Jackie Burkett: Former football great loses battle with leukemia

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“This is the passing of a legend, no doubt about it. Jackie was a hero to a lot of folks for a lot of reasons, and it certainly was for more than athletics. Simply put, he was just a good man.”

By Bob Heist | 315-4404 | @bobheistNWFDN | bheist@nwfdailynews.com

Every town has its icons — athletic and otherwise — whose brilliance and impact simply can’t and won’t be forgotten.

In Fort Walton Beach, it doesn’t get much bigger than Jackie Burkett, the former Choctawhatchee High School football great who died Friday night following a short battle with leukemia. Burkett passed at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center at the age of 80.

“This is the passing of a legend, no doubt about it,” said longtime friend and Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce board chairman Bill Roberts. “Jackie was a hero to a lot of folks for a lot of reasons, and it certainly was for more than athletics.

“Simply put, he was just a good man.”

A 1955 graduate of Choctaw, Burkett (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) went on to greatness at Auburn University, where he starred at center and linebacker from 1957-59. At a time when freshmen were ineligible to play, he was a three-time All-Southeastern Conference selection and named an All-American in 1958. He was captain of the Tigers all three seasons, including the 1957 Associated Press national championship team that finished 10-0.

Of interest is that national title under legendary head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan was the first in the history of the AP championship awarded to a team on probation and not allowed to participate in a bowl game. The only other time that occurred was with Oklahoma in 1974.

In his three years at Auburn, Burkett was part of teams that finished with a combined 26-3-1 record. His 1958 Tigers also were undefeated, posting a 9-0-1 record. The tie came in a 7-7 game at Georgia Tech. LSU finished 10-0 for the SEC title and defeated Clemson 7-0 in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship.

In the 1960 NFL draft, the Baltimore Colts selected Burkett with the 12th overall pick. He went on to play for 11 season in the NFL, spending time with the Colts (1960-66), New Orleans Saints (1967, 1970) and Dallas Cowboys (1968-69).

In fact, Burkett was part of one of the greatest moments in NFL history when he was the snapper on the then-record 63-yard field goal by Tom Dempsey as time expired to give the Saints a 19–17 win over the Detroit Lions on Nov. 8, 1970 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.

Overall, Burkett played 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).

Born Walter Jackson Burkett on Dec. 16, 1936, in Thorsby, Ala., the local legend actually attended Andalusia (Ala.) High School as a freshman and sophomore before moving to Fort Walton Beach.

“Choctaw at the time was the high school in this area,” he told the Daily News in a story published July 31, 2015. “You didn’t have Niceville. You didn’t have Fort Walton Beach. The only other high schools in Okaloosa County were Crestview, Baker and Laurel Hill.”

After his football career ended, 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 eventually landed in Pensacola, where he was marketing vice president with the engineering firm Post, Buckley, Schuh and Jernigan, that designed bridges and roads.

He and wife Jackie, his high school sweetheart at Choctaw, moved to Fort Walton Beach in 2000 when he became Okaloosa County commissioner. He served until 2004.

In 2003, he was an inaugural inductee into the All Sports Association Hall of Fame.

“He’s kind of one of those guys who you recognize as being a forefather,” ASA board member Bernard Johnson said last spring. “He’s someone who was there from the beginning. Much respect for Jackie Burkett.”

Johnson said Burkett was still attending membership meetings.

“When he’s able to participate in events, he shows up,” Johnson said. “He squeezes hands and slaps you on the back. I mean, he’s Jackie Burkett.”

Roberts remembered in the most recent Emerald Coast Poker Run in early August, Burkett volunteered to work a dock and hand out cards to participating boaters.

“His legacy was more than football — being a county commissioner, being involved in so many organizations, the All Sports Association — just anywhere he could serve.

“I don’t know if Jackie really felt that he owed it to the community because the community meant so much to him,” Roberts said. “He was a giver, a real giver.”

While at Choctaw, Roberts related stories how this larger-than-life high school star impacted an 8-year-old boy while he worked at Roberts’ dad’s drug store.

“In high school my dad would always joke that Jackie was so big because while he worked at the drug store he could eat all the hamburgers he wanted,” Roberts said.

“My dad, like so many others, was a big fan of Jackie’s.”

Burkett’s accolades are numerous and speak to his place in the history of Auburn and SEC athletics. Among his honors are being named to the Auburn All-Century team, Auburn Walk of Fame, Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, Wiregrass Sports Hall of Fame, Andalusia Hall of Fame and selection as an SEC Legend of Football.

“A month or so ago I didn’t even know he was sick. It was fast,” Roberts said. “In a way, this is a shame, but in another way it’s probably the way Jackie would have wanted it. He never would have wanted to be a burden to anyone, and I don’t believe he would have wanted to finish his life in a bed.”

As of Saturday, funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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