San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice throws the ball on the field before the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Ben Liebenberg via AP)

Today’s task: Choose an all-time Mississippi Super Bowl team. As you might suspect, the Magnolia State, which leads all 49 others in producing NFL players and Pro Football Hall of Famers per capita, has produced many of the Super Bowl’s greatest heroes.

For today’s purposes, both Mississippi natives and Mississippi college players are eligible. So we’ll start where every great football team starts – at quarterback.

Rick Cleveland

Our starter: Eli Manning gets the nod over Brett Favre. It’s not as hard a choice as you might think. Manning played in two Super Bowls, won two Super Bowls, won two Super Bowl MVPs and beat Tom Brady both times. Beat that! Favre threw for slightly more yards in his two Super Bowls, but won one, lost one and was not the MVP in his Super Bowl victory.

On this all-star team, we are going with one running back and three wide receivers. Our running back is only my favorite football player ever: Walter Payton, who played most of his career for terrible teams but finally got his Super Bowl opportunity in SB XX. Payton, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher when he retired, ran for 61 yards in the Chicago Bears’ 46-10 trouncing of New England but famously was denied the opportunity to score a touchdown when Mike Ditka opted to let defensive lineman William Perry score from the one-yard line. Someday, perhaps, I will forgive Ditka. Not today.

Jerry Rice leads our wide receivers corps, and, without question, remains the most productive receiver in Super Bowl history. I would make the case that he is the most outstanding Super Bowl player ever at his position. Indeed, three of the top four receiving performances in history belong the former Mississippi Valley State star. Get a load of this: three games, three victories, 28 catches, 512 yards, seven touchdowns, one MVP (could have been three)!

Most older fans remember Lance “Bambi” Alworth of Brookhaven as the greatest receiver in American Football League history, playing most of his incredible career with the San Diego Chargers before there was such thing a Super Bowl. But in Super Bowl VI, playing for the Dallas Cowboys at age 31, he scored the game’s first touchdown in a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins. That was the same week his teammate, running back Duane Thomas, opined, “How can they call the Super Bowl football’s ultimate game if they play it every year?”

It remains a valid question. But back to receivers: My third receiver is Deion Branch, who played two seasons at Jones Junior College in Ellisville. On Feb. 6, 2005, Branch caught 11 of Brady’s passes passes for 133 yards to help the the New England Patriots defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21. Branch was the game’s MVP.

Wesley Walls

Our tight end? He’s got to be Wesley Walls, the Pontotoc and Ole Miss great who would catch 450 NFL passes and 54 touchdowns for four NFL teams. But in 1990, a young Walls was the backup on the 49ers depth chart when he caught a nine-yard pass from MVP Joe Montana in the Niners’ 55-10 victory over Denver.

Jackson native and ex-Jackson State great Jackie Slater, one of the greatest offensive linemen in pro football history, is our left tackle. Slater, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, played for some fabulous Los Angeles Rams teams in his 20-year career but amazingly played in just one Super Bowl, a 31-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just shows how hard it is to get to the Super Bowl, much less make this team. Michael Oher, whose life inspired a movie (“The Blind Side”), is our other tackle. The Ole Miss great played in two Super Bowls, first for the Baltimore Ravens and then the Carolina Panthers.

Guards? Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack is one. How could you leave a guy named Pork Chop off the team? He was good, too. The Cleveland native and Mississippi State great played for the Seattle Seahawks in a losing effort in a 21-10 loss to Pittsburgh in 2006. I am taking literary license on the other guard choice. I am going with Gene Hickerson, the ex-Ole Miss great and Pro Football Hall of Famer. No, he never played in a Super Bowl, but he played in three NFL championship games before there was such thing as a Super Bowl. He helped block three Cleveland Browns running backs into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including the incomparable Jimmy Brown. Leroy Kelly, who replaced Brown, was once asked what he had learned from Brown. “I learned,” Kelly said, “to follow Gene Hickerson’s butt wherever it went.”

Kent Hull was “the heartbeat” of the Buffalo Bills. Credit: Buffalo Bills

Kent Hull, of course, is our center. The Greenwood native and Mississippi State great started for the Buffalo Bills in four straight Super Bowls. No, he never won one but he got to four and is one of the most accomplished centers in the history of the sport.

Defensively, we’ll play a three-man front because we’ve got many more great linebackers than defensive lineman. Our front three has defensive ends Verlon “Dirty” Biggs of Moss Point and Jackson State and L.C. Greenwood of Canton flanking tackle Fletcher Cox of Yazoo City and Mississippi State. Greenwood, who somehow – and criminally – has never been selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died in 2013, leaving behind four Super Bowl rings earned with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Roger Staubach was known as Roger the Dodger but he couldn’t dodge Greenwood, who sacked him three times in Super Bowl X. Dirty Biggs played in Super Bowls for both the New York Jets and Washington Redskins. Cox, still active, is a six-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2018 Super Bowl.

Patrick Willis

We can throw some linebackers at you. Start with D.D. Lewis, the former Mississippi State standout who still holds the Dallas Cowboys record for playing in 27 post-season games, including five Super Bowls. (He is one of only eight NFL players to have played in that many Super Bowls.) Not sure how you choose from among Larry Grantham (Crystal Springs, Ole Miss), Johnie Cooks (Leland, Mississippi State), Patrick Willis (Ole Miss), Jamie Collins (McCall Creek, Southern Miss) and K.J. Wright (Olive Branch, Mississippi State) for the other three spots. Better to just play them all. All are superb and all had their Super Bowl moments. For the record, Grantham easily have been MVP in Super Bowl III and honor won by Joe Namath in a defense-dominated game.

In the secondary, Willie Brown, the Raiders cornerback from Yazoo City, leads the way. His pass interception for a 75-yard touchdown in Super Bowl VI remains one of the sport’s most iconic (and most replayed) plays. Malcolm Butler of Vicksburg holds another of the Super Bowl’s most memorable moments with his game-saving interception in New England’s 35-31 victory over Seattle. Brady thought so much of Butler’s play, he gave Butler the truck he received for winning MVP honors. No way I am leaving Leslie Frazier off this team. One of the game’s greatest-ever corners, he suffered a career-ending injury in the Bears’ romp over New England in Super Bowl XX. He was injured returning a punt late in the game (thanks again, Mike Ditka). There are so many candidates for the fourth defensive back, but this old-school nod goes to Jim Marsalis (Pascagoula), who helped the Kansas City Chiefs win 23-7 over Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. 

Punter? Ray Guy gets the nod over fellow Southern Miss great Jerrel Wilson, who set a Super Bowl record for his punting in KC’s Super Bowl IV victory. Oakland Raiders Hall of Famer owner Al Davis famously used a first-round draft choice to pick Guy, saying Guy would help them win a Super Bowl. Guy’s punting helped the Raiders win three.

Placekicker? Got to be Madison Central’s Stephen “Beaver” Gostkowski, who kicked in six Super Bowls, including three victories, with the New England Patriots.

You can feel free to argue with any of the selections, but don’t argue this: This team of Mississippi Super Bowlers could play with any state’s and would beat most, if not all.

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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.