Had college football recruiting services been around in 1963, scouts would have flocked to 33rd Avenue High School in Gulfport, Mississippi, to watch a gifted, mobile, do-it-all quarterback named Lem Barney.
At 6-foot and with game-breaking speed, Barney would have been a five-star recruit long before his Hall of Fame career as a defensive back/return man (and even punter) for the Detroit Lions.
He may have even been rated as high as current 18-year-old Travis Hunter, who hails from Suwanee, Georgia, but like Barney six decades prior, can play all over the field – defensive back, cornerback, kick returner. Hunter is considered the No. 1 recruit nationally in the Class of 2022.
Of course, there were no scouting services back in Barney’s day. There was hardly any attention paid to him at all. Gulfport’s schools were still segregated almost a decade after the Supreme Court ruled such a thing illegal. Such was the racist foot-dragging in Mississippi.
Barney and so many young African American men like him were largely ignored; including by the major universities of the South, which still fielded all-white teams. Alabama head coach Bear Bryant or Ole Miss coach John Vaught didn’t consider a kid from 33rd Avenue High, no matter how good he was.
So Barney went off to Jackson State, a Historically Black University located about 160 miles north of his home, where he joined a Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) that was so brimming with talent, he had to switch to defense to find playing time.
Even now at 76 years old, there are no regrets. Jackson State football, SWAC football, HBCU football, he says, forged him to the point where he was a Week 1 starter in the NFL.
“I was so nervous,” he said years later.
Not so nervous that it prevented him, on the first drive of that first game, from intercepting Green Bay legend Bart Starr and returning it for a touchdown. It turns out, he hadn’t missed a thing by not going to those big-name schools, he says.
Still, when word broke Wednesday that Hunter, a generations-later, Lem Barney play-a-like, had stunned the football world by signing with Jackson State despite being coveted by the powerhouses that once refused to even consider someone like him, there was no minimizing the significance.
While Jackson State fans and HBCU alums and supporters everywhere celebrated this modern day trailblazer who managed to clear his own future while honoring the past, among former Tigers greats who never dreamed such a thing could again be possible for their proud program, the news was almost overwhelming.
“I said to my wife, ‘Brenda, this is big, this is huge,’” said Robert Brazile, the now 68-year-old Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker who played at Jackson State from 1971-74. “To see this, this is history. This is just unbelievable.”
Where once the major programs of the South wouldn’t choose the region’s best players, the script had flipped, at least this one time, and the region’s best player didn’t choose the major programs of the South.
To Travis Hunter, Jackson State was the best choice. And he did it without slighting the others, but just affirming the Tigers.
“[HBCUs] have a rich history in football,” Hunter said in a statement. “I want to be part of that history, and more, I want to be part of that future. I am making this decision so that I can light the way for others to follow, make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more – an exciting college experience, a vital community and a life-changing place to play.”
The decision wasn’t easy. The big-time is still the big-time. The lifestyle of an HBCU was appealing, though – “I’m home,” Hunter said. And it brought enormous marketing potential in an era when players can financially capitalize off of such a thing. Plus, he can develop under head coach Deion Sanders, who is among the greatest ever defensive back/wide receiver talents.
“Sometimes we are called to step into a bigger future than the one we imagined for ourselves,” Hunter said. “For me, that future is at Jackson State.”
There was a time in the SWAC when talent such as this was everywhere. The SEC didn’t break its football color barrier until 1967 (Nate Northington at Kentucky). Alabama and Georgia followed by 1971. Ole Miss and LSU not until a year after that. Even then, the number of slots for African Americans was often small, sometimes just a few a year.
Others could head off to schools in the Midwest and California, but that required first being discovered at often still segregated high schools (in Mississippi many were separate but unequal into the 1970s). Then you needed a willingness to go thousands of miles and seemingly a different cultural away.
For most, it was local HBCUs or bust. Tennessee State. Grambling. Alcorn State. Florida A&M. And so on.
Jackson State was so loaded that Brazile, who hailed from Mobile, Alabama, had 22 teammates eventually drafted by the NFL.
That included running back Walter Payton and offensive lineman Jackie Slater, both of whom also went on to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are 301 players in the Hall. From 1972-74, Jackson State had three of them on the same team.
“We knew we were playing with and against some of the best players in the country and coached by some of the best coaches in the country,” Brazile said. By the time he got to the Houston Oilers, he said he would look around and, half-jokingly, wonder if, “I had a better group on my college football team.”
Yet once the big SEC and ACC schools integrated their rosters, the talent dried up. Players were understandably drawn to the big stadiums, big campuses and big television exposure. The SEC in particular morphed into the nation’s best league.
Every so often a top recruit would list an HBCU in his final few schools, but in the end, they’d always select the major program. HBCUs don’t even compete at the top (FBS) division. Even at the next tier FCS level, they don’t enter the playoffs.
“Walter and I used to talk about what we could do to bring it back or better our school,” said Brazile, of conversations with Payton, who died in 1999 after becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and arguably greatest player during a legendary Super Bowl career with the Chicago Bears. “But there was only so much we could do.
“Jackson State needed to get lucky with another Hall of Famer,” he said.
That would be Sanders, who played at Florida State in the 1990s before a megastar career in the NFL (14 seasons) and Major League Baseball (nine) where he became one of the most famous and dynamic athletes in America.
Fifteen months ago, after a run as a broadcaster, Sanders decided to become head coach at Jackson State, promising to use his talents, work ethic and flair for promotion to “shock the world” with what is possible at an HBCU.
This fall, Jackson State went 11-1 and will play Saturday in the Celebration Bowl against South Carolina State. Then on Wednesday, Hunter came on board, flipping from Sanders’ alma mater, FSU. Coach Prime says he isn’t done, with more elite high school talent in the months and seasons to come. There's no reason to doubt him.
“Here’s the thing, I have a gold jacket,” Brazile said of the iconic blazer given to Hall of Famers. “Walter has a gold jacket. But Deion has a different gold jacket. Deion opens doors. What Deion said he was going to do, he has done.
“Now these kids get all this attention on Jackson State, on the SWAC, on HBCUs and get to play for him and under him,” Brazile continued. “He could be anywhere, but he is at Jackson State. It’s just huge. I never thought I’d see this.”
No one did, except perhaps Deion. “I’m walking in my purpose,” Sanders said. Barney, meanwhile, is excited – “one Hall of Famer to the next.”
Four of Jackson State’s home games last year attracted crowds of over 45,000. Next year, it will push the 60,000-seat capacity of Veterans Memorial Stadium. It’ll be the same on the road.
In a region of the country where the ties to HBCUs, and the memories of a seemingly bygone era – and why that era ever existed in the first place – remain strong, this single, unexpected football recruit at this single, unexpected school is a boost for the future and a needed, cathartic, celebratory nod to that past.
Jackson State. Great then. Great still.