Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton (34) runs upfield during an NFL game against the Washington Redskins in Chicago, on Sept. 29, 1985. Credit: Jim Biever, AP

Mississippi produces more NFL players per capita than any other state, and it’s not really that close.

A new, thorough study confirms what I have long contended to be true. That is, the Magnolia State, relatively small and poor in so many ways, kicks tail when it comes to producing football talent. Always has.

That’s right, Mississippi, for its population, produces more pro football players than Texas, Florida, California and more than Louisiana and Alabama, as well. Remember, we’re talking about per capita here.

Since 1936, when the NFL began to keep accurate roster records, Mississippi has produced 788 NFL players. When you factor in population, the state produces 26.6 pro football players for every 100,000 people. 

The research was done by Sidelines, a sports technology and digital media company, which also found that Texas has produced the most NFL players (2,515) of any state. But the Texas total computes to only 8.5 players per 100,000, about one-third of what Mississippi has produced.

Nebraska (21.3 per 100,000), Oklahoma (also 21.3), and Louisiana (21.2) were the three states closest to Mississippi in NFL players per capita. Alabama (17) was a distant fifth. You might mention that the next time the Crimson Tide kicks your favorite team’s butt, as it has done to Southern Miss (63-14), Ole Miss (42-21) and Mississippi State (49-9) this season.

Ousmane Diallo, a data analyst for Rise at Seven, led a team of five that did the research and tallied the results. That Mississippi led all other states, said Diallo, “was the part we found super interesting.”

This map, produced by Sidelines, shows how Mississippi leads in producing NFL players per capita.
This map, produced by Sidelines, shows how Mississippi leads in producing NFL players per capita.

“You’d probably expect huge numbers from the likes of Texas, California and Pennsylvania, but when you take into account population, it completely changes the outlook,” Diallo said.

It’s not just quantity we’re talking about either. It’s quality, as well. The NFL’s all-time leading receiver and touchdown scorer is Jerry Rice, from Crawford and Mississippi Valley State. Walter Payton, from Columbia and Jackson State, is the NFL’s second all-time leading rusher. Brett Favre, from Kiln and Southern Miss, is No. 4 on the league’s all-time passing yardage list. 

“Mississippi not only produces the most NFL players per capita, but not only that, the state also produced the most Pro Football Hall of Famers per capita, as well,” Diallo said.

Again, it’s not even close. In 2016, Favre became the ninth native Mississippian inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That’s more than much larger states such as New York (7) and New Jersey (6). The population of New York State is nearly 20 million, compared to Mississippi’s fewer than 3 million.

And that Mississippi number doesn’t count such NFL legends as Ray Guy, Robert Brazile and Gene Hickerson, who played their college ball in Mississippi after growing up in nearby states. It also doesn’t count, for instance, a player such as Peyton Manning whose roots are firmly in Mississippi soil and who spent much of his childhood in the Magnolia State.

Nor does that number reflect on native Mississippians who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame such as Charlie Conerly, Kent Hull and Jimmie Giles.

Another amazing fact: Jackson State, alone, has produced four Hall of Famers, three of them native Mississippians. That’s as many Pro Football Hall of Famers as both Florida State and Georgia have and twice as many as Auburn, Ole Miss and Southern Miss have produced. Mississippi State has no former players the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yes, Bulldogs Dak Prescott and perhaps Fletcher Cox are future Hall of Famers but that’s a few years away. Their time will come. Or should.

Meanwhile, the Magnolia State has plenty to celebrate when it comes to football — or writers and entertainers, for that matter. We just don’t have available stats on the authors and musicians. Would we Mississippians rather be ranked No. 1 in health, wealth and education? That’s a no-brainer. Or should be. But we’ll take what we can get.

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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.