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Cleveland: Magnolia State Epicenter of College Football

Ole Miss starts 2014 season 5-0 / Photo by Amelia Camurati
Ole Miss starts 2014 season 5-0 / Photo by Amelia Camurati

We all know what happened last weekend. Call it The Mississippi Massacre. Ole Miss and Mississippi State made the Magnolia State the epicenter of college football.
Thirty years ago, there was another day when Mississippi took front and center on the national stage. It was a Sunday like no other. Three decades later, people still talk about. Three decades later, people will celebrate it.
On Nov. 4, 1984, Alcorn State scored two touchdowns late to defeat Mississippi Valley State 42-28 before an overflow crowd of 63,808 at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.
As the public address announcer said that day: “Welcome to the game of the week, the game of the month, the game of the year, the game of the decade, the game of the century…”
It was something. It was televised in Mississippi head-to-head against NFL games and drew an unprecedented 70 ratings share.
Thirty years later, Alcorn State alumni will host a celebration of the game the night of Oct. 16 at your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. It should be something, too…
A short history lesson is in order for younger fans.
In the fall of 1984, both Alcorn, coached by the venerable Marino “The Godfather” Casem, and Mississippi Valley State, coached by the flamboyant Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley, were both enjoying historic, landmark seasons.
Both were undefeated, with Valley and its high-powered offense led by Jerry Rice and Willie Totten scoring 60 points per game drawing national attention, and Alcorn, with Casem’s traditionally excellent defense, winning week after week in the more traditional manner.
In early October, I wrote a column in the Jackson Daily News looking forward to their Nov. 4 showdown at Itta Bena. It was too big for the venue I wrote. There was no way the stadium at Itta Bena could handle the masses who would want to attend. I proposed moving the game to Jackson and Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, which would hold 50,000 more people.
Problem was, there was a doubleheader scheduled for the The Vet on Nov. 4. So I asked Hall of Famer Barney Poole, then the stadium’s manager, if there was a rule against playing on Sunday. He said not so far as he knew.
So I wrote a column that proposed playing it on Sunday afternoon. It would be, I suggested, the biggest payday in the history of either school.
Both schools went for it. And that’s what happened. And, oh my goodness, what a spectacle it was! White Mississippi came out by the thousands to enjoy SWAC football. Even the aisles were populated. Sports Illustrated was here. So was CBS, NBC and ABC and many of the nation’s largest newspapers.
Valley fell behind 28-7 at halftime but then scored 21 straight points in the third quarter to tie the game. At one point, Rice ran a crossing pattern and the ball was thrown behind him. He never broke stride, reached down with one, huge, white-gloved hand behind him, snagged the ball and kept going. You had to see it to believe it.
Rice caught several passes but was covered game-long by future NFL star Isaac Holt. Valley fans will tell you Holt held Rice on every play. Alcorn fans will tell you it was simply great defense. Highlights of the game will be shown and viewers can decide for themselves. Know this: Perry Quarles, a hard-charging Alcorn running back, scored five touchdowns and stole the show.
The event — Gentlemen of the Gridiron: Thirty Years After “The Game” — is being hosted by the Alcorn State Alumni Association. Many of the game’s main characters are expected to attend. Tickets are available on ticketmaster.com or my calling Marian Mixon at 601 259-0299.
images-1Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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