Catching Up With former Colts linebacker Jackie Burkett

Jackie Burkett was the No. 1 NFL draft pick by the Baltimore Colts in 1959. Where is he now?

They're gone now, the two storied Colts linebackers who played alongside Jackie Burkett in the early 1960s. But more than half a century later, Burkett still marvels at the disparities between his teammates, Bill Pellington and Don Shinnick, and how the pair meshed to lead the Colts to NFL championships in 1958 and 1959.

"Pellington was the toughest, roughest, sweatingest football player I ever saw," Burkett said. "He wanted to hurt people. When receiver R.C. Owens was traded to the Colts in 1962, he (Owens) said, 'I had to get on the same team as Pellington or that crazy man would've torn my head off.'"

By comparison, Shinnick was an altar boy. Agile and smart, he was a devout Christian who never swore and led pregame prayers in the locker room.

"When I joined the Colts as a rookie (in 1960), Don became my roommate to keep me out of trouble," Burkett said. "On the road, we'd find a nice place for dinner and a prayer meeting to go to."

Now 78, Burkett is the lone survivor of that trio, which anchored Baltimore's defense from 1961 through 1963. Pellington died from the effects of Alzheimer's in 1994; Shinnick, of frontal lobe dementia a decade later. Their struggles with brain disease have prompted Burkett, of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to schedule three days of medical tests next month to see if he's on the same track.

"'l want to know as soon as possible if I have anything wrong," said Burkett, who played six years for the Colts and 10 in the NFL. "I understand there are medications that can reverse, or at least slow down the decline in memory that so many of my former teammates have experienced."

A second-team All-American center-linebacker at Auburn, which he led to two undefeated seasons, Burkett was a 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior when selected by the Colts as a "future" in the first round of the 1959 NFL draft. He's the only underclassman ever picked No. 1 by the franchise.

"That gives me some stature, I guess — though I question the Colts' sanity, knowing that I had a questionable (left) shoulder that had been dislocated several times," Burkett said. "When I got to Baltimore in 1960, they decided that rather than fool with my shoulder, they'd operate on it."

He missed all of that season but rebounded in 1961 and was named the team's rookie of the year. Swift for his size, Burkett covered tailbacks with lateral bursts that saved many a breakaway run.

He cherishes memories of the chemistry between the Colts and their fans.

"Imagine returning from a regular-season win at 11 p.m. and have 1,000 people meet you at the airport," he said. "When you went to a bar, you could never buy a beer. It was always, 'Hey Jack, c'mon over and have one on us.' What's not to like about that?"

Most players had offseason jobs, and Burkett's work often overlapped with football.

"I was a salesman for Lord Baltimore Press (a printing company), and I'd wear suits to practice so I could make sales calls afterward," he said.

Selected by the New Orleans Saints in the 1967 expansion draft, Burkett played two seasons there and with the Dallas Cowboys before retiring. For five years, he owned a restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans, then worked for an engineering firm, designing roads and bridges in Florida and Alabama.

Retired for five years and married for 58, Jackie Burkett lives with his wife, also named Jackie, in a home 100 yards from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in the Florida Panhandle. A 38-foot sport boat is Burkett's pride and joy, along with three sons, five grandsons and a great-grandaughter who, at age 6, is "the best athlete in the family," he said.

In 1970, Burkett's final season, he took his place in history as the Saints' long snapper on Tom Dempsey's then-NFL record 63-yard field goal. The kick defeated the Detroit Lions as time expired.

"Before the play, (the Lions') Alex Karras lined up across from me and said, 'What are you clowns doing now?' He didn't even rush," Burkett said. "When the ball cleared the crossbar, all Alex could say was 'Golleee!'"

Dempsey's record was broken in 2013. But for 43 years, Burkett said, "Whenever I saw Tom I'd tell him, 'Without that perfect snap I made, nobody would know your name.'"

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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