  

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Jackson was on the Redskins’ 1982 Super Bowl Championship roster. 

Mitchell and Jackson were two pillars who provided black athletes a chance to create their own legacy at Alabama. As much as we honor other individuals, and they are deserving, nothing happens if not for Coach Bryant opening his arms to Mitchell and Jackson. 

Both accomplished major success and for Tide fans who remembered them, now is the time for the program to pay much honor and tribute.  

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Stephen M. Smith is the managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @CoachingMSmith.

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