Leonard George and Willie Jackson Sr. stood side by side bound by history, just like they did more than 50 years ago and have been ever since they were the first Black football players at the University of Florida.
Friday’s gathering at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was a celebration filled with friends, family, former teammates and photo ops. UF’s University of Athletic Association unveiled a mural at Gate 3 along the wall of the stadium’s concourse to celebrate the two men’s significance to Florida football.
“This is such an honor for me and Willie,” George told onlookers. “I’m glad we’re still here. This is one day we’ll never forget.”
The circumstances were much different when the two Florida natives joined the Gators’ program.
Leonard said his recruitment began in the spring of 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leonard and George would arrive to UF a year later during a highly tumultuous time when a divided nation was at war with itself and in Vietnam.
Football teams in the Southeastern Conference, which was founded in 1933, remained segregated until Nat Northington played for Kentucky in 1967 and Lester McClain lined up for Tennessee in 1968.
Jackson would become the next Black player to take the field for an SEC school on Sept. 12, 1970, in Jacksonville during the Gators’ 21-19 win against Duke. Two weeks later, George became the first Black player in UF history to record a touchdown, scoring on a 1-yard plunge at Alabama.
For the next three seasons, Jackson and George rose to the challenge and seized their opportunity while facing fan vitriol, looming threats and seeing Confederate flags in the stands throughout the SEC.
“At the time we had to deal with a lot of challenges,” George said.
On Friday, each man was recognized for his strength, sacrifice and courage.
“This is one of the greatest moments in Florida football, to honor these two men that you have to remember were 18, 19 years old when they had to face all kinds of trauma, really whenever they played,” teammate and UF record-setting receiver Carlos Alvarez said. “It’s a great tribute to them. It’s a great tribute to all the African-American players that followed them in the ‘70s. They were all heroes.”
George said he was just one of three black students at Tampa Jesuit when he started high school in 1965 and therefore familiar with the racial divide he would face at UF. Jackson played for an integrated team at Sarasota High School, where he was a star player before he headed north for a prep-school year.
A talented running back, Jackson was recruited by legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, but said, with a chuckle, the snow piled high during a recruiting visit to Columbus convinced Jackson to return to Florida.
Jackson’s impact on the Gators’ program has been long-standing and far-reaching.
Jackson totaled 75 receptions for 1,170 yards and eight touchdowns during his career. Sons Terry and Willie Jr. played wide receiver at UF while grandson Khalil is currently on the team and will wear his grandfather’s No. 22 this season.
“I’m very, very honored to have something like this happen,” Jackson Sr. said. “At least we can see it and enjoy it before we go because most of the time you have something like this and you’ll be dead and gone never knowing a thing about it. But this right here is very rewarding because of the fact we’ve had kids coming through and they’ll be able to say, ’That’s mine. That’s my father.’”
Jackson Jr., who caught 24 touchdowns for the Gators from 1990-93, enjoyed many big moments in the Swamp. Now 50, he said Friday ranks high on his list.
“It’s definitely long overdue, but it’s perfect timing,” Jackson said. “People are still able to enjoy it. It’s awesome. When I walked in and I saw, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’ It’s a great honor.
“Every time we walk into this stadium, people that didn’t [know], now they know.”
George, who started as a defensive back in 1971 and ′72, hopes the mural serves as a history lesson and reminder.
George also is quick to acknowledge others blazed the trail for them. One of those people was George H. Starke, who in 1958 became the first Black student admitted to UF.
“We are built on the back of somebody else, just like the people today are built on the our back,” George said.
Keiwan Ratliff, a Gators’ All-America in 2003 and current football assistant director of player personnel, was on hand for the ceremony. Ratliff has known Jackson Sr. for many years yet did not fathom his impact on the Gators.
“I didn’t know the history, I’m ashamed to say,” Ratliff said. “These guys are pioneers for guys like myself. Without them, there’s no Emmitt Smith, there’s no Jevon Kearse ... this list goes on and on.”
During the 1970 season, Auburn and Mississippi State also fielded Black players. By 1972, all 10 schools in the conference had done so.
“This was inevitable,” Alvarez said. “But that front group that comes in … is going to take a lot of hits. They did, and they took them gracefully. So they deserve everything they are getting here. I’m so proud of them.”
Sharp-dressed with a fedora and suspenders, George beamed with pride, too, while soaking in the moment with his sidekick of six decades.
“When I see it I think, ‘Wow, we sure have come a long ways,’” he said. “I’m glad that me and Willie had a chance to be part of it and be the first ones to do it.”