University of Alabama
Defensive End, 1977-80
Heavily recruited as one of the top high school players in the nation, E.J. Junior called the shots coming out of Maplewood High School in Tennessee. With a 3.98 GPA academics remained a top priority, and the long list of suitors included Oklahoma, Southern California, Tennessee, Morehouse and Georgia Tech. Alabama was nowhere in sight.
“Alabama probably would have been voted out early because of its history of racism,” said Junior. “I remember as a little kid watching George Wallace, on the steps of Alabama saying that a Black man will never walk on this campus. So, I kind of dismissed Alabama.”
So, when future College Football Hall of Fame Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant called, Junior initially refused to answer. His mother, who was a high school principal, insisted he pick up the phone out of respect. On the call, Junior recalled Bryant did not follow the tactics employed by most coaches of promising him that he would be a star and an All-American at his school.
“He just said that I would get a quality education and he was going to work my tail off,” said Junior. “So that opened the door for Alabama. I just said to myself, wow, that sounds like my work ethic.”
Junior headed to Tuscaloosa where he would help Alabama secure consecutive national titles in 1978 and 1979 while claiming unanimous First Team All-America honors in 1980. He racked up 190 tackles, 21 sacks and 10 forced fumbles (tied for the school record). His first two seasons, he played alongside Hall of Famers Ozzie Newsome, who headed to the NFL after the 1977 season, and Marty Lyons, who followed in 1978. Junior became the leader of a vaunted defense that would only allow 67 points in 1979 and 98 points during his senior campaign under the tutelage of highly respected defensive coordinator Ken Donahue.
“Coach Donahue was the greatest defensive coordinator to ever coach,” said Junior. “There was not a scheme or a game plan that we were not prepared to defend. We were a defensive power. And that's because of his mastermind. We had as much respect for him as Coach Bryant.”
The Crimson Tide went an incredible 44-4 during Junior’s tenure, only losing one SEC game to Mississippi State in 1980. The other losses came against Nebraska, Southern Cal and Notre Dame. The 1979 Sugar Bowl against Penn State stands as one of the team’s epic wins, ranking among the most memorable during a 28-game winning streak from 1978-80.
“It is kind of hard to say which was the best team during my four years because when you look at the guys who we produced, it's how I feel about this award,” said Junior. “I am not accepting this Hall of Fame award because I was good. I am accepting on behalf of those four classes of teammates, coaches and administrators, and the people who worked in the cafeteria and the professors because they made me who I am. I just happen to be the one who gets credit.”
Junior ranks a key blocked punt against Missouri in 1978; intercepting an option pitch in the 1978 revenge game against Nebraska; and returning an interception for a 59-yard touchdown against Georgia Tech in 1979 among his top plays. He added “anytime you could catch [quarterback] Condredge Holloway from Tennessee, you were doing good.”
Sylvester Croom, who would later become the first African-American head coach in Southeastern Conference history at Mississippi State in the mid-2000s, got his start coaching Junior during his four seasons with the Crimson Tide.
“E.J. had football intelligence, and there was really nothing E.J. couldn't do, he was probably one if not the most complete player that I've ever coached,” said Croom. “He understood the game. Some guys play strictly on talent, but he was a very good technician, his footwork, his hands… When I think of a guy who could just do everything. He could rush the passer, play man coverage, zone coverage, play inside the box at linebacker or off the ball. He could do it all and very well and rarely ever missed an assignment.”
E.J. JUNIOR: UP CLOSE
- Named a unanimous First Team All-American in 1980 and a three-time First Team All-SEC selection
- Led Alabama to two national titles, three SEC titles and a 44-4 record, never finishing lower than No. 6 in the national rankings
- Recorded 190 tackles, 21 sacks and 10 career forced fumbles
- Played for Hall of Fame Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant
- Becomes the 19th Alabama player to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.