Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Thousands of Mississippians and national gridiron partisans know Robert Brazile as "Dr. Doom." They remember him as a headhunting black college All American on Jackson State's 1972-73 Southwest Athletic Conference championship teams, or as a top 10 NFL draft pick, 1975 Defensive Rookie of the Year and seven-time All-Pro with the Houston Oilers from 1976-82.
I knew him, aside from being the man in front of me at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Nov. 13, from a barely reviewed press packet. I said to Michael Rubenstein, who was handling introductions, that I recognized Brazile's name—a humbling fib—if not the accomplishments behind it.
"These younger ones, they don't know," said Rubenstein, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Museum and Hall of Fame, passing me off to one of the museum's five 2007 inductees as he rattled off accolades preceding my birth. "Teach him something."
There's much to learn from Brazile, and from the black college tradition in general in the early 1970s. That is especially true for those of us reared in a fully integrated, SEC-dominated college-football landscape, where as a rule any player dreams first—perhaps only—of playing for the big-money schools televised with the starters' faces fronting expensive graphics on practically a weekly basis.
According to his then-position coach, W.C. Gorden, though, "Dr. Doom," a Mobile native, spurned "Bear" Bryant and national powerhouse Alabama to come to Jackson. The same Tiger teams that featured his running-back-pounding exploits produced two other heavy hitters: Walter Payton and Jackie Slater. Payton was picked fourth overall by the Chicago Bears in 1975, and Slater was a third round pick a year later. Slater would make seven Pro Bowls and establish an NFL record for most seasons with one team: more than 20 years with the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams.
Some subsequent research: In 1972, Brazile's teammate Jerome Barkum was taken ninth by the New York Jets, two years before Miami picked JSU defensive end Donald Reese with the final first-round pick. The same year Brazile was taken, another SWAC star, Grambling lineman Gary Johnson, went ninth to San Diego. Altogether, between 1971, when three SWAC players were selected in the top ten, and 1978, a dozen stars from the conference were taken in the NFL Draft's first round, including certain Hall-of-Famers Payton and Slater and pioneering Grambling quarterback Doug Williams. A few years later, in 1985, Brazile's fellow inductee, Mississippi Valley State's Jerry Rice, would add significantly to the league's professional presence.
"They've made the pro game better," Brazile said last week, not counting himself among the greats.
Yet, 30 years on, the SWAC's first round total this decade is two (Rashard Anderson, to the Panthers in 2000, and JSU teammate Sylvester Morris to Kansas City a year later, neither among the top 20 picks), matching its Pro Bowl production (Alcorn State's Steve McNair and ex-Jacksonville receiver Jimmy Smith, another JSU product). Whether or not that comparison is evidence of a declining product on SWAC fields, it does help explain why its glory days might feel so distant to a younger crop of fans. So does gradually slipping attendance figures in a stadium that once bulged with 64,000 people to watch Rice and quarterback Willie Totten of Valley State against Alcorn in 1984.
Even as more visible programs in the South were embracing integration for competitive and social purposes, "Black athletes weren't going to the white schools" in the early '70s, said Gorden, who would become JSU's head coach and then athletic director. Then, Gorden claims, he could recruit a player like Brazile away from the SEC with a batch of his wife's fried chicken. (Gorden also says that Brazile was as proficient in math as he was in matters of doom, because of his intuitive understanding of angles on the field.) If that approach could escape the recruiting police these days, it's not so likely to lure many players away from a scholarship on a higher-profile squad.
"We considered our football games an event," Gorden said, and Jackson State still pulls out most of the same stops he enjoyed then: the Sonic Boom, the Prancing J-Settes, the showy fashions and, for a few, a smuggled brown bottle (a traditional diversion not restricted to JSU games). Shame, though, if experiencing the greatest on-field traditions of historically black schools for succeeding generations is limited to visiting a museum.
Robert Brazille played for the Houston Oilers while I was living in Houston. So too did Vernon Perry, another Jackson State ex-player. Them, Warren Moon and a few others almost made me forget I was a fan of the Pittsburg Steelers. They beat the Steelers in a playoff game one year but was cheated. Brazille could hit and always found a way to get to you. Houstonians loved the Oilers back then. I foolishly mentioned the Steelers on a city bus one time and many of the riders threatened to whip my a$$. I backed down because it was about 20 of them, 10 too many. It was reported that at one time in the early 80's Jackson State was number three with the most number of active players in the NFL. This made me real proud to be from Mississippi. Also, if you went around the country and tracked blacks football attendance very black few schools put more fans in the stand than Jackson State, Alcorn and Valley, especially Jackson State. This also made me very proud of Jackson State and Mississippi.
- Ray Carter