Back in the 1980s and 90s when I was a rookie sports writer at the Columbus (Miss.) Commercial Dispatch and later a sports editor and columnist for the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, high school football gave me some cherished memories. One of the things I enjoyed – and remember – most about those days was watching young high school players develop into college prospects, then college players, and occasionally, college stars that went on to the NFL.
Several names comes to mind. . . .Jerry Rice, Bret Favre, Steve McNair and the Manning boys, to name a few. To say Mississippi has had more than its share of fine athletes is an understatement.
The state of Mississippi has placed the most players in the NFL per capita, according to stats released by Sideline in October of last year. Mississippi at last count averages 26.6 NFL players for every 100,000 citizens. Nebraska, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Alabama round out the top five. Since 1936, 788 NFL players have come from Mississippi.
The player who stands out most in my mind is Rice, arguably the greatest wide receiver in NFL history. The 16th overall pick of the 49ers in the 1985 NFL Draft out of Mississippi Valley State, Rice made 13 Pro Bowls, played in four Super Bowls (winning three) and is the NFL all-time leader in receiving yards (22,895), receptions (1,549), touchdown receptions (197) and total touchdowns (208). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Jerry Rice, nicknamed “World” when I wrote about him at MVSU, wasn’t anything close to a world class player when he attended and played football at B.L. Moor High School in Oktoc, Mississippi. B.L. Moor was in our newspaper coverage area. One Monday morning after Rice had scored a touchdown or two and got his name in the paper, a pleasant lady named Eddie B. Rice showed up at our downtown office with a homemade pie.
“You putting Jerry’s name in the paper is going to help him get a football scholarship,” she said of her son and our coverage. Then she thanked me and handed me the pie, the first of a handful she made me and brought by on Monday mornings during football season.
Yes, Eddie B. was Jerry’s mom. She cleaned houses for a living, and Jerry’s dad, Joe, was a bricklayer. Legend has it that Jerry’s great hands for catching the football came from helping his dad toss bricks on long, hot Mississippi summer days.
Jerry Rice, if I remember right, made our Dispatch All-Area team. But being from a tiny school that didn’t even keep statistics, Rice did not get one offer from a Division I school, including Mississippi State, 20 miles from Crawford and a place he once told me he wanted to go.
But Archie “Gunslinger” Cooley, the head coach at MVSU did offer, and Rice accepted. He teamed up with quarterback Willie Totten to form the Satellite Express, catching 301 passes for 4,693 yards and 50 touchdowns. He broke 18 NCAA records. With a no-huddle offense the Delta Devils were unreal. Rice caught 12 passes and scored three TDs – in just one quarter – against Kentucky State.
Of course, most of you know the rest of the NFL Hall of Fame story. I saw Rice several times along the way. He sometimes worked out at Mississippi State facilities when he was home, and I covered a handful of NFL games he played in, including Super Bowl XXIV, where the 49ers beat the Denver Broncos 55-10. I vividly remember Aaron Neville singing the National Anthem and quarterback Joe Montana, MVP of the game, telling me in the postgame locker room that anybody could be a productive quarterback with a player like Jerry Rice to throw to. Rice caught seven passes for 148 yards and three touchdowns.
But to me, Rice is not only an NFL legend but a boy from Crawford, population 600, whose momma cared enough to bake a pie to help send him on his football way.