NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Although he went on to excel on the other side of the ball, Doug Nettles arrived at Vanderbilt dreaming of glory as a running back. That is, until he ran into Tom Jackson, the University of Louisville standout linebacker who went on to NFL and television fame. By Nettles’ telling, Jackson delivered a wakeup call on a carry early in his Vanderbilt career.
Slight but nimble, the running back got Jackson to bite on one shake. But not a second.
“He didn’t take it,” Nettles said. “And he almost killed me.”
Getting gingerly to his feet, Nettles suggested to teammates that they not run that play again.
The sophomore soon found his calling as a full-time defensive back. In the years that followed, more than a few opposing receivers likely wished Jackson had left him alone. Nettles emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in program history and went on to play more than 70 games in six NFL seasons–the first Black student-athlete from Vanderbilt to play in the league.
Nettles still found a way to touch the football and impact games. He left Vanderbilt as the program’s all-time leader in return yardage, including a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the University of Virginia in 1971. A year later, he led the SEC when he averaged 25.6 yards per return, still one of only four Commodores to lead the conference since it began keeping records for returns in 1959. But he thrived on defense, first under the tutelage of defensive backs coach Bobby Proctor and defensive coordinator Bob Patterson and later for defensive coordinator Bill Parcells after Steve Sloan replaced Bill Pace as head coach.
It wasn’t a coincidence that those coaches helped him reach his full potential. It wasn’t just because he had the skills to play defense. As one of the football program’s first Black student-athletes, Nettles found those coaches eager to see his potential and mentor him.
“It was a lot better atmosphere–it was a lot more honest atmosphere on the defensive side of the ball,” Nettles said. “I made the best decision I could, and I think it was the right decision, to stay at cornerback.”
The context of time and place is why Nettles’ Hall of Fame credentials go beyond a kickoff return against Virginia, a “pick-six” interception return against Mississippi State or his time with the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. He was a great player on the field, fierce, competitive and confident. He also achieved excellence at a time when merely being a Black student-athlete forced him to overcome daily challenges on and off the field.
Nettles recalled nights when the few Black student-athletes on the football team gathered and discussed whether or not they should continue. Vanderbilt is better because they did.
“We had no idea about being pioneers or being the first,” Nettles said. “We were too inundated with trying to survive that whole situation–culturally, academically, educationally and all that kind of stuff. We didn’t really realize what was going on.”
Nettles set a standard of excellence not just for future cornerbacks but every Commodore.