Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Cleveland: On the NFL Greats from Mississippi

So, this question was posed to me on Twitter: “As much as State and Ole Miss have had talent over the years, how did they both miss on Brett Favre, Steve McNair, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice? Some of the NFL’s greatest athletes and record holders, all from Mississippi, but none went to the state’s two biggest universities. How did that happen?

That’s a timely question with this being the week 2019 high school graduates can begin to sign scholarships. Rice is the NFL’s all-time leading receiver and touchdown scorer. Payton is the league’s second all-time leading rusher, despite playing on lousy teams for much of his career. Favre is the NFL’s second all-time leading passer. McNair, the NCAA’s all-time leader in total offense at Alcorn State and later an NFL star, is the only one of of the four who was offered by either State or Ole Miss. And he was recruited by them as a defensive back.

I’ll answer the Twitter question, but beforehand I’ll offer this: This most likely would not happen today with any of the four. Times have changed. We’ll get to that.

First, Payton, who played his high school football at Columbia and did not play until his junior season of high school. Payton graduated in 1971 – at the cusp of integration. State and Ole Miss – and Southern Miss as well – were all ultra-selective in their recruitment of black football players. Payton was scoring a lot of touchdowns for the Columbia Wildcats. Problem was, as State Ole Miss and USM coaches saw it, he was celebrating his touchdowns far too flamboyantly for their tastes. I know, I know: This sounds really stupid. You can teach a guy to hand the ball to the referee after he scores touchdowns. You can’t necessarily teach him how to have the talent and work ethic to score all those touchdowns.

It was stupid. Blatantly stupid. In one game, Payton scored the last of his six touchdowns by running the last 30 yards or so backwards. Well, that did it. Walter Payton – Walter Freaking Payton! – was not offered by Ole Miss, State or USM, the last of which was 26 miles away from Columbia, a straight shot down Highway 98. Walter Payton – the greatest football player I’ve ever seen – signed with Jackson State over Kansas State.

Jerry Rice? Jerry, a bricklayer’s son, was the quintessential late bloomer. He grew three or four inches in height, filled out and added a step or two of speed as a senior in high school at tiny BL Moor in Crawford, just outside of Starkville. Although he played high school ball nearly in the shadow of Scott Field, Rice was recruited by only Mississippi Valley and Jackson State, the latter mostly because his older brother had played there.

Rice signed with Valley where Archie Cooley, The Gunslinger, was throwing the ball 50 or 60 times a game when nobody else was. Cooley once said he taught Rice how to run, which was more than a slight exaggeration. Such grace is God-given. But he did teach him how to run pass routes. As far as catching the football, that part was easy as Jerry explained, “When you’ve grown up catching bricks in Mississippi heat, footballs are easy.”


Favre’s case is remarkable. He played quarterback and safety for his daddy, Big Irv Favre at Hancock North Central, near the Gulf Coast. Big Irv was Old School. His team’s ran the football from the Wing-T offense. He wasn’t about to change for his son, who just happened to have an uncommonly strong right arm. Brett threw about four or five passes a game. And he wasn’t that fast a runner.

Mark McHale, an offensive line coach at Southern Miss, watched him throw, mostly in pre-game warm-ups and in practice. He lobbied for USM to sign Favre, who did not have another Division I offer. When USM lost a committed quarterback late to Alabama, it opened up a spot for Favre, who chose USM over Delta State. He began his freshman training camp as the sixth string quarterback. By the third game, he was the starter. He was 17. The rest is history.

McNair? His brother, Fred McNair, had been a terrific quarterback at Alcorn State. Steve was at tiny Mount Olive High, playing quarterback, defensive back, kicking, punting and playing basketball and baseball and everything else. State and Ole Miss – LSU and Florida State, as well – recruited him as a defensive back. Jeff Bower, the new USM head coach at the time, recruited him as a quarterback. Steve chose Alcorn, because he wanted to play quarterback and because of his brother.

OK, earlier I said I didn’t think all this would happen today. Why? Now we have all these summer showcase camps and seven-on-seven tournaments and such. Everybody would see a young Favre and McNair throw. They’d see Rice catch. And they could talk to Payton about running straight ahead and handing the ball to the referee after he scored, which he did after nearly all of his 63 college and 110 NFL touchdowns.

Contact syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mstoday.org.

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