The gap between the haves and the have-nots in college football grows consistently bigger.
But this weekend’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony is a reminder that in the recent past the have-nots produced players worthy of pro football’s highest honor.
Two players who emerged from the obscurity of the NCAA’s Division I-AA Southwestern Athletic Conference are among the seven who will be enshrined Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
Former Southern defensive back Aeneas Williams will join 2011 inductee Marshall Faulk as the only New Orleans natives with a bust in Canton. Former Texas Southern defensive end Michael Strahan will join Williams in bringing to 13 the number of SWAC alums in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In fact this entire class is an inadvertent tribute to the fact that schools and conferences that aren’t NCAA blue-bloods have produced some really good players.
Defending BCS champion Florida State, with two representatives (Derrick Brooks and Walter Jones), is the only elite college football program to provide members to this hall class. The only other I-A program represented is Southern Mississippi (Ray Guy).
The other inductees come from Tennessee State (Claude Humphrey) and Kutztown (Andre Reed).
Football recruiting, whether it’s colleges evaluating high school players or professional teams evaluating college players, is little more than a crap-shoot.
When Williams was a senior at Fortier High School, no college in the country thought he was talented enough to deserve a football scholarship. But after playing three seasons for the Jaguars — he sat out two seasons before deciding to walk on — Williams had developed sufficiently to warrant the Phoenix Cardinals using a third-round draft choice (No. 59 overall) to select him.
Had Williams’ height, weight and football and workouts statistics been the same, but his college been a member of a Division I-A power conference, he likely would have gone higher.
Nonetheless, his NFL career, like that of Strahan, who was drafted by the Giants in the second round (No. 40 overall) in 1993, easily crossed the threshold for Canton worthiness.
Williams and Strahan are joining the SWAC “wing” in Canton, which consists of four players from Grambling (Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner), three from Jackson State (Lem Barney, Walter Payton and Jackie Slater) and one each from Alabama A&M (John Stallworth), Mississippi Valley State (Jerry Rice), Prairie View A&M (Ken Houston) and Southern (Mel Blount).
The college haves are taking in more and more millions each year and in turn are devoting more and more dollars and manpower to recruiting high school and even middle school players. So presumably fewer players with the potential to someday reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame will go overlooked by the college football powerhouses.
But there will always be players like Williams, who was a late-bloomer and whose greatest assets couldn’t be measured by a stopwatch or a tape measure.
They’ll have to take a road less traveled to college football, pro football and especially Canton. But the road is there and the list of semifinalists who didn’t make the final cut for the class of 2014 included players from college football have-nots.
Former Steelers defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood played at Arkansas AM&N, which is now SWAC member Arkansas-Pine Bluff. One of Greenwood’s teammates on the Steelers’ famed “Steel Curtain” defense, safety Donnie Shell, played at South Carolina State. Former Chiefs and Raiders defensive back Albert Lewis is a native of Mansfield, Louisiana, who played at Grambling and former 49ers and Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley played at James Madison.
Football programs that have been excluded from the glory and riches available at the highest level of the NCAA have often proven capable of producing players who earn their way to the pinnacle of professional football.
On Saturday in Canton, Williams, Strahan and others will serve as reminders to aspiring football players that college recruiters don’t control whether their dreams can come true.
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