Mississippi State defensive lineman Montez Sweat, at six feet, 6 inches and 260 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at the NFL football scouting combine, Sunday, March 3, 2019, in Indianapolis.

So, I am sitting here looking at the roster of the 1959 Ole Miss Rebels, surely the most accomplished team in history of Mississippi football.

Rick Cleveland

Johnny Vaught’s Rebels clobbered LSU 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl to finish No. 2 in both major polls. They won 10 games, lost one and outscored opponents 350 to 21 – this despite the fact starters rarely played much in the second half. If not for Billy Cannon’s fabled punt return in a 7-3 loss to LSU at Baton Rouge, the 1959 team might well be remembered as the greatest in college football history.

Now then, starting guards Marvin Terrell and Richard “Possum” Price weighed 215 and 208 pounds, respectively. They were two of the best ever. End Larry Grantham, a future NFL legend, weighed 195. Bruising fullback Charlie Flowers weighed 198. The largest man listed on the roster was sophomore tackle James Roberts, a 240-pounder. Turns out, Roberts red-shirted that season, didn’t play. Nobody who actually played weighed more than 225.

Now then, fast forward to the recent NFL Combine at Indianapolis, 60 years later.

This, from the Twitter feed of A.J. Brown, shows Brown (left) and D.K. Metcalf, two Ole Miss wide receivers, who were in training for the NFL Combine.

Ole Miss’ D.K. Metcalf, a wide receiver, measured 6 feet, 3 inches and 228 pounds, larger than anyone who actually played for the 1959 Rebels. Yes, and Metcalf ran a 4.33 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 225 pounds 27 times without stopping. Look at a photo of him and he appears to have muscles growing out of muscles.

Perhaps even more incredibly, Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat measured 6-6 and 260 pounds and sped his 40 yards in 4.41 seconds. That’s faster than most elite running backs and wide receivers. A reminder: In 1985 Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in football history, was timed at 4.67 at the combine.

Sweat plays the same position that Larry Grantham played back in 1959. Sweat is six inches taller and weighs 65 pounds more than Grantham did back then. Amazing. And I guarantee you that Grantham, quick and fast as he was, did not run a 4.41 or anything close. That said, if Sweat becomes anywhere near the player Grantham was in the NFL he will make millions upon millions upon millions.

Football players today are bigger, faster, stronger. There’s so much science involved: nutrition, weight training, bio-mechanics, stretching and more.

Unfortunately, we haven’t made the same progress in increasing the strength of ligaments, cartilage, bones and skulls. Common sense tells us the combination of increased size, muscle and speed puts all those body parts at greater danger.

The biggest change, for my money, has come from weight training. It is a science, and college football programs spend literally millions on weight rooms, weight training, and strength coaches.

Weight training back in 1959? I asked Art Doty, a halfback on the 1959 Ole Miss team.

“Nobody lifted weights,” Doty said. “Well, actually we had one guy, Robert Owens, a tackle from East St. Louis who had lifted weights before he came to Ole Miss. He was all muscle.”

Owens is listed on that 1959 roster as standing 6-feet tall and weighing 218 pounds, a veritable giant in those days.

“Owens had lifted weights in high school and he told Coach Vaught we needed weights,” Doty said, chuckling. “So Coach Vaught had somebody go get some old coffee cans, filled them up with concrete and stuck an iron rod in them and said, ‘OK, boys, now you got weights.’”

Hardly anyone other than Owens used them, Doty said.

Players such as Price and Terrell were what some folks refer to as “country strong.” Terrell, who died last December, was the closest to anyone in resembling Sweat’s combination of size and speed.

“Marvin could run with any of our backs,” Doty said. “He was so strong and so fast and back then he was huge.”

But Terrell did not lift weights.

“What we did was run,” Doty said. “Coach Vaught was big on running. We ran 20 50-yard dashes every day after practice. Speed was Coach Vaught’s game.”

Which explains why 24 of the 41 players listed on the roster weighed under 200 pounds. Jake Gibbs and Bobby Franklin, the star quarterbacks, weighed 180 and 175, respectively.

Remember, in 1959, players went both ways, that is, played both on offense and defense. There literally was no rest for the weary, which helps explain why you see no 300-pounders on those old rosters.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.