Walter Payton. Jerry Rice. Deacon Jones. Saturday, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams etched their names alongside these football legends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Another trait they all share is one they also have in common with the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Doug Williams, and the legendary coach who mentored him at Grambling, Eddie Robinson.
All called the Southwestern Athletic Conference home.
The SWAC, home to 10 Historical Black Colleges and Universities, has had profound impact on the game. Michael Strahan, a two-time SWAC Defensive Player of the Year at Texas Southern, paved his way to Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame with more sacks than player before him or since.
Aeneas Williams walked on at Southern, where education took priority over his football career.
“Our parents always expected that we would go to college and get our degree,” Williams said of he and his brother, Achilles, to Les East of The Advocate. “[Playing football] never crossed my mind. I was preparing for the rest of my life.”
That life took a turn toward Canton when Williams established himself as one of the NFL’s best defensive backs of the 1990s.
Payton, Jones and Rice played at Mississippi Valley State. Buck Buchanan, Charlie Joiner, Willie Davis and Willie Brown, more of Robinson’s pupils at Grambling, join them in the Hall of Fame.
Another Grambling product, “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd, was a crossover SWAC star decades before NFL sack-leader-turned-TV-personality Michael Strahan. At 6-foot-9, Ladd was an imposing figure on the defensive line. He parlayed the tenacity that made him a football standout in professional wrestling as one of the biggest star of 1970s.
The late Ladd may not be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he’s an inductee into the San Diego Chargers, American Football League and WWE Halls of Fame.
Alcorn State star quarterback Steve McNair may not have a spot in Canton yet, but he should soon.
McNair led the Tennessee Titans to a Super Bowl and won an NFL MVP award, and very nearly claimed a Heisman Trophy. The late McNair is the last Div. I-AA player to seriously contend for the honor, finishing third in the Heisman voting in 1994 behind Rashaan Salaam and Ki-Jana Carter.
His Sports Illustrated cover from that season is among the magazine’s most famous among college football fans.
SWAC football has a rich and proud history, but the conference has fallen on hard times in recent years.
Competitively, the SWAC fell far behind fellow HBCU conference the Mid-Eastern Athletic. The two conferences have faced in the SWAC/MEAC Challenge on opening weekend each season since 2005, with the MEAC owning a 7-2 mark.
The conference eschews an automatic bid into the FCS Playoffs, instead opting to conclude its season with the SWAC Championship Game since 1999.
Opting out of the Playoffs saved SWAC football from possibly facing the awkward situation the conference’s basketball programs in this past season, when four teams declared ineligible per NCAA APR standards were allowed to participate in the conference tournament.
In football, half the conference faces APR penalties in the coming season per the Clarion Ledger.
Strahan’s alma mater, Texas Southern, won its first SWAC championship since 1968 in 2010. The Tigers were forced to vacate the title just two years later under the threat of the NCAA’s “death penalty,” an option college football’s governing body enacted just once before in its history.
All that flew somewhat under the radar, but the poor conditions that prompted Grambling’s football team to boycott practices and a game last October commanded national attention.
Photos of mold, mildew, dilapidated facilities and antiquated equipment shone a spotlight on the deep financial woes many college football programs
While the Grambling boycott is indicative of the hard times SWAC football faces, the Tigers were also the conference’s latest to play a role in the sport’s history.
Grambling’s boycott of its game with Jackson State is a potential watershed moment in college sports reform. The circumstances leading up to that Saturday are harsh reminders that, while football may be a multi-billion dollar industry, there are still many student-athletes left struggling.
By ignoring the well-being of the SWAC, college football is preventing the next Aeneas Williams or Michael Strahan from bursting onto the scene to etch his name in history. And the stars of the SWAC are still out there.
Former Georgia Bulldog Isaiah Crowell found a fresh start at Alabama State and flourished, and he’s now a potential rookie difference-maker for the Cleveland Browns.
After snagging him as an undrafted free agent, Browns coaches believe Crowell is a “keeper,” per Fox Sports Ohio’s Zac Jackson.
Second-year New Orleans Saints left tackle and Arkansas-Pine Bluff product Terron Armstead is earning the praise in preseason camp.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) August 2, 2014
Teammate Zach Strief told Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune that “the sky is the limit” for Armstead.
The sky certainly has been the limit for his history-making SWAC predecessors.