One fact I’ve learned over the decades: If there’s a huge football game or event – anywhere – there’s a Mississippian, usually several, somehow involved. 

Rick Cleveland

It was true in the National Championship game Monday night, when Horn Lake native Nakobe Dean terrorized Alabama’s defense and Gulfport native Matt Luke’s offensive line took over the game in the fourth quarter of Georgia’s 33-18 victory. There was also Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who resurrected his career at Jones College in Ellisville, making the key passes on plays called by former Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken.

And it was true also earlier this week when 2022 the class of the College Football Hall of Fame was announced and three men with strong Mississippi ties – Dennis Thomas, Sylvester Croom and the late Billy “Spook” Murphy – all made the grade. Thomas, of Heidelberg, played and coached at Alcorn State. Croom, an Alabama native, famously became the SEC’s first Black head coach at Mississippi State. Murphy, who grew up in Arkansas, was a two-time All-SEC tailback at Mississippi State before becoming a legendary coach at then-Memphis State.

Thomas and Croom made the Hall of Fame as players, Murphy as a coach. Thomas just might be the most interesting story of all.

In 1973, Dennis Thomas, an Alcorn center, beat out Walter Payton for SWAC Offensive Player of the Year.

Thomas, an offensive lineman, was two times an All American at Alcorn. And, get this: In 1973, the legendary Walter Payton’s spectacular junior season at Jackson State, Thomas, not Payton, was named the SWAC’s Offensive Player of the Year. That season, Payton rushed for 1,139 yards, scored 24 touchdowns, kicked two field goals and 13 extra points. Thomas, a center, just blocked. Clearly, he must have knocked people over like bowling pins. After all, Jackie Slater, who blocked for Payton, went on to become a Pro Football Hall of Famer, considered one of the greatest offensive linemen in his history of the sport.

And you may ask, how in the world is that possible? A center beat out one of college football’s all-time legends for Player of the Year.

Says Thomas, who now lives near Tampa, Fla., “Walter and I were arch-rivals but also friends. After he went to Chicago and went on to become a big star in the NFL, he used to kid me about me winning that award over him. I told him, I said, ‘Walter, as well as you could run, I could block. If you’d have had me blocking for you, you would have rushed for 2,000 yards.’ We both got a big laugh out of that.”

Thomas played high school ball at Southside High in Heidelberg in Jasper County, where he was coached by Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley. James Brooks recruited Thomas to Alcorn, where he played for another College Football Hall of Famer, Marino Casem. At Alcorn, Thomas’ position coach was none other than Jack “The Ripper” Spinks, the first Black player from Mississippi to play in the NFL. 

We’re getting deep into Mississippi football history here, much of it previously unwritten.

“Jack Spinks was the ultimate tactician as far as playing offensive line,” Thomas says. “He knew every technique. What’s more, he was a great man. You know, he was part of every championship Coach Casem won at Alcorn.”

Cooley also coached Thomas at Alcorn, before going on to fame as head coach at Mississippi Valley State where he coached Jerry Rice and Willie Totten and rewrote the NCAA offensive record books. On Nov. 4, 1984, a Sunday, Alcorn and Mississippi Valley State, both undefeated, played what has become known as “The Game of the Century” before the largest crowd in history of Veterans Memorial Stadium. It was Marino “The Godfather” Casem coaching against Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley. Coaching defense for Alcorn was none other than Dennis Thomas. Valley was averaging nearly 60 points per game. Alcorn usually won with defense. It really was a classic matchup.

Dennis Thomas, today.

“We studied Valley’s offense and all the personnel groupings they used,” Thomas said. “Lots of times, we could tell by how they lined up, and who was in the game at the time, what plays they were going to run.”

Alcorn defeated Valley 42-28, using a defensive scheme devised by Thomas and Casem.

Surely, Thomas’ extensive research of Valley’s formations and personnel groupings helped. So did cornerback Isaac Holt’s smothering defense of Rice. Holt had his hands on Rice on virtually every play.

Said Holt, after the game, “Coach Casem told me the officials can’t call holding on every play.”

And they didn’t. It remains one of the great days in Mississippi football history.

Thomas went on to become head coach at South Carolina State and then athletic director at Hampton University, before becoming the commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) from 2002 until last December.

Croom and Murphy made football history in different ways: Croom as a two-time All American at Alabama and then as a head coach at Mississippi State, and Murphy, as the coach who built a rock-solid football program at Memphis.

Before that, Murphy was the tailback in the single-wing offense of coach Allyn McKeen, when McKeen’s Bulldogs were a SEC powerhouse. In fact, McKeen gave Murphy his famous nickname “Spook.” McKeen called Billy Jack Murphy a “speed spook.” That was shortened to Spook – and it stuck.

And perhaps that’s enough Mississippi football history for one day.

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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.