By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Auburn’s march to the 1957 national championship ended in Birmingham the same way it began in Knoxville: with Jackie Burkett and the Tigers’ defense holding their opponent scoreless.
Burkett, an All-SEC sophomore linebacker and center that season, passed away of leukemia Sept. 1 at age 80. A familiar, friendly face at reunions of the ’57 team, Burkett vividly remembered Auburn’s first championship season.
“One of the things I remember very well,” Burkett recalled during a reunion in 2015. “We go up to Tennessee. Tennessee had come down and beaten Auburn the year before. We go up there not really knowing what we had. I can still remember. It was raining. Tennessee obviously was favored, because they had a good program, and we didn’t know what we had.
“I remember looking up in the stands, and seeing the stands were absolutely full, and half the people had umbrellas out, and it looked so funny. And I was thinking, ‘All of these people are here to see Tennessee beat us. Let’s do something to make their day long.’”
“We think we have a record as far as our defense goes,” Burkett said in 2015. “We gave up three touchdowns defensively all year long. And that’s pretty amazing.”
Auburn delivered another shutout in the Iron Bowl, intercepting five passes, including Burkett’s pick six, a convincing closing argument on the eve of the season’s final Associated Press poll.
“We go out and beat them 40-0,” Burkett said two years ago. “And I happen to have an interception in that game that I returned 66 yards or something for a touchdown.”
Burkett delighted in securing the national championship for Auburn coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan.
“Shug sort of replaced my father who had died when I was a junior in high school,” Burkett said in 2015. “When I got up here, Shug knew that and he filled that void I’d say.”
“Jackie Burkett was the epitome of an Auburn man,” said Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs. “He was a tremendous athlete and an even finer person who cherished his family, his teammates and Auburn.”
‘He could have played any position’
Burkett and Nix, Auburn’s center and quarterback in ’57, remained close friends and golfing partners in the six ensuing decades.
“Great guy, great athlete, great person,” Nix said. “It’s just sad to see him go, but he’s at rest right now, so all is good.”
Of all of Burkett’s athletic exploits – he played baseball and freshman basketball at Auburn, too – Nix remembers one you won’t find in media guides or grainy black-and-white film.
“When we were there, we had a track around our football field,” Nix said. “One day, we walked out of the fieldhouse in full uniforms, football shoes, helmets and everything.
“He had the helmet under his arm. We were walking out there and I saw the hurdles set up on the track, and I said, ‘Jackie, did you run track in high school?’ He says, ‘Yeah, I did.’ He put the helmet on and he took the high hurdles just like they weren’t even there.”
So versatile was Burkett, a first-round pick who would go on to play 11 NFL seasons with the Colts, Saints and Cowboys, Nix believes they could have easily swapped positions.
“I always told Jackie, ‘I sure am glad you didn’t want to play quarterback,’” Nix said. “Because he could have played any position he wanted to, and been All-American.”
Bobby Hunt, who succeeded Nix as Auburn’s quarterback in 1959, remembers a drill the previous season in which Hunt, then a freshman, competed against the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Burkett, a two-time All-American in 1958-59.
“They wanted to see how tough we were, I guess,” Hunt said. “They put the backs on the 6-yard line and the linebackers on the 2-yard line, and they told us to score. They had one rule. You couldn’t put any moves on them. You just had to take off when they blew the whistle.
“That night at the chow hall, someone asked, ‘Who did you have to go against?’ I said, ‘Burkett.’ They said, ‘Did you score?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I had my eyes closed.’”
In the era of two-way players, Burkett rarely came off the field.
“He had a bad shoulder and he would make a tackle and knock that shoulder out of place,” Nix said. “He wouldn’t come back to the huddle and get somebody to come out there. He would go to the sideline and our trainer, Kenny Howard, would pull that shoulder back in and he would be back out there before the next play and never would miss a play. He was tough and he was good.”
Howard, Auburn’s trainer during all 25 seasons (1951-1975) Jordan coached the Tigers, said Burkett was “by far the best athlete Auburn has ever had,” according to David Housel, former Auburn Director of Athletics.
“Having played at Auburn was very important to Jackie, and he in turn was important to Auburn,” Housel said. “Somebody who represented the best in Auburn Athletics.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer