In the History Corner . . . Football legends from Alcorn, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State – then and now?

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Steve "Air" McNair at Alcorn State University

This year, with Alcorn, Jackson State (JSU), and Mississippi Valley State (MVSU) all winning their homecoming games (games that were not against slouches), with Jackson State completely dominating the SWAC East, and with Alcorn continuing to be a dominant force in the conference, maybe the good old days are on their way back.

It may have surprised some, including North Carolina Central’s football team t who lost to Valley. Not as surprising was Alcorn’s win over Grambling and Jackson State’s win over Alabama State. What it may signal is a resurgence of Black college football in the state of Mississippi. History shows that Alcorn, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley football programs have much to boast about. Furthermore, maybe, just maybe, as goes Black college football in Mississippi, so goes Black college football across the country.

This is a good time to look back in history at Black college football’s Golden Age, 1960 – 2000, and talk about some of the earlier athletes who helped build the football programs at those universities.

What football fans, college or professional, will ever forget the names of Alcornites Steve McNair, Jimmie Giles, Donald Driver, and Roynell Young? Younger football fans would do well to study the statistics and Black college experiences of Steve McNair, one of Alcorn’s and the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks. He left Mount Olive for Alcorn State and continued to develop even after joining the Tennessee Titans. Many of his college and professional records still stand. From the same mold of greatness came free safety and cornerback, Roynell Young, who made his mark with the Philadelphia Eagles, and two stand-out wide receivers – Jimmie Giles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Donald Driver of the Green Bay Packers. As quietly as it is kept, Driver did a great deal to elevate the careers of Packer quarterbacks Brett Favre and Aaron Rogers. All four of these players – McNair, Young, Driver, and Giles – wore the purple and gold of Alcorn State University.

Look at these players and it’s clear to see the circumstances from which they came and the devotion they had to Black college football. Their professional careers were no less spectacular because they went to Alcorn. In fact, Alcorn may have been the spark that motivated them. Coach Fred McNair appears to be bringing back some of that glory, as indeed, he is a direct link to it.

In similar fashion, the names of Jerry Rice, Willie Totten, Deacon Jones, and Ashley Ambrose will not be forgotten by Valley alumni nor fans of football across the country. Jerry Rice not only put MVSU on the map, he also put the town of Quitman on the map. He left his mark on Valley, on the San Francisco 49ers, and on football in general. Many of the dozens of records that he set as a wide receiver still stand. It is almost as if he created the modern position of wide receiver. The truth be told, it is almost impossible to talk about Jerry Rice without talking about Willie Totten. At MVSU, Totten as quarterback, with the help of Rice and others, set more than 50 NCAA offensive records, including 58 touchdown passes and an average of 59 points per game.

On the other side of the ball were two other stellar players – cornerback Ashley Ambrose of the Cincinnati Bengals and Deacon Jones, defensive end for the Rams, Chargers, and Redskins. They too, made many Delta Devils proud.

Studying these players adds understanding to the depth of influence Black college football had in its Golden Age compared to its status today. MVSU made them as much as they made MVSU. Black college football has molded so many quality athletes.

When it comes to JSU football, nobody is going to forget Walter Payton of Columbia or Willie Richardson of Greenville and Clarksdale. Payton came to JSU and set Black college football afire. Many of his college records are still intact. Once he got to Chicago, much of the rest of the world learned of his greatness. For a period of time, he was the all-time leading NFL rusher, even though in many of the early years, it was much a matter of his making a way out of no way in order to gain rushing yards.

Meanwhile, Willie Richardson had opened the door to the NFL for fellow Jacksonians. Many of his college records were still intact when he retired from the Baltimore Colts. Other noted wide receivers to follow him include Jimmy Smith, Jerome Barkum, Rich Caster, Chris Burkett, and Harold Jackson. On the other side of the ball were such legendary players as Jackie Slater, Robert Brazile, Lem Barney, Verlon (real name Vernon) Biggs, Ben McGee, and Leslie Duncan.

These were the kinds of players that Coach Deion Sanders would be proud to have today. They were true blue Jacksonians whose lives and families were rooted there.

Obviously, the list from each college could be much longer. We did not mention other greats like Jack Spinks, Leslie Frazier, Fred McNair (the original Air McNair), and Vince “Undertaker” Brown. It would be difficult to list them all. We limited the list to just the top 100 all-time greatest players from Mississippi’s colleges. It is worthy of noting that, of those top 100, 22 played at Alcorn, JSU, or MVSU. Furthermore, the Black college players are compressed into a less than 50-year time period, whereas the 45 white players on the top 100 list were drawn from a more than 100-year time period. (JSU was a small private college until 1940 and MVSU was not established until 1950. It was only in the 1950s that their football programs began gaining any recognition.) In addition to those realities, it should be noted that there are other Black players included in the top 100 who attended white colleges after those colleges desegregated in the mid-1960s. All of this makes the 22 Black college players stand out even more. Yes, the Black colleges more than held their own.

No one can truly deny the talents, abilities, and skills of the above-mentioned Black college players. They are at the top of everybody’s all-time greatest list. There were top-flight Black players such as these all over the SWAC, MEAC, SIAC, CIAA, and other HBCU venues during the Golden Age. That, nor their college experiences at the Black colleges, should ever be forgotten.

The question is, where are the Black college football legends today? You know the answer. They are now at Ole Miss, Alabama, Washington, Notre Dame, UCLA, West Virginia, and the other major, predominantly white colleges. Today, Black colleges cannot match them in terms of scholarship offers, fringe benefits, and the publicity that leads to their recruitment. Consequently, nobody expects the Black colleges to be able to attract the top players any more. What a shame!

In addition to Black colleges generally having to settle for the second or third tier of players, Black players also often face the fate that Willie Totten faced as he came out of college. In his four years at Mississippi Valley State University, he had set more than 50 NCAA offensive records. Despite the fact that Jerry Rice was deservedly drafted by San Francisco in the first round as a receiver, none of the top teams drafted Totten to continue being a quarterback. In the pros and on many white campuses, skilled positions were often reserved for white players. Even today on many white campuses, white players are more likely to be given higher consideration for the skilled positions. If there were more Black coaches, owners, and executives, Black players could get a fairer shake, which brings us to the final point of this article.

It is no secret that Black players can greatly benefit from having Black coaches and mentors. Consider the fact that when JSU was thriving on the football field, there was W.C. Gorden, a Black coach; there was John Merritt, a Black coach. Alcorn thrived under Marino Casem, a Black coach. MVSU burst on the scene with Archie Cooley, a Black coach. Even NFL coaches “borrowed” the techniques developed by Cooley to “create” a whole new offense concept for their pro teams. Black coaches have the skills and spring from the same culture and historical circumstances as do their players, giving them a leg up in the game, so to speak.

Like Black players, Black coaches are often considered as second best in the profession or as an afterthought. When it comes to Black college football, however, they too, have been legendary, lifting their programs up. They range from Grambling’s Eddie Robinson to Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither; from JSU’s and Tennessee State’s John Merritt to Southern’s Ace Mumford; from Prairie View’s Billy Nicks to Maryland State’s Skip McCain; from Morgan State’s Earl Banks to JSU’s W.C. Gorden; from Alcorn’s Marino Casem to Alcorn’s Fred McNair.

How many current football fans understand what has happened to Black college football, most of the Black colleges, and many Black players? How can we learn from that history and use it to help Black colleges compete for their own talented and skilled youngsters and to help the players to develop their skills and talents without having to “sell their souls”? How can we use that history to assure that Alcorn, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley again produce their share of football legends?

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In the History Corner . . . Football legends from Alcorn, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State – then and now?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
December 1, 2021