This Saturday evening the Pro Football Hall of Fame will welcome its 52nd class, bringing its grand total to 287 members. With more than 23,000 players who have played a down in the National Football League, it is easy to see just how elite one has to be in order to receive a bust that is prominently featured in the Canton, Ohio complex.
When thinking about the best of the best, most would point to the power conferences of college football and highlight the star power that entered the league and shined brightest. The Big Ten, SEC, Pac 12 and so many others would come to mind before a little old conference from the south that has 10 HBCU teams called the Southwestern Athletic Conference, better known as the SWAC.
The Big Ten Conference can claim more than 50 of the 287 members that are in the Hall; however, the SWAC holds its own with 15 members, two of which are being inducted into the latest class. Michael Strahan of Texas Southern and Aeneas Williams of Southern university will join Derrick Brooks, Walter Jones, Andre Reed, Ray Guy, and Claude Humphrey (also an HBCU alum from Tennessee State) for enshrinement later today.
Strahan, who is now one of the most recognizable figures in the world thanks to his day job as the co-host of "Live! with Kelly and Michael", is being honored for his incredible service to the New York Giants for a decade and a half. An “Army brat” who barely even understood the sport as a child growing up in Mulheim, Germany, Strahan moved back to his hometown of Houston for his senior year of high school where he would be a natural on the football field, eventually earning himself a scholarship to Texas Southern University. As a college player, Strahan continued to make incredible strides. He dominated the line of scrimmage, barreling through offensive lines and terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. By his senior year, Strahan's play had caught the attention of NFL scouts. In the spring of 1993, the talented defensive player was selected 40th overall in the NFL draft by the New York Giants.
Strahan's pro career got off to a turtle’s pace as a foot injury would limit his rookie campaign of 1993 to just nine games. During his second year in the league, he would become a full-time starter for the Giants and registered his first double-digit quarterback sack season in 1997 with 14. It would be the same year he would earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Meanwhile, the G-Men rode its defense to a playoff berth. The guy who barely knew the sport had developed into a dominant force. Over the next 10 years, Strahan racked up 109.5 sacks, including an NFL-record 22.5 in 2001 — a feat which earned him that season's Defensive Player of the Year award. And of course, he rounded out his career by winning a Super Bowl ring in his final game.
As for Aeneas Williams, his road to the Hall was one that was even more of mystery as to how he rose to prominence. Like Strahan, football was not something that he even anticipated would be a part of his life. Williams attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he was following in the footsteps of his older brother. Only his enrollment was as a student, not as a football player. It wasn’t until his junior year in college that he decided to play football, walking on and being classified as a redshirt sophomore. By his senior year, Williams was a star. During the 1990 season, he would go on to lead the nation in interceptions with 11 picks and earn All-America honors. His performance prompted the Phoenix Cardinals to draft him with the 59th pick in the 1991 NFL draft.
Over the next 10 seasons with the Cardinals, and four final years with the St. Louis Rams, he established himself as one of the best defensive backs to ever to play the game. Williams starred at cornerback for the first 12 years of his career before he was moved to safety. He earned Pro Bowl nods at both positions, seven times at cornerback and once as a safety.
With the success of Strahan and Williams, it prompted a discussion to see what Hall of Fame inductees from HBCU’s were a part of such a great class on their respective induction weekends. It just so happens that of the two classes that are mentioned as perhaps the greatest both included players from the famed SWAC.
The 1993 Hall of Fame class is considered by many as the greatest of all time. It includes the likes Larry Little (the key ingredient as the left tackle to the undefeated ’72 Miami Dolphins), Dan Fouts who guided one of, it not the most exciting offense in league history, two coaching legends in Bill Walsh and the Steelers Chuck Noll and finally "Sweetness" aka Walter Payton, one of the greatest running backs in both NFL and SWAC history.
Payton was a two-time All-American at Jackson State in 1973 and 1974, rushing for more than 3,500 yards, scoring 66 touchdowns and setting the NCAA scoring record with 464 points. He was a four year starter, setting nine school records and receiving votes for the Heisman Trophy in 1974. But it was his NFL career that made him a football legend. In 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears, Walter would be named to the Pro Bowl nine times and ended his career as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards.
So what could possibly trump the 1993 class? How about the recent class of 2010 which includes the current NFL’s all-time leading rusher and the all-time receiving leader and touchdown scorer. While notable inductees Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little and John Randle provide a solid foundation for a class of players, the cherry on top is without question Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice.
Jerry Rice was voted as the NFL’s greatest player of all-time by its players. What more needs to be said. However it was his production at Mississippi Valley State, a member of the SWAC, that put the world on notice that Rice would be a force at the elite level. Rice put on a show every Saturday for the Delta Devils, producing 4,693 yards and setting NCAA Division I-AA records during his college career. He had 100 receptions in both his junior and senior seasons, the latter of which he had 1,845 yards and 28 touchdowns.
During his pro career he led the NFL in receiving yards six times including a NFL record 1,848 yards in 1995. Rice also led the NFL in touchdown receptions six times. No wide receiver in NFL history played more than Rice’s 20 seasons. Retiring after finishing his career with Oakland and Seattle, Rice was the most prolific wide receiver in NFL history, and his achievements were staggering. He owns virtually every significant receiving mark with some of the more notable career records being receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895 yards), most 1,000-yard receiving seasons (14), total touchdowns (208) and combined net yards (23,546).
It goes without saying that the remaining list of players who got their start in the SWAC is quite extensive. When you add the following names to the ledger, it puts it all into perspective.
Lem Barney – Jackson State (HOF class of 1992)
Mel Blount – Southern (HOF class of 1989)
Willie Brown – Grambling State (HOF class of 1984)
Buck Buchanan – Grambling State (HOF class of 1990)
Willie Davis – Grambling State (HOF class of 1981)
Ken Houston – Prarie View A&M (HOF class of 1986)
Charlie Joyner – Grambling State (HOF class of 1996)
Deacon Jones – Mississippi Valley State (HOF class of 1980)
Jackie Slater – Jackson State (HOF class of 2001)
John Stallworth – Alabama A&M (HOF class of 2002)
Emmitt Thomas – Bishop (HOF class of 2008)
Now with the newest additions of Aeneas Williams and Michael Strahan, the greatness of such a small conference only becomes more legendary. #RESPECT