Jackson State University Tiger mascot Wavee Dave strikes a pose aside flipping JSU cheerleaders on the sideline during the annual Soul Bowl played at the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, MS on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. Credit: The Clarion-Ledger

For Black History Month, we wanted to pay tribute to several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that have produced some of the greatest college football players of all time, starting with the Jackson State Tigers.

Many schools, especially in the South, were segregated until the 1960s and early 1970s, which led to a lot of great athletes taking their talents to HBCUs such as JSU instead of the major powerhouses.

Before Deion Sanders arrived in Jackson, the Tigers were already a national power in college football producing NFL and college football hall-of-famers.

Today, we honor 10 players who made a huge impact on the program that still lasts today. Here are the 10 best Jackson State Tigers football players of all time.

10. John Merritt, head coach

We all know about the great Eddie Robinson at Grambling State but John Merritt deserves a lot of credit for what he accomplished at Jackson State and beyond. Merritt won eight black college football national championships, including his last in 1982 before he died a year later. He holds an overall record of 235-70-12 record, going 6337-5 in 11 seasons with JSU. Merritt is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

9. Travis Hunter, cornerback/wide receiver

Travis Hunter nearly broke the internet when he decided to attend Jackson State instead of Florida State. He was SWAC Freshman of the Year in 2022. That same year, Hunter accumulated 19 total tackles, eight pass breakups, two interceptions, one fumble recovery, and one defensive touchdown in seven games played. On offense, he added 18 receptions for 188 yards and four touchdowns

8. Jerome Barkum, wide receiver

In the early 1970s, JSU produced some of the best wide receivers in the country, one of them being Jerome Barkum. Barkum was a Little All-American (given to the best players at smaller schools), SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, and became a first-round draft choice of the New York Jets in 1972, making the Pro Bowl the following year.

7. Kevin Dent, safety

Kevin Dent was a free safety out of Vicksburg, Mississippi who left a lasting impact on the Tigers. Dent is a three-time All-American who led the team in interceptions his sophomore year and is second only to Lem Barney in career interceptions with 21. Dent is part of the College Football Hall of Fame and will be inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame later this year.

6. Shedur Sanders, quarterback

Shedur Sanders proved in his time with JSU that he was more than just Deion Sanders’s son. Sanders made his own name when he started at quarterback for the Tigers. passing for 3,231 yards with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He was named the SWAC) Freshman of the Year and second-team All-SWAC, winning the Jerry Rice Award as the most outstanding D1 freshman, becoming the first player from an HBCU school to win the award. In his sophomore season, he passed for 3,732 yards with 40 touchdowns and six interceptions and was named the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year. He was also awarded the Deacon Jones Trophy as the nation’s top HBCU player.

5. Willie Richardson, wide receiver/safety

Willie Richardson was supposed to play quarterback at Jackson State but he ended up becoming one of the best wide receivers in school history. A four-time member of the Pittsburgh Courier Black All-America team, he was a three-time All-SWAC performer and two-time NAIA All-American. Richardson caught 171 passes for 36 touchdowns during his college career, leading JSU to two SWAC titles and the Black College National Championship. Richardson was inducted into the Jackson State Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, and the College Football Hall of Fame.

4. Jackie Slater, offensive tackle

Jackie Slater may be more well-known for his Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Rams, but he got his start blocking for another Tigers great, Walter Payton. In fact, Slater was the one who recruited Payton to JSU. During his time with the Tigers, he was selected to the SWAC’s All-Star game three times before leaving to have a hall-of-fame pro career.

3. Lem Barney, cornerback/punter

Lem Barney was one of the greatest cornerbacks in football history, pro or college. He had 26 career interceptions at Jackson State, including nine in 1965 and 11 in 1966. He also had punt averages of 41.7 and 42.5, respectively. Barney was an All-SWAC selection for three straight years. He was also selected as an All-American by Ebony magazine and the Pittsburgh Courier. Barney went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1967.

2. Robert Brazile, linebacker

Robert Brazile was an All-American linebacker for the Tigers out of Mobile, Alabama who also played on those great JSU teams of the 1970s. Brazile garnered a reputation as being a tremendous hitter and earned the nickname “Dr. Doom” by his peers in the NFL.  He was the first-round draft choice of the Houston Oilers back in 1975 and went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year en route to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.

1. Walter Payton, running back

The most famous and most successful player is Walter Payton. As great as Payton turned out to be, no SEC schools offered him a scholarship, so he decided to follow his brother Eddie to JSU. While there, Payton rushed for 3,600 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, and set the school record for career rushing touchdowns with 65. He was SWAC Offensive Player of the Year three times. He also was named Black College Player of the Year in 1973 and 1974 and, of course, was an All-American.

“Sweetness,” the name he acquired in college,  went on to star for the Chicago Bears and is part of the 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.