There were no ovations.
He stood on the field and 90,000 strong gave him no more than a golf clap. As he hustled up the aisle, no one stopped him. There were no well-wishers waiting for him at the gate, there was no mob, no children running up beside him with a football and a Sharpie. In a football-zealous state, most young people wouldn’t know Tucker Frederickson from Adam’s House Cat.
But that’s about to change.
Who is Tucker Frederickson?
Former Auburn coach and the late Shug Jordan called Frederickson the most complete football player he’d ever seen. In 1964, Frederickson made All-American and was picked first by the Giants in the NFL draft (ahead of Joe Namath, Gayle Sayers, and Dick Butkus). He was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994. But there is much more to his life than you can find in a Wikipedia article and a quick search on Google images.
Dr. Buddy Thorne, Auburn graduate and retired dentist, reflects on Frederickson: “Tucker Frederickson was the Bo Jackson of his day,” says Thorne. “Boy, he was a dandy! He had power mixed with speed. He weighed 225 and in that day, he was a big back. Coach Bryant said he was gonna send him a graduation card because he was so happy to see him leave.”
At Auburn, Frederickson played both ways: running back on offense and safety on defense. And he was flat out good at both.
Frederickson grew up in Hollywood, Florida, just north of Miami. As his high school career was coming to a close, the blonde-headed star searched for a place to take his talents. “I visited Georgia, but Wally Butts scared the hell outta me,” Frederickson says.
He looked for other options. Florida, Florida State, and the University of Miami were all viable schools in his backyard. So why Auburn?
“Pretty simple,” he says. “Auburn had a vet school.”
Frederickson enrolled in the fall of 1961 under the tutelage of head coach Shug Jordan (whom Frederickson describes as a “nice man”; a “gentleman”) and his offensive coordinator named Vince Dooley (who would gain fame as the coach of the Georgia Bulldogs for 25 years and win a national championship in 1980).
“Frederickson was a linebacker playing safety,” remembers Dooley. “When he tackled you, you were tackled.”
Frederickson played alongside greats Jimmy Sidell and Mickey “Pushbutton” Sutton, whose exploits helped to fill Cliff Hare Stadium to an orange and blue brim. The ’63 team was Auburn’s best in Frederickson’s four years, going 9-2 with a 10-8 win over archrival Alabama at Legion Field. “In ’63, we played against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl,” recounts Frederickson. “Which was a dream come true for me, because that’s where I’m from [Miami].”
Auburn lost 13-7 that day (Jan. 1, 1964), and Nebraska left an impression on more than just the scoreboard. “I had never seen such big kids in my life than what I saw on that Nebraska team,” says Frederickson of the corn-fed bruisers.
Coming off of a stellar year, Auburn had high hopes for the ’64 season. They were ranked #1 in the preseason polls, with returners Frederickson and Sidell at the forefront of discussion. But Sidell got hurt, and the season turned into a disappointment for the team.
He galloped to 576 yards rushing on 129 carries (4.5 YPR), and 14 catches for 101 yards (7.2 YPC) in a more methodical, molasses-like offensive era.
In his book Namath, author Mark Kriegel underscores that the New York Giants essentially passed on the pool hall swashbuckler from Beaver Falls, PA to opt for golden boy Frederickson. At the time, the NFL and AFL had not combined, and it wasn’t until three years later that the two leagues would merge. Nevertheless, Frederickson packed for New York after a phone call on draft day.
“The night we played Alabama and we kicked their butts on everything but the scoreboard, I got a call,” says Frederickson. “It was the Giants and they told me they were taking me at number one. I had no agent. There were no negotiations. Looking back, I was a dummy. But I was happy I went to New York.”
The Jets drafted Namath (with a liiiittle higher pricetag) and both stars converged on the Big Apple. Frederickson played six injury-plagued years for the Giants under coaches Allie Sherman and Alex Webster.
In those days, salaries (except Namath’s) were of the paltrier variety and most players had to find gainful employment in the offseason. Frederickson worked the securities business. “I had to figure out a way to make a livin’” he says.
Frederickson lived on the East Side and ate up the city as a self-professed longtime bachelor.
“New York…what’s not to like? Are you kiddin? It was easy to live in. There was a lot of action, lot of business, lot of sporting events.”
During the fall and winter though, Frederickson’s security meant eluding snorting gridiron brutes such as Butkus, Ed Lilly, and Deacon Jones. He assures that he didn’t associate with Namath or any of the other Jets (save for Bill Mathis, who was once his roommate for a short time).
The idyllic time also provided a chance to form lifelong friendships with Frank Gifford and Johnny Unitas, but perhaps the most well-documented friendship of Frederickson’s life was his friendship with Chicago Bears’ Brian Piccolo, who succumbed to cancer in 1970 and was the inspiration for the movie Brian’s Song. “He played against me in high school,” says Frederickson. “He went to Wake Forest and was drafted by the Bears. When he came to New York for treatment, I saw him a lot. I was there when he died. He was a great guy. Had a big heart. He was a tough, tough guy. It was tragic.”
After football, Frederickson remained in New York for the next fourteen years, working as a Wall Street broker. In 1985, he decided to get out of New York and return to his native Florida. He got into the real estate business. Over the last few years, he’s been building golf courses with a couple of folks who know a little about the business.
“I’ve been in the golf development business for the last few years with Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus,” says Frederickson. “I met Greg through Nicklaus. We found a piece of property and we built a course called The Medalist. Then Nicklaus and I found a piece of property and we built a golf course called The Bear Club.”
A few other decent athletes live in Frederickson’s neighborhood. You have probably never heard of them: Michael Jordan and Serena Williams.
So, Frederickson has it rough, as you might imagine. Hanging around the best athletes the world has ever produced, building golf courses, enjoying life, sun, and beach. Doubtful if he worries too much whether or not he’s a household name in Alabama. He’s 71, and with Twitter and all, what happened 50 years ago in Cliff Hare Stadium probably doesn’t matter a whole lot while up against Lil’ Wayne and Justin Bieber.
But if you still care about that sort of thing, if sports history is your bag, the name Tucker Frederickson should be in the discussion with the best athletes to ever set cleat on Alabama soil.
And thank goodness Auburn had a vet school, or else he may never have gotten here. 78