Lenny Moon/Special to SWAC.org NOTE: There have been several instances of a little-known collegiate prospect going on to stardom at the next level, and the Southwestern Athletic Conference is no stranger to such developments. Below, Houston-area radio personality Lenny Moon takes a closer look into the journeys of four of the greatest players to ever step foot in the SWAC, highlighting how this group of raw talent was transformed into some of the greatest college and professional players the game of football has ever seen. The players highlighted are all inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Robert Brazile, Aeneas Williams, Michael Strahan and Jerry Rice.
While working with recently inducted Pro Football Hall of Famer Robert “Dr. Doom” Brazile, a statement that he made to me resonated and compelled me to ponder the subject a little broader.
“(Jackson State University head football coach) Bob Hill actually was dead-set on recruiting my best friend Ricky Young. Since my father had driven us to Jackson (Mississippi) for the visit, I was like a “throw in” because he wanted Ricky that much and knew that we had already decided to go to the same school.”
So it goes without saying that one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the National Football League was developed by JSU’s coaching staff once he arrived. During Dr. Doom’s era, his defensive coordinator was W.C. Gorden (who would go on to establish himself as one of the top head coaches in Jackson State football annals).
Brazile was actually converted from tight end to linebacker early in his JSU Tiger career. Once this predator was matched with his skill set, he terrorized opponents effectively enough to be selected with the 6th pick of the 1st round of the 1975 NFL Draft.
Two defensive players from the same era of the Southwestern Athletic Conference are examples of the adage, “It’s not where you start that’s important, it’s where you finish.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame secondary star Aeneas Williams was not even offered a scholarship to play football at Southern University; he actually walked-on with only two years of eligibility remaining. The Baton Rouge, La. institution of higher learning, located on the bluff of the Mississippi River, must be given their fair share of credit for the development of this academia-oriented product from New Orleans.
Although he didn’t crack the Jaguars starting lineup until the mid-way point of his junior year, his 11 interceptions pilfered during his senior season led the nation and had attracted the attention of the NFL. The efforts of head coach Gerald Kimble and defensive coordinator Percy Duhe can’t be overlooked for assisting an athlete that decided to try college football only days before training camp (as an upperclassman) to a third round pick of the 1991 NFL Draft by the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals.
Ironically, Duhe passed four months after his protégé received his gold jacket as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in October of 2014.
The second of the aforementioned defensive stars of SWAC decent that falls into this category would be Houston Westbury High School product Michael Strahan.
Mike’s ascension into one of the premier pass rushers in the nation coincided with the early years of my football broadcasting days at Texas Southern University. It was widely circulated that TSU was the only college that offered “Stray” (as he was known during that time) a football scholarship, and that offer was said to be tied into Mike’s uncle being a former teammate of head coach Walter Highsmith.
Growing up in Germany until his senior year of high school was also a detriment to his development. Although he always possessed good size, the angular 6’5” gridder arrived with very little football acumen and essentially a “raw” prospect. In addition to Highsmith, Strahan’s defensive coordinator was former Houston Oilers cornerback C.L. Whittington.
A SWAC alum himself (having starred at Prairie View A&M) the Beaumont, Texas native inherited this solid piece of clay and molded an All-American that ultimately became a second-round pick of the 1993 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. Strahan was inducted into the PFHOF in 2014.
It’s hard to fathom that the greatest wide receiver the game has ever known was sparsely recruited coming out of Moor High School in the Delta of Mississippi. Jerry Rice was of average size (6-2, 175 pounds) and average speed (4.7-40 yd dash) for a collegiate pass catcher.
But what attracted Rice to Mississippi Valley State’s head football coach Archie “Gunslinger” Cooley had nothing to do with the gridiron.
“Jerry played down the highway from our campus and was on our radar screen as a prospect,” Cooley once said. “We heard that he also played basketball and one of my assistant coaches and myself went to see him play. What sold me was the way he dunked the basketball. I knew that this was an athlete.”
Rice and signal caller Willie Totten merged their talents to become the most dynamic tandem in collegiate football history. With Mississippi State located just 10 miles from Rice’s high school, it stands to reason that he must have been a “diamond in the rough” prior to his arrival in Itta Bena for the Bulldogs to pass on this gem.
Rice was drafted with the 16th pick of the first round of the 1985 NFL Draft and went on to author most of the major receiving standards in league history. The Crawford, Miss. native was inducted into the PFHOF in 2010.