Who Are the Best Athletes to Come From an HBCU? We Found a Few

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Illustration: Eric Barrow

The decision of top college recruit Markur Maker to turn down scholarship offers from Kentucky, UCLA and Memphis to attend Howard University, in D.C., an Historically Black College and University, has put the focus on HBCUs, once home to some of the best student-athletes in the country. When southern universities barred Blacks from attending, many of the top sports talents chose to attend HBCUs as opposed to heading north or out west. Did you know that Pro Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton attended an HBCU? How about Lou Brock?

Here is a collection of some of the best athletes in HBCU history.

Been editing/writing sports for some time, mainly in NYC and a stint in LA.

Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.

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Elvin Bethea — North Carolina A&T

Elvin Bethea — North Carolina A&T

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The Trenton, N.J. product traveled down to Greensboro, N.C. to play at North Carolina A&T. The 8-time Pro-Bowl defensive end played his entire career with the Houston Oilers. He is the only A&T grad in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Mel Blount — Southern University

Mel Blount — Southern University

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The Pro Football Hall of Famer was so good the NFL had to change the rules because of him. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, the Steelers cornerback manhandled receivers in an era when bump-and-run coverage meant sticking your man all the way down the field. In 1978 the NFL made it illegal to make contact with receivers beyond 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, setting football on course to be the pass-happy game it is today. Despite the change, Blount made three more Pro Bowls. He won four Super Bowls as part of the famed Steel Curtain defense.

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Lou Brock — Southern University

Lou Brock — Southern University

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Brock had a long, 19-year career with the Cubs and Cardinals. While he may be known for breaking Ty Cobb’s all-time stolen base record (his total of 938 has since been surpassed bt Rickey Henderson) and racking up more than 3,000 hits, the left fielder also had quite the college career. At Southern, Brock hit .500 in his sophomore year and his team won the NAIA championship in his junior year. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.

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Willie Brown — Grambling State

Willie Brown — Grambling State

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Willie Brown was not drafted into the NFL. After signing with the Houston Oilers, he was cut during training camp. But the Broncos and Raiders gave this HBCU grad a chance. He would go on to win three Super Bowls with the Raiders. In Super Bowl XI Brown picked off a pass and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown, inspiring Bill King’s memorable call:

“He looks and throws . . . intercepted by the Oakland Raiders Willie Brown at the 30, 40, 50 . . . he’s going all the way! . . . Old Man Willie! . . . Touchdown Raiders!”

Brown was inducted into Canton in 1984.

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Harry Carson — South Carolina State

Harry Carson — South Carolina State

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For four years, Harry Carson, a 2-time Super Bowl Champion who began the Gatorade dousing phenomenon back in 1986, played under legendary football coach Willie Jeffries at South Carolina State University. At S.C. State, Carson never missed a game. Today, Carson is one of the fiercest advocates for concussion research in the NFL.

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Willie Davis — Grambling State

Willie Davis — Grambling State

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Willie Davis played both offensive tackle and defensive end at Grambling State University. He went on to play the majority of his career for Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers, where he won five NFL titles and two Super Bowls (I and II).

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Andre Dawson — Florida A&M

Andre Dawson — Florida A&M

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“The Hawk” was drafted in the 11th round of the 1975 MLB draft but played in the bigs for over 20 years. He came from Florida A&M, a school that has produced other great baseball players like Hal McRae and Marquis Grissom. He was one of the fiercest righty batters of the late-70s and 80s while playing for the Expos and Cubs, among other teams. Swatted 49 homers and drove in 137 runs during his 1987 MVP season with Chicago, Inducted in Hall of Fame in 2010.

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Richard Dent — Tennessee State

Richard Dent — Tennessee State

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The Super Bowl XX MVP began his career at Tennessee State University. He was not sought after as a pro prospect but went on to play in four pro bowls and win two Super Bowls (XX, XXIX). He is a member of the legendary Super Bowl Shuffling ’85 Bears.

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Althea Gibson — Florida A&M

Althea Gibson — Florida A&M

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After attending a racially segregated high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, Gibson received a tennis scholarship from Florida A&M. She went on to win five slams, including the U.S. Open and Wimbledon twice, and break barriers in a predominantly white, country club sport. She was the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam.

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Bob Hayes — Florida A&M

Bob Hayes — Florida A&M

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“Bullet” Bob Hayes took a football scholarship at Florida A&M. There, he excelled in two sports, football and track. At Florida A&M, Hayes never lost a 100-yard race. And in 1964, he traveled with Team USA to the Tokyo Olympics where he won two gold medals in the 100m sprint and the 4 x 100m relay. The next year, Hayes began his Hall of Fame NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys, where he played in the memorable Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFL Championship game. Hayes and Cowboys lost that game, but he won Super Bowl VI in January of 1972. Bullet Bob is the only person with a Gold Medal and Super Bowl ring. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

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Deacon Jones — South Carolina State

Deacon Jones — South Carolina State

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Jones (No. 75) was so dominant he coined the term “sack” and was a member of the “Fearsome Foursome,” the L.A. Rams’ notorious defensive line. But before the NFL accolades, he was a player at South Carolina State. Jones only played at S.C. State for one year. The school revoked his football scholarship when it learned of his participation in the civil rights movement. Jones played the remainder of his college career at Mississippi Vocational.

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Sam Jones — North Carolina College

Sam Jones — North Carolina College

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Jones stared for the Eagles before the school became North Carolina Central University, playing for coach Hall of Fame coach John McClendon. Jones went ot to star for Red Auerbach’s Celtics, winning 10-NBA titles alongside Bill Russell. Nicknamed “The Shooter” for his impeccable jumper, Jones was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984 and his No. 24 hangs in the rafters at Boston’s TD Garden.

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Yolanda Laney — Cheyney University

Yolanda Laney — Cheyney University

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Laney played under legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer at Cheyney. She led the Lady Wolves to the 1982 NCAA Women’s basketball championship game. During her HBCU tenure, she was named Kodak All-American. After school, she played in Europe. The WNBA was still years away from being formed.

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Willie Lanier — Morgan State

Willie Lanier — Morgan State

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Lanier played under coach Earl Banks at Morgan State University. After his time in Baltimore, Lanier was drafted into the AFL by the Kansas City Chiefs where he won Super Bowl IV and played 11 years in the league. Lanier was one of the first Black middle linebackers in Pro Football.

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Larry Little — Bethune-Cookman

Larry Little — Bethune-Cookman

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The Hall-of-Fame guard played on the offensive and defensive lines for the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats. Little went undrafted in 1967, but went on to win two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins, blocking for one of the greatest running games (featuring Mercury Morris, Larry Csonka and Jim Kick) in NFL history. Little was a member of the Perfect 72 Dolphins. After 14 years in the NFL, Little returned to Bethune-Cookman to coach football. In 1984, he was awarded the MEAC Coach of the Year.

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Rick Mahorn — Hampton University

Rick Mahorn — Hampton University

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At Hampton, Mahorn scored over 2,000 points and was a three-time All-American. When Mahorn was traded from the Bullets to the Pistons, he joined the “Bad Boys,” where he fit right in, winning a NBA championship in 1989.

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Steve McNair — Alcorn State

Steve McNair — Alcorn State

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The epitome of a “dual threat” QB, McNair threw for over 5,000 yards his senior year at Alcorn State and rushed for nearly 1,000. When the Houston Oilers drafted him with the No. 3 pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, it made McNair the highest selection of a Black quarterback in NFL history. McNair’s career took off after the franchise moved to Tennessee and eventually became the Tennessee Titans, leading the team to within a yard of a Super Bowl Championship in 1999 and winning the MVP award in 2003.

Sadly, McNair was shot and killed by a woman in a muder-suicide on July 4, 2009.

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Earl Monroe — Winston Salem State

Earl Monroe — Winston Salem State

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Earl the Pearl or “Black Jesus” may be one of the best HBCU athletes on the list. Playing under coach Clarence “Big House” Gains, Monroe averaged 26.7 points and scored 2,395 in four years at Winston-Salem State University. Monroe was a highly touted prospect coming out of WSSU, and was drafted as the second overall pick in the NBA draft. His street style of play electrified the NBA and made Monroe an instant star, but it was his trade to the New York Knicks, where he toned down his game to play alongside Walt Frazier, that made him a champion in 1973.

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Edwin Moses — Morehouse

Edwin Moses — Morehouse

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The only Morehouse alum on our list won three Olympic medals — all in the 400m hurdles. He won gold in Montreal (1976), gold in Los Angeles (1984) and bronze in Seoul (1988). Morehouse did not have it’s own track when Moses attended the college. Instead, the team practiced at a public high school. At one point in his career, Moses won 122 straight races.

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Charles Oakley — Virginia Union University

Charles Oakley — Virginia Union University

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When Virginia Union won the 1985 CIAA championship, Oakley averaged 24 points and 17.3 rebounds a game. He led a team to a 31-1 record and was awarded as the NABC Division II player of the year. When Oakley got drafted 9th overall, he joined another young star, MJ, on a rebuilding Bulls team.

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Walter Payton — Jackson State

Walter Payton — Jackson State

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Known as Sweetness, Payton grew up in Columbia, Mississippi. Despite being one of the best running backs in the state, he did not receive a single scholarship offer from any of the nearby Southeastern Conference (SEC) schools. Payton intended to play at Kansas State but he chose Jackson State to play with his older brother, Eddie. All Payton did was become the NFL all-time leading rushing when he retired, and the namesake for the NFL’s Man of the Year award. Payton was induced into the Canton in 1993. He died of cancer in 1999.

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Willis Reed — Grambling State

Willis Reed — Grambling State

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Reed grew up on a farm in Louisiana and went to Grambling State University, where he scored 2,280 points, averaged 26.6 points, and 21.3 rebounds per game. As an NBA player, he is a Hall of Famer, MVP, two-time NBA champion, and two-time NBA Finals MVP. But he’ll forever be remembered for limping out of the tunnel at Madison Square Garden with a torn muscle in his thigh to play Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, scoring the Knicks first two baskets en route to the first title in franchise history.

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Jerry Rice — Mississippi Valley State

Jerry Rice — Mississippi Valley State

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Before he became the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice played his college ball at Mississippi Valley State. There, Rice picked up the nickname “World” for his ability to catch any ball thrown his way. In 1999 Mississippi Valley State renamed their football field to Rice-Totten Stadium. Rice won three Super Bowls, was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot and owns just about every receiving record imaginable.

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Wilma Rudolph — Tennessee State University

Wilma Rudolph — Tennessee State University

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As a member of the legendary “Tigerbells” at Tennessee State University, Rudolph was one of fastest women in the country. She famously became the first American woman to win three gold medals in an Olympics (Rome ’60). After graduating from TSU in 1963, she became a coach and educator. And she did all that after being disabled as child due to polio, wearing a leg brace till the age of 12.

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Shannon Sharpe — Savannah State

Shannon Sharpe — Savannah State

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Before the hall of fame, before the three super bowls, before the steaming hot takes, Shannon Sharpe was a three-sport athlete at Savannah State. There, Sharpe played Division II football, basketball, and ran track. The tight end was taken in the 7th round of the 1990 NFL Draft.

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Donnie Shell — South Carolina State

Donnie Shell — South Carolina State

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Shell played with fellow hall of famer Harry Carson at S.C. State where he earned all-conference and all-american honors. Despite his accomplishments on the college football field, Shell went undrafted and signed with the Steelers, thanks to help of legendary writer/scout Bill Nunn. Shell went on to play in five Pro Bowls and win four Super Bowls.

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Jackie Slater — Jackson State

Jackie Slater — Jackson State

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A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Slater was the first member of his family to attend a desegregated high school. After his senior year, he stayed in Jackson and attended Jackson State with Walter Payton. The offensive tackle was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, where he played for 20 years. The seven-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.

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John Stallworth — Alabama A&M

John Stallworth — Alabama A&M

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The Tuscaloosa native traveled up to Huntsville to play his college ball at Alabama A&M. The Pro Football Hall of Famer played 14 years in the league, all with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Stallworth held the team’s reception total record of 537 until Hines Ward broke it in 2005. And while his receiver mate Lynn Swann got much more attention, no one shined brighter in Super Bowl XIV than Stallworth, who caught just 3 passes for 121 yards, including a back-breaking 73-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

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Michael Strahan — Texas Southern

Michael Strahan — Texas Southern

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Michael Strahan did not play football until his senior year of high school. But that one year was good enough for him to earn a scholarship to Texas Southern, where his uncle Art played football. After four years at Texas Southern, Strahan was drafted in the second round in the 1993 NFL draft by the New York Giants. He won a Super Bowl in his final season with the Giants, upsetting the 18-0 Patriots, before going on to become an ABC morning TV star.

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Wyomia Tyus — Tennessee State University

Wyomia Tyus — Tennessee State University

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Tyus competed in her first olympics in 1964, winning gold in the 100 meter dash and silver in the 4 x 100m relay. She would go on to win two gold medals in 1968 in the same events. And in 1968, when most of white america and the IOC criticized John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Tyus dedicated one of her Olympic medals to the two athlete-activists.

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Ben Wallace — Virginia Union University

Ben Wallace — Virginia Union University

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After playing junior college ball at Cuyahoga Community College, Wallace transferred to Virginia Union. He took the Panthers to a Division II Final Four and averaged a double-double during his HBCU career. Wallace would go on to be a defensive force in the NBA, winning the league’s defensive player of the year award four times and winning a NBA championship in 2004 with the Pistons.

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Aeneas Williams — Southern

Aeneas Williams — Southern

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Williams didn’t start playing football at Southern until his junior year, walking on. Before long, he moved special teams to a regular starter in the secondary. Was named All-Southwestern Athletic Conference in his second season after leading the conference in interceptions. Williams was drafted in the third round of the 1991 draft by the Phoenix Cardinals (now Arizona Cardinals), and became a mainstay at cornerback, making eight pro bowls and was named first-team all-pro four times. Williams was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

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Doug Williams — Grambling State

Doug Williams — Grambling State

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Playing for legendary coach Eddie Robinson, Williams had a remarkable career at Grambling State. He had a 36-7 record as a four-year starter, and led college football in passing yards as a senior with 3,286 passing yards and 38 passing touchdowns. He finished fourth in the Heisman voting and became the first Black quarterback selected in the first round, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He led the previously moribund Bucs to the playoffs three times in five years before signing with the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL. He joined the Washington football team and led it to victory in Super Bowl XXII, becoming the first Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl and be named Super Bowl MVP.

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Been editing/writing sports for some time, mainly in NYC and a stint in LA.

Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.