Sunday, December 10, 2017

Top 10 Athletes From Mississippi

December 10, 1817, 200 years ago today: Mississippi is admitted to the Union as the 20th State.

Top 10 Athletes From Mississippi

Choosing the top 2 was easy. Separating them was very tough.

Honorable Mention to Jake Gibbs of Grenada. Like the man at Number 8 on this list, he was a quarterback at the University of Mississippi, a.k.a. "Ole Miss," who had to choose between baseball and football. Indeed, he led the school to Southeastern Conference Championships in both sports, and a National Championship in football in 1960. Unlike the other man, he chose baseball.

He was a September call-up to the majors by the Yankees late in the 1962, '63 and '64 seasons, but played a grand total of 9 games, and never appeared on a World Series roster. He was the team's starting catcher from 1966 to 1969, taking over from Elston Howard, before losing his job to Thurman Munson.

He retired after the 1971 season, due to injuries. He was about to turn 33. It was his misfortune to arrive just as the old Dynasty was crumbling, and to leave before George Steinbrenner and Gabe Paul could arrive and rebuild the team.

He went back to Ole Miss, and coached their baseball team to the 1972 SEC Championship. He was named national Coach of the Year in 1972 and 1977. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. There is a College Baseball Hall of Fame, near the Texas Tech campus in Lubbock, but he has not yet been elected, as either a player or a coach.

Honorable Mention to Charlie Hayes of Hattiesburg. A 3rd baseman, he had some rotten luck. He came up with the San Francisco Giants, but they traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies right before winning the Pennant in 1989. The Phillies traded him to the Yankees before they could win the 1993 Pennant. The Yankees left him unprotected in the 1993 expansion draft, so it looked like he would miss out on their renaissance.

He was an original 1993 Colorado Rockie, and could have made the Playoffs with them in 1994, as they were in the hunt for the National League Western Division title and Wild Card, when the Strike hit. He returned to the Phillies, but they had already fallen apart. He went back to the Giants, but lost the NL Wild Card Game with them in 1998. He closed his career with the Houston Astros, losing the 2001 NL Division Series. He finished with a .262 batting average and 144 home runs. Not bad, but hardly legendary.

But he did have one break. He was traded to the Yankees in 1996, and was placed on the postseason roster. When Wade Boggs had an uncharacteristic slump, Hayes was made the starting 3rd baseman. The result was that he caught the final out of the 1996 World Series, making him a Yankee hero (if not a Yankee Legend). Thank you, Charlie.

Honorable Mention to Frank "Bruiser" Kinard of Jackson. As his nickname suggests, he was tough and mean. He also had the odd distinction of playing for the football teams named the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. He was a 6-time All-Pro, and was elected to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. He later returned to his alma mater, Ole Miss, and became an assistant coach and the school's athletic director.

Honorable Mention to Hugh Green of Natchez. A defensive end, playing at the University of Pittsburgh, for "the Pitt Panthers," at the same time that Mean Joe Greene was leading the Steel Curtain, it was inevitable that he would be called "Mean Hugh Green." Sports Illustrated put him and an actual panther on the cover of their 1980 College Football Preview issue, calling him the "BADDEST CAT IN THE GAME."

He won some Player of the Year awards, and finished 2nd in the Heisman Trophy balloting to George Rogers, the closest any defensive lineman has ever come to winning the award. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. In 2008, ESPN named ranked him 14th on their list of the Top 25 College Football Players of All Time.

He played 11 seasons as an NFL linebacker, for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins, making 2 Pro Bowls, but injuries prevented him from reaching the same heights that he did in college.

Honorable Mention to Ralph Boston of Laurel. He won the Gold Medal in the long jump at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, breaking the world record set by Jesse Owens 25 years earlier. He also won the Silver Medal in Tokyo in 1964 and the Bronze Medal in Mexico City in 1968. He is a member of the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mention to Spencer Haywood of Silver City. This was a tough call, not for his achievements, but for his location. He moved to Detroit at age 15, and I thought that was too late to make him qualify for Michigan, despite being a star in both high school and college basketball there. So he qualifies for Mississippi.

He was a 5-time All-Star, once in the ABA, winning their Most Valuable Player award with the 1970 Denver Rockets (forerunners of the Nuggets), and 4 times in the NBA, with the Seattle SuperSonics. After becoming perhaps the 1st of the many "false saviors" for the Knicks, he went to the Los Angeles Lakers, and won the 1980 NBA Championship with them.

The University of Detroit Mercy retired his Number 45, and the Sonics retired his Number 24. He was named to the ABA All-Time Team, and he is the only Mississippi-trained man elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The only man. There is a woman who thus qualifies:

Honorable Mention to Lusia Harris of Greenwood. A center, she led Delta State University of Cleveland, Mississippi to the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics from Women) title, the closest thing women's basketball then had to a collegiate National Championship, in 1975, 1976 and 1977. She was awarded the 1976-77 Honda-Broderick Cup as the outstanding women's collegiate athlete of the schoolyear.

In 1977, the New Orleans Jazz made her the 1st woman ever selected in the NBA Draft. She was 6-foot-3, and a good shooter. Could she have made it? We'll never know, as she refused her tryout -- because she was pregnant. She was married at the time, and eventually had 4 children. She briefly played in a women's minor league, and went back to her high school as a teacher and coach. In 1992, Lusia Harris-Stewart and 1950s and '60s star Nera White were the 1st 2 women elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Now, the Top 10:

10. Felix "Doc" Blanchard of Bay St. Louis. He was "Mr. Inside" to Glenn Davis' "Mr. Outside" on the National Champion Army football teams of 1944, 1945 and 1946. In those 3 seasons, Army went 28-0-1, the only blemish being the 0-0 tie with Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, perhaps the 1st college football game to be called "The Game of the Century."

In 1945, Doc (so nicknamed because his father was a doctor) won the Heisman Trophy, the 1st underclassman ever to do so (Davis won it in 1946); and also the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the country.

Shortly after his 1947 graduation from West Point, the U.S. Air Force was separated from the Army, and when he was denied a furlough to accept the other kind of draft, by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he became a fighter pilot, serving in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and retiring in 1971 with the rank of Colonel. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and West Point retired his Number 35.

9. Archie Manning of Drew. Okay, so he's now only the 3rd-best quarterback in his own family. But Elisha Archibald Manning III is still his family's best all-around athlete. He was also a star basketball player in high school, and was good enough in baseball to be drafted 4 times: By the Atlanta Braves in 1967, the Chicago White Sox in 1969 and 1970, and the Kansas City Royals in 1971.

He starred at Ole Miss, and finished in the top 4 in the Heisman Trophy voting twice, but couldn't get them to a Southeastern Conference Championship. He did get them to bowl games all 3 seasons, winning the 1968 Liberty Bowl and the 1970 Sugar Bowl, before losing the 1971 Gator Bowl. He didn't have much luck with the New Orleans Saints, either, only once getting the strapped team to a .500 record.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He has a statue at Ole Miss' Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The school not only retired his number, but set their speed limit for on-campus vehicles at his number: 18.

Of course, since he raised his sons Peyton and Eli in New Orleans, they qualify for Louisiana, even though Eli also went to Ole Miss.

8. Charlie Conerly of Clarksdale. The 1st great quarterback at Ole Miss, he led them to their 1st SEC Championship, in 1947. He also played baseball for them. He was drafted by the New York Giants, and was named All-Pro 3 times, leading them to the 1956 NFL Championship. He also got them into the NFL Championship Game in 1958 and 1959, winning the NFL's Most Valuable Player award in 1959.

He seemed to get old in a hurry, and the Giants replaced him with Y.A. Tittle in 1961. Nevertheless, they retired his Number 42 (which he lived to see), and named him to their Ring of Honor (which he didn't live to see). He has been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, but not yet the Pro version.

7. Jackie Slater of Jackson. A 7-time Pro Bowler, he played offensive tackle in the NFL for 20 straight seasons. He helped the Los Angeles Rams reach the NFC Championship Game 5 times, and reach Super Bowl XIV in 1980. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Rams retired his Number 78, and even though he only played 1 season, the last of his career, in St. Louis as the Rams moved there, he was named to the St. Louis Football Ring of Fame.

6. Lem Barney of Gulfport. In 1999, CBS aired a special for The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players poll. Barney was ranked 97th. Jerry Glanville was then a correspondent for CBS' The NFL Today. Among the players he coached were Barney and Wayne Walker with the 1974-76 Detroit Lions, William Andrews and Clay Matthews Jr. with the 1977-82 Atlanta Falcons, Earl Campbell with the 1984 Houston Oilers, Clay's brother Bruce Matthews with the 1984-89 Oilers (as head coach), and Deion Sanders with the 1990-93 Falcons (as head coach). He said, of all the players he ever coached, "Best athlete: Deion Sanders. Best football player, Lem Barney!"

A cornerback, Barney led the NFL in interceptions as a rookie in 1967, and made 7 Pro Bowls. He had 56 career interceptions, 7 of them returned for touchdowns. He is a member of the Pro Football, Detroit Lions, Jackson State Sports, Mississippi Sports and Michigan Sports Halls of Fame. In 2004, the Lions retired Number 20 for 3 legends who wore it: Barney, Billy Sims and Barry Sanders.

5. Willie Brown of Yazoo City. He was an All-Star 9 times, 5 in the AFL and 4 in the NFL. He starred for the Denver Broncos, and then for the Oakland Raiders, getting them into Super Bowl II, and winning Super Bowl XI, returning an interception for a touchdown in that game. (As he did so, NBC broadcaster Curt Gowdy called him "Old Man Willie." He was 35.)

He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the AFL All-Time Team and the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team. He later served as an assistant coach with the Raiders, winning 2 more Super Bowls, before coaching elsewhere, and has returned to them in a front office capacity.

In 1999, The Sporting News named him 50th on their list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, making him the highest-ranking player identified with the Raiders. In 2010, on their list of the 100 Greatest Players, the NFL Network ranked him 66th.

4. Brett Favre of Kiln. His character has come under rough scrutiny, so much so that his 2007 recipt of Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year award now seems unworthy. But the guy broke most of the career passing records, although many of since been broken again by Peyton Manning and/or Tom Brady.

An 11-time Pro Bowler, he became the 1st man ever to win 3 straight NFL Most Valuable Player awards, 1995-97. With all his individual achievements, it seems odd that he only got the Green Bay Packers into 4 NFC Championship Games, winning Super Bowl XXXI and losing Super Bowl XXXII.

The University of Southern Mississippi and the Packers retired his Number 4. He was named to the Pro (but not yet College) Football and Green Bay Packers Halls of Fame, and the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team.

3. Lance Alworth of Brookhaven. A 7-time All-Star, he was named American Football League Player of the Year in 1963, leading the San Diego Chargers to the AFL Championship -- the only time a San Diego team has ever gone as far as it could go at the major league level.

Some people have suggested that trading "Bambi" (nicknamed because he "ran like a deer" to the Dallas Cowboys after the 1970 season led to The Curse of Bambi, dooming all San Diego teams. Here's what's happened since: Alworth won Super Bowl VI with the Cowboys his 1st season in Dallas, the Chargers only reached the Super Bowl once in the ensuing 46 seasons and finally moved, the Padres have won only 2 Pennants and exactly 1 World Series game, while the NBA's Clippers, the ABA's Conquistadors/Sails, and the WHA's Mariners all moved, with the city not getting another major league basketball or hockey team since. Only the Padres are left, and they nearly moved to Washington in 1974, and probably would've moved if voters hadn't approved a bond issue for Petco Park following the team's 1998 Pennant.

Alworth caught 542 passes for 10,266 yards. The Chargers made his Number 19 the 1st they retired, and he was elected to their team Hall of Fame. The University of Arkansas graduate was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and was the 1st player whose career was mainly in the AFL to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also named to the NFL 75th Anniversary Team and the AFL All-Time Team. He was 31st on The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players and 38th on the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players.

2. Walter Payton of Columbia. "Sweetness" was a 9-time Pro Bowler. He was named NFL Most Valuable Player in 1977 and 1985. He once held the records for rushing yards in a game (275) and in a career (16,725). He also caught 492 passes. He had 110 touchdowns rushing, 15 more receiving... and 8 passing. He even had a punt go 39 yards. He was as close to being an all-around threat as existed in his era.

He had already surpassed Jim Brown in 1984 to become the NFL's all-time rushing leader (since himself surpassed by Emmitt Smith), when the Chicago Bears roared through the 1985 season toward Super Bowl XX, wanting to win it for him as much as for themselves and their city. They did.

The Bears retired his Number 34. He was elected to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, and to the NFL's 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams and its 75th Anniversary Team. In 1999, The Sporting News listed him 8th on their 100 Greatest Football Players. He died of liver disease later that year, and his reputation grew: In 2010, when the NFL Network did the 100 Greatest Players, he came in 5th. Both times, he was 2nd among running backs to Jim Brown.

There are 2 Walter Payton Awards: The NCAA's "Heisman Trophy" for Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly known as Division I-AA) players, in honor of Payton having played at Mississippi's Jackson State University; and the NFL's Man of the Year award, for humanitarian contributions off the field.

How do you top that? This is what it takes:

1. Jerry Rice of Crawford. The Sporting News named him Number 2 among all players, behind Brown. And he still had several good years left. When the NFL Network did its 100 Greatest Players 11 years later, they listed Rice as Number 1.

In 1989, the year Rice was named MVP of Super Bowl XXIII, Don Hutson, then on the short list for the title of greatest receiver ever, said Rice was better than he was -- and this was after Rice had just 4 full seasons in the NFL.

Herewith the evidence, and the numbers are staggering. He made 13 Pro Bowls, the 1st at age 23, and the last at age 39. A receiver making the Pro Bowl at thirty-nine years old! He was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1993. He won Super Bowls XXIII, XXIV and XXIX with the San Francisco 49ers, being named MVP in XXIII.

Career receptions: 1,549 -- he was the 1st man with 1,000, and the next-best is Tony Gonzalez with 1,325. Receiving yards: 22,895 -- next-best is Terrell Owens with 15,934, nearly 6,000 less! All-purpose yards: 23,546 -- slightly ahead of Brian Mitchell with 23,330. Receiving touchdowns: 197 -- next-best is Randy Moss with 156. Overall touchdowns: 208 -- next-best is Emmitt Smith with 175. In other words, he was not only great, but the numbers suggest he was insanely great.

The 49ers retired his Number 80. He was elected to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, and to the NFL's 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams and its 75th Anniversary Team.

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