2009 Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame: Bill Jordan's love of outdoors sparked career

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 31, 2013 

Ask Atlanta Braves great Chipper Jones about his hunting buddy Bill Jordan.

Once Chippper stops laughing, the answer is loaded with respect and insight.

“I like to call him the mob boss of the outdoor world,” Jones said. “He’s the ring leader. Everything revolves around him and what he has created at Realtree.”

Not bad for a good, ol’ boy from Columbus who 50 years ago thought he would make his mark on the sporting world by catching footballs on Sunday afternoons.

Tonight Jordan will go into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame with a resume that is as versatile as the camouflage pattern he created.

He was a key player on the 1967 Columbus High football team that fell one touchdown short of the Georgia High School Association state AAA championship. He signed with Ole Miss and battled through a nagging hamstring injury that slowed his football career, but not before being on the receiving end of passes thrown by legendary quarterback Archie Manning — Eli and Peyton’s dad.

Translation: Jordan is a graduate of the old school.

The professional success and riches that did not come in football, came in the unlikeliest of places, Jordan’s real love — the outdoors. He founded Jordan Outdoor Enterprises, Limited in 1983, transforming the hunting apparel industry and cornering the market in the process. Before Jordan put his branchy, leafy Realtree camouflage pattern in Wal Mart and other major retailers, hunters were still wearing the 1950s Korean War-era military pattern. Along the way, Jordan has become a television star, currently hosting ESPN’s top two rated outdoors shows — Bill Jordan’s Realtree Outdoors and Driven to Hunt, which features hunting trips with NASCAR stars and airs prior to races.

Not a bad ride. But a mob boss?

C’mon, Chipper. You got to be kidding, right?

“I might go along with Chipper on that one,” said NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, another of Jordan’s famous hunting pals. “He controls the outdoor world when it comes to the camouflage side.”

Want to draw another response to the underworld comparison, go back in Jordan’s files and talk to Columbus attorney Sammy Oates, Jordan’s buddy since junior high. Oates was the quarterback launching those passes Jordan was catching back in the glory days of Columbus High football.

“Interesting,” Oates said.

Then he laughed.

Don’t confuse the laughs, folks. They are not laughing at Jordan. They are laughing with him — all the way to the bank. His company employs more than 80 people. He owns Realtree Farms, a 1,100-acre spread in Southern Harris County. Tucked nicely off River Road, some of the greatest legends in auto racing and other sports slip in and out, virtually unnoticed.

Jordan owns another large farm deeper into Harris County.

One day, he may be driving his Chevrolet Silverado truck down River Road, and the next day he’s hunting big game in the western U.S. or shooting ducks down in Arkansas.

When you ask Jordan about his success and the spoils of that success he just shrugs his shoulders and talks about the great team he has assembled. He talks about the loyalty and is thankful for the good fortune.

But talk to people who have known Jordan for many years and you see that the instant success wasn’t so instant.

Oates can remember as young adults watching televised football games with Jordan. As they would sit there, Jordan would have a white T-shirt and with magic markers he would design camouflage patters on the shirt.

“He took nothing and made something out of it,” Oates said. “And he did it all himself. He just stayed with it.”

And he makes it look so easy.

Jones and Jordan began hunting and fishing together in the mid-1990s. A rising Major League Baseball star, Jones was drawn to Jordan.

“I wanted to have as much fun as it looked like he was having,” Jones said.

And it takes an athlete to recognize an athlete, even if his uniform is a camouflage jacket, six-pocket hunting pants and ball cap and scuffed Realtree hunting boots. Just ask Jones.

“You can’t become a star athlete on the high school, college or pro level without an inner drive. I call that heart,” Jones said. “Athletes who have heart and don’t make it to the professional level can take that same approach to the business world. Bill didn’t get to realize his pro dream, but he took that dream and heart to Ole Miss, then he applied it to his professional life. He has probably far exceeded what he would have done as an athlete.” Friend and confidant

Jordan has also become a confidant to some of his celebrity hunting friends.

At one of the points in Childress’ life, one of the first people the NASCAR team owner reached out to was Jordan. Shortly after Dale Earnhardt was killed in a racing accident in Daytona, Childress called Jordan.

“He was instrumental in some of the decisions I made,” Childress said. “I knew he had a great relationship with Dale. And I respected him as a businessman.”

Jordan gave Childress advice and warned him about some things that could happen in the wake of Earnhardt’s death. Jordan had been through it with his friend and business partner Davey Allison, when Allison was killed in a helicopter crash at Talladega. “To make a long story short, Richard needed somebody to lean on,” Jordan said. “It was an honor that Richard turned to me during one of the biggest crisis in his life.”

The two men talked for hours the night before Earnhardt’s memorial service.

In fact, Childress compares Jordan and Earnhardt from a business standpoint.

“Dale was an aggressive businessman, so is Bill,” Childress said.

Earnhardt and Jordan were close — hunting buddies.

One day, the two men were at a racetrack and found themseleves in Earnhardt’s No. 3 hauler. It wasn’t long before Earnhardt’s death. Jordan still remembers the conversation.

“You know the reason our relationship works, Bill?” Earnhardt asked Jordan that day.

Jordan opted for the simple response.

“Because you are my friend, Dale,” he said.

“No,” Earnhardt shot back. “Because the whole time I have known you, you have never asked anything from me.”

Today, Jordan puts it this way.

“Dale had all of these people who wanted a piece of him, and I just wanted to go hunting with him,” Jordan said.

As Jordan rubs elbows with the sporting elite, that’s one of the things that makes the relationships work. There is a mutual understanding, Jones said.

“Bill knows we can scratch each other’s back,” Jones said. “I get to hunt in some places that I would never get to hunt and in turn I can help Bill push his products.”

Jordan agrees.

“It was the same thing with Earnhardt, and it holds true with Tony Stewart and others,” he said. “You become friends and they want to do things for you.”

Football and outdoors

Jordan really wanted to play pro football. He still believes had it not been for the hamstring injury in his right leg, he would have had that opportunity.

“I didn’t pull it, I tore it,” Jordan said.

He once asked Manning, a veteran of 13 NFL seasons, if he could have made it on the next level.

“Archie told me one day, I could have,” Jordan said.

Though his college career didn’t go as Jordan would have scripted it, he hit it big in the athletic afterlife.

And those who know Jordan best are not surprised the jackpot came from hunting. As a boy, Jordan loved being in the woods or on the river fishing.

Oates was one of Jordan’s hunting and fishing buddies when they were young. They still hunt together some today.

“He still has a sixth sense in the woods,” Oates said. He then tells a story that illustrates Jordan’s patience — something that was tested in the formation of Realtree.

“Bill will hunt all year for a single deer,” Oates said. “He will find a big buck and he will pass up shot after shot on other deer to get that one buck. He was the first hunter I ever knew who stalked deer.”

One of the big reasons — besides a campus full of pretty women and Coach Johnny Vaught’s Rebels threw the ball every other down — Jordan chose Ole Miss over the other 20 colleges that were courting him was the hunting and fishing in and around Oxford. On his official visit to Ole Miss, they took Jordan to Sardis Reservoir.

“I saw more duck and geese than I had ever seen in my life,” Jordan said.

Forget that his two sisters and three high school teammates were at Auburn.

“I get back from that trip and I am absolutely hooked,” Jordan remembered.

Though Jordan’s contributions to the outdoors world are a big reason he is entering the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame, he also had a distinguished high school career. Six members of that 1967 Columbus High team that lost 14-7 to Marietta in the Class AAA state title game, played Division I college football. Their coach, Pig Davis is in the local Hall of Fame, but Jordan is the first player off that team to be inducted.

Oates was the high school quarterback and Jordan was the star receiver.

“I used to accuse him that he played wide receiver because he lined up closer to the cheerleaders,” Oates said.

But he played it well.

“He had super hands,” Oates said. “If the ball was catchable, he caught it. You could depend on him to catch it on third and 7 or 8.”

Reflections

As the induction nears, Jordan said he has spent some time reflecting on his accomplishments as he prepared for the induction. Many times, those thoughts spun back to his parents.

“They are the ones who molded me,” Jordan said.

Leon Jordan died in 1983 at age 71 — “pre-Realtree,” as Bill calls it. His mother, Kitty, is 92 and plans to attend the banquet Saturday.

Jordan said he has remembered what at the time seemed like little things, but now through the microscope of time are magnified.

“I remember one time we were playing at LSU and I was hurt,” Jordan said. “I called my parents and told them I wasn’t going to play and they should just stay home.” That Saturday in Baton Rouge, Kitty and Leon Jordan were in Tiger Stadium.

“That’s just the way they were,” Jordan said.

He remembers the many times his mother hauled him all over Columbus for football, baseball and basketball practices and games.

He remembers his father’s steady support.

Oates said Jordan is a lot like his father, who owned a marine business in Columbus. “I had the benefit of knowing his dad well, and they have similar personalities,” Oates said. “Both are outgoing, likeable, but both are also very smart and successful. Bill is the consummate salesman. So was his dad. You walked on that lot and thought you needed a boat, you generally left with one.”

As Bill Jordan has grown older, he’s 59 now, he is more and more like his father, Oates said.

“No doubt about it,” Oates said.

Though Leon Jordan has been dead almost 40 years, Oates believes he knows what the old man would be feeling this week.

“His daddy would be beside himself,” Oates said. “He was very, very proud of Bill.”

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