Dak Prescott, left, and Brett Favre greeted one another at halftime of a Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys game on Oct. 16, 2016. Neither Prescott, nor Favre, was a particularly highly recruited college prospect. (Associated Press)
Credit: AP Photo, Matt Ludtke

So, it’s National Signing Day, and worried-sick college football fans across the state of Mississippi are glued to the Internet, hoping for good news for their favorite teams. 

The most zealous of these fans know how many recruiting “stars” every player has. They know who is recruiting whom. They know all that and more.

Rick Cleveland

But they should remember this: Many of the greatest players in this state’s football history were not that highly recruited. Some were hardly recruited at all. Some were signed as afterthoughts.

For today’s purposes, let’s just look at quarterbacks. And let’s start with Mississippi State and the greatest quarterback in Bulldog history, Dak Prescott. Now that Prescott has become one of the most highly productive and most highly paid players in the NFL — this after breaking all the passing and total offense records at State — you naturally would assume he was considered a five-star, can’t miss prospect. And you would be wrong.

No, Prescott was a rated a three-star prospect out of Haughton, La. The popular website 247sports.com had him ranked the 23rd best prospect in Louisiana and had him ranked behind 600 other college prospects. Prescott grew up a Texas Longhorns fan. That was his dream school. But Texas would not give him so much as a sniff.

LSU, who normally gets most any Louisiana prospect it wants, recruited him, until after his senior season, as a tight end. Mississippi State was the SEC school that went after him hard. After Prescott came back and lit everyone up his senior year, LSU finally offered him as a quarterback. By then, it was too late. The rest is history, and Dak is still making it.

Oh, and the quarterback Texas signed that year? He was somebody named David Ash.

Let’s move to Southern Miss. Surely the most famous quarterback in Golden Eagle history is Brett Favre. Many long-time USM fans would argue that the best quarterback in school history was Reggie Collier. For today’s purposes, it doesn’t matter. Neither was highly recruited.

Collier’s college recruitment was overshadowed and then some by another quarterback from nearby Collier’s D’Iberville home. Ocean Springs’ Eddie Hornback might have been the most highly recruited player in the country in 1978. Nearly every football power in the country flocked to Ocean Springs to recruit Hornback. Meanwhile, Southern Miss had to fight off only Tulane to land Collier, who became one of the greatest dual threat quarterbacks ever — Lamar Jackson before Lamar Jackson. Collier numbered Alabama, Florida State, Ole Miss and Mississippi State among his victims. Hornback, a fine athlete who battled injuries, wound up playing another position at State.

About a decade later, on the other end of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, another unsung high school quarterback was even more lightly recruited than Collier. His name was Favre, and he thought he was going to Delta State until the day before signing day. That’s when Southern Miss lost a quarterback recruit to Alabama, opening up a scholarship. Favre got it. He went to USM as the seventh QB on a seven-QB depth chart. By the third game of his freshman season, he was a 17-year-old starter. You know the rest of that story.

And that brings us to Ole Miss and 1966, and the most beloved player in Rebel football history, College Football Hall of Fame and consensus All American Archie Manning. On signing day in 1966, Manning was one of six quarterbacks signed by Ole Miss — and he might have been the least recruited of all.

For certain, four of the other five were considered much more valued recruiting prizes than Manning, a talented, but rail-thin athlete from the tiny Delta town of Drew. Just consider the way Ole Miss coaching legend John Vaught handled recruiting day. He sent Tom Swayze, his recruiting guru, to Meridian to sign Bob White, the state’s most prized recruit. If there had been recruiting stars back then, White would have been awarded all five.

Vaught went himself to McComb to sign the great Freddy Brister, who played QB at McComb but would become a terrific Ole Miss linebacker. He sent trusted lieutenant Roland Dale to Gulfport to sign Don Farrar, another quarterback who would become a linebacker. And he sent John Cain, another long-time and trusted assistant off to Center Point, Ala., to sign Shug Chumbler, who would become Manning’s back-up.

Archie Manning, 1966.

Archie Manning? Vaught called on graduate assistant Roy Stinnett, a former high school coach, to sign Manning. It was a matter of convenience, really. Manning was playing in a basketball tournament at Clarksdale that weekend. Stinnett, who refereed high school basketball on the side, was officiating every game.

So you can imagine how that that went. Drew won on Thursday night and again on Friday night. With Manning leading the way, Drew won in the semifinals again on Saturday morning. That afternoon, Manning changed out of his basketball uniform, and Stinnett changed out of his referee’s uniform, and they posed for photos of Manning signing his scholarship.

That night, Manning led Drew to the championship. He might have had some help.

Fifty-five years later, what does Manning remember most about the day?

Says Manning, “I shot about a million free throws. That’s all I’m gonna say about that.”

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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.