Brett Favre famously won three NFL MVP trophies. Eli Manning was a Super Bowl MVP, twice, beating Tom Brady both times. Steve McNair was once a co-NFL MVP with Peyton Manning. Archie Manning once led the NFC in passing yardage, playing for a 7-9 team. Dak Prescott has put some of the best passing numbers in pro football often in recent years.
You probably knew all that or at least most of it. Mississippi’s professional quarterbacks have done some stuff.
But do you know what player holds the highest single season passer rating among Mississippi’s professional quarterbacks? You might be surprised.
That quarterback would be none other than Chunkin’ Charlie Conerly of Clarksdale and Ole Miss. It’s not even close. Playing for the New York Giants in 1959, Conerly had a passer rating of 135, higher than Favre in any of his MVP seasons. All the more amazing, Conerly was 38 years old when he achieved that remarkable season, averaging 9 yards per passing attempt and 15 yards per completion. For comparison, 2022 MVP Patrick Mahomes averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and 12 yards per completion. It goes without saying how much more wide open and productive NFL offenses are now, compared to when Conerly played.
Not surprisingly, Conerly was the NFL MVP in ’59, 11 years after he was pro football’s Rookie of the Year in 1948. Unbelievably, Conerly was never selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame — a travesty, and one that should be corrected.
Conerly’s feat was just one of the surprising facts author/publisher Neil White and I uncovered while doing research for “The Mississippi Football Book.” There were lots more.
For instance, I always thought Ole Miss’s Frank “Bruiser” Kinard was Mississippi’s first consensus All American player. Not so. Six years before the great Bruiser was an All American at Ole Miss in 1936, a young man named Marchmont “Marchie” Schwartz of Bay St. Louis and Saint Stanislaus was twice an All American playing for the legendary Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Marchie Schwartz, a running back, helped the Fighting Irish to a 25-2-1 record over three seasons, during which the team won two national championships. In 1930, he averaged 7.5 yards per carry. He later coached at several schools, including Notre Dame and Stanford and is a deserving member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Care to guess which Mississippi university had the highest winning percentage all-time coming into this season? Ole Miss, you say. No, Jackson State is first, having won 59.3 percent of its games. Southern Miss is second at 57.4, with Ole Miss third at 56 percent.
But that’s far from Jackson State’s greatest claim to fame. For instance, the JSU Tigers have placed four greats — Lem Barney, Walter Payton, Bob Brazile and Jackie Slater — in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That’s as many as Ole Miss (2), Southern Miss (2) and Mississippi State (0) combined. It’s twice as many as Auburn.
Since our book came out, I’ve asked dozens of Magnolia State football fans this question: Who is the only native Mississippian to win the Heisman Trophy? Invariably, the answer has been Doc Blanchard, the Army great who played his high school ball at Saint Stanislaus. Blanchard did win the Heisman in 1945. But here’s the catch: Blanchard was a South Carolina native who was a boarding student at Saint Stanislaus. No, the first and thus far only native Mississippian to win the Heisman was – drum roll, please – Philadelphia and Neshoba County native Billy Cannon in 1959. And Cannon secured college football’s top individual honor with his 89-yard punt return against Ole Miss, spoiling an otherwise perfect Ole Miss record and keeping the Rebels from winning every version of the national championship that year.
The great Lance Alworth of Brookhaven, Arkansas and pro football fame is surely one the greatest ever from this state. He famously earned the nickname “Bambi,” but do you know where he got that nickname? Charlie Flowers, the Ole Miss great who might have won the Heisman in 1959 if not for Cannon’s punt return, and Alworth were later teammates with the San Diego Chargers. One day when they were walking off the practice field, Flowers stopped Alworth and told him: “You’re Bambi.”
“What for?” Alworth asked him.
“Because of those big brown eyes and because of the way you move,” Flowers answered. Bambi stuck.
“The Mississippi Football Book” tells the stories of the greatest players, coaches, teams and games in this state’s rich football history. Much of it I knew from 58 years of reporting and writing about Mississippi football. But some of it, quite a bit actually, I did not.
Rick Cleveland and Neil White will sign “The Mississippi Football Book” on Friday afternoon, Oct. 27, at Off Square Books in Oxford beginning at 5:30 p.m. They will be at Lemuria in Jackson on Nov. 17 at 4:30 p.m. with a program at 5 p.m.