Detailed view of the Team Gaither helmets against Team Robinson during the second half of the HBCU Legacy Bowl at Yulman Stadium. Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have produced some of the best college football stars to have ever played the game.

HBCUs initially became destinations for Black athletes due to segregation. Most of the college football and basketball powerhouses, especially in the South, refused to accept Black students or allow them to play on their sports teams until the late 1960s and early 1970s. That means a lot of future NFL stars and Hall of Famers got their starts at an HBCU.

Let’s honor the best to ever play at those schools. Here is our list of the 10 best HBCU football players of all time.

10. Willie Lanier, Morgan State

Kansas City Chiefs star linebacker Willie Lanier cut his teeth at Morgan State. Twice selected to the Little All-America Team and named Tangerine Bowl MVP, Lanier was the first black athlete to be a star at the linebacker position. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, he said “Those who evaluated me never thought I was as good as I thought I was. You see, I came into pro football with a heckuva purpose. I looked upon it as a helluva challenge to prove something. Being the first black middle linebacker placed me in an unusual position.” Lanier has proven all his critics wrong and is now part of the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

9. Mel Blount, Southern

Southern University produced one of the greatest NFL cornerbacks in the sport’s history: Mel Blount. Blount was named an All-American as a safety and cornerback while at Southern and became the starting cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972. Blount was known for his physical play at the position, which prompted the NFL to start the “Mel Blount Rule.”

8. Richard Dent, Tennessee State

When you think about the great Chicago Bears defensive players of the 1980s, you have to think of Richard Dent. Dent lettered in football every year while at Tennessee State and received All-American honors twice. He held the school sack career record of 39.5 and set a single-game sack mark of 4.5 in 1982. He finished his TSU career with 158 tackles, 39.5 sacks, and six fumble recoveries. Dent is now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

7. Jackie Slater, Jackson State

One of many all-time players to come out of Jackson State is Jackie Slater. Slater played his whole NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams but before that, he played for JSU where he helped recruit the great Walter Payton. He was selected to play in the SWAC All-Star Game three times and racked up multiple awards and accolades as a senior. He is now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

6. Michael Strahan, Texas Southern

Michael Strahan was a star at Texas Southern, following in his uncle’s footsteps. Strahan came into his own as a junior at TSU, but he turned heads in his senior season. That year he became an All-American, recording 68 tackles with a school-record 19 sacks and 32 tackles totaling 142 yards in losses. He was also selected Division I-AA Defensive Player of the Year by several outlets. In 1992, he was named first-team SWAC as well as SWAC Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. He was also named Black College Defensive Player of the Year. He still owns the school record with 41. 5 sacks.

5. Steve McNair, Alcorn State

Steve McNair earned the nickname “Air McNair” while he balled out as the quarterback at Alcorn State. McNair was offered a scholarship by the University of Florida but decided to take his talented legs and arms to Lorman, Mississippi. In 1992, McNair passed for  3,541 yards and 29 touchdowns, running for 10 more. The following year, he had a combined 6,281 yards (904) and passing (5,377), along with 56 touchdowns. McNair also that season finished third in Heisman voting. Following a successful NFL career, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

4. Doug Williams, Grambling

Before winning a Super Bowl with Washington, Doug Williams played at Grambling under legendary head coach Eddie Robinson. As a four-year starter, he led the Tigers to a 36-7 record and three SWAC championships. For his efforts, he was named Black College Football Player of the Year on two occasions. In the 1977 season, Williams led the NCAA in total yards from scrimmage (3,249), passing yards (3,286), touchdown passes (38), and yards per play (8.6), finishing fourth in Heisman voting. 

3. Shannon Sharpe, Savannah State

Shannon Sharpe’s illustrious football career started to take shape at little-known Savannah State. While there, Sharpe was SIAC Player of the Year in 1987. He was also selected as a Kodak Division II All-American in 1989. As a senior, he caught 61 passes for 1,312 yards and 18 touchdowns, including three games with more than 200 yards. Sharpe finished college with 192 receptions for 3,744 yards and 40 touchdowns. Sharpe is a member of the Division II Football Hall of Fame, Savannah State’s Athletic Hall of Fame, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

2. Walter Payton, Jackson State

The best football player to come out of Jackson State was Walter Payton. JSU fans can thank Jackie Slater and Payton’s older brother Eddie for convincing him to become a Tiger. Payton was a two-time All-American, rushing for over 3,600 yards and 61 touchdowns. In 1973, he set a school record of 24 touchdowns in a season. A Super Bowl champion with the Chicago Bears, “Sweetness” is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, and the College Football Hall of Fame.

1. Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State

Jerry Rice is No. 1 on this list for numerous reasons, the primary one being the number of records he set while at MVSU. In 1983, Rice set the NCAA record for receptions (102) and receiving yards (1,450) in a season en route to being named a first-team Division I-AA All-American. He also set a single-game NCAA record with 24 receptions. As a senior, he surpassed his own Division I-AA records for receiving yards (1,845), and receptions (112) while his 27 touchdown catches set the NCAA record. “World” as he came to be known, went on to become the greatest wide receiver in NFL history and is now a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

About Stacey Mickles

Stacey is a 1995 graduate of the University of Alabama who has previously worked for other publications such as Sportskeeda and Saturday Down South.