By Rick Cleveland

Take a look at football: Mississippi has produced more Pro Football Hall of Famers per capita than any other state—and it’s really not close. Want a comparison? Mississippi, with a population of fewer than 3 million, has produced nine Hall of Famers. New York, which has nearly 20 million, has produced just seven.



Home to not only the great LEM BARNEY, a seven-time Pro Bowler with the Detroit Lions, but also Olympic long jump gold medalist BRITTNEY REESE and basketball great MAHMOUD ABDUL-RAUF (the former Chris Jackson), a two time SEC Player of the Year at LSU and a nine-year NBA star. Amateur and professional athletes can get in on the action at any of the Gulf Coast’s casinos, which now offer sports betting.


If you drive north on US 49 from Gulfport for 25 minutes you pass through Wiggins and pass by the DIZZY DEAN REST STOP, which celebrates JAY HANNA “DIZZY” DEAN, the Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher and broadcaster. Dean, an Arkansas native, could have lived anywhere but he chose Wiggins. He was larger than life elsewhere, but in Wiggins, he could just be one of the guys. Dean is buried in a small cemetery in nearby Bond. His trophies and baseball and broadcasting artifacts can be found at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson.


When BRETT FAVRE helped the Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl XXXI in nearby New Orleans, the NFL organized tour buses of sports media to tour Favre’s hometown and Hattiesburg, where he played college football at Southern Miss. Two of the stops included THE BROKE SPOKE in Kiln, Brett’s old hangout, often described as a relaxed biker bar, and LEATHA’S BAR-B-QUE INN, in Hattiesburg where on any given day you just might find Favre, himself, enjoying some of the most succulent ribs anywhere. Kiln is just north of lovely Bay St. Louis, where the legendary Army football hero DOC BLANCHARD’S Heisman Trophy resides at his high school alma mater, St. Stanislaus.



This little town on US 98 was where RUTHIE BOLTON, the 16th of 20 children in her family, grew up on her daddy’s farm. Bolton, who helped the US to two gold medals in basketball as a point guard, was once asked about how she became so scrappy on the basketball floor. “If you’re the 16th of 20,” Ruthie said, “you learn to scrap.”


The state capital and home to Jackson State University, which once produced two of the top six picks (WALTER PAYTON and ROBERT BRAZILE, 1975) in the NFL draft. Jackson is also home to the MISSISSIPPI SPORTS HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM, which tells the remarkable stories of many of the Mississippians mentioned in this story and is worth a full day’s visit.



What is it about Mississippi and long jumpers? The state has produced so many world champions and Olympic medalists (Reese, Willye B. White, Larry Myricks) in the event. Perhaps the greatest of all was Laurel’s RALPH BOSTON, a three-time Olympian who won gold, silver and bronze medals over a 12-year period and broke the last world record held by the great Jessie Owens.


The pace of life is slow in this tiny burg located between Jackson and Vicksburg, but extremely fast CALVIN SMITH, an Olympic gold medalist sprinter, was born and raised there. The guy who once quit track in the eighth grade “because it was too much hard work,” became the world’s fastest human on July 3, 1983, at Zurich when he ran 100 meters in 9.93 seconds, breaking a 15-year-old world record


LANCE ALWORTH, known as “BAMBI” because of his graceful running and leaping abilities, is the town’s all-time football and sports hero and was also offered baseball contracts by the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates. He was the first Pro Football Hall of Famer inducted whose career was played principally in the old American Football League.


Natchez, the lovely jewel of the Mississippi, celebrated its tricentennial in 2016. Probably its most famous athlete in those 300-plus years is the great HUGH GREEN, a College Football Hall of Famer, who was a three-time All American defensive end at Pittsburgh before becoming an NFL star. Green spent much of his childhood on the Natchez bluffs, overlooking the Mississippi River, still not a bad way to spend an afternoon.


Travel north on US 61, up the river, to Vicksburg where another Super Bowl hero, MALCOLM BUTLER, grew up and where he worked the window at a Popeye’s Fried Chicken before getting his chance with the New England Patriots. Butler grew up just down the road from the Vicksburg National Military Park, where 12,000 unknown Union soldiers are buried.


Just 40 miles to the east of Jackson on I-20 is Forest, where VICTORIA VIVIANS played her high school basketball and attracted college recruiters from all over the US. Vivians became the all-time leading scorer in the US at Scott Central High School before leading Mississippi State to two straightNCAA Final Fours and going on to the WNBA.


Most everyone knows Elvis Presley was born in this northeast Mississippi city, where you can still visit his modest childhood birthplace and early home. But did you know that GUY BUSH, the famed “Mississippi Mudcat,” played his early baseball at Tupelo Military Institute, which no longer exists? Bush famously gave up the last two home runs of the great Babe Ruth, but Bush was the winning pitcher in the game, one of his 176 Major League victories.



Travel 90 miles east from Jackson on I-20 to Meridian, known as the “Queen City” and home to former Boston Red Sox pitching star DENNIS “OIL CAN” BOYD and current NBA star RODNEY HOOD, among many others sports heroes. Boyd earned his nickname in Meridian where the locals referred to beer as oil and Boyd was known to enjoy an oil can or two.



Starkville is home to MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY. Baseball’s great COOL PAPA BELL was born there, and football’s JERRY RICE, the son of a bricklayer, grew up in nearby Crawford. When he was once asked about catching so many footballs, Rice said catching footballs was easy if you had grown up catching your daddy’s bricks in the heat of Mississippi summers.


No visit to Mississippi is really complete without a visit to the Delta, birthplace of the blues and homeplace to any number of remarkable Mississippi sports heroes. GEORGE “BOOMER” SCOTT, the Red Sox slugger who called his home runs “Taters,” hailed from Greenville, as did Baltimore Colts pass receiving star WILLIE RICHARDSON. Baseball legend BOO FERRISS was born and raised in Shaw. Ferris coached collegiately at DELTA STATE UNIVERSITY (DSU)in Cleveland. DSU baseball is played at FERRISS FIELD, and there is a BOO FERRISS MUSEUM, replete with a treasure trove of artifacts from his days pitching at Fenway Park in Boston.



Home to Nobel laureate William Faulkner, world champion pole vaulter SAM KENDRICKS, and the UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI (Ole Miss), where the speed limits are 18 mph and 10 mph, because those were the jersey numbers worn by ARCHIE AND ELI MANNING. Oxford may have more fine dining and nightlife per capita than any small town in America, but many locals favor Ajax, a downhome restaurant on the square, where proprietor Randy Yates serves up the Big Easy sandwich, replete with country fried steak, mashed potatoes, gravy and butter beans. Yates named it the Big Easy in honor of Easy Eli, from New Orleans. He also calls it “a nap on a bun.” Although high school and college sports are king in Mississippi, the state does offer professional sports and sporting events of note.


Although high school and college sports are king in Mississippi, the state does offer professional sports and sporting events of note.


The M-Braves, as they are known, continue a long tradition of minor league in Pearl at Trustmark Park. The Class AA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves since 2005, the M-Braves play in the Southern League and have sent dozens of players, including All-Stars Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, to the Atlanta Braves.



Played now at the Country Club of Jackson, the 51-year-old golf tournament is a full-fledged stop on the PGA TOUR. Once nicknamed “The Little Tournament that Could” by Sports Illustrated, the tournament began as a modest PGA satellite tournament and has grown into a $4.3 million event raising millions of dollars for Mississippi charities.



This popular stop on the PGA TOUR Champions, has been played in the spring at lovely Fallen Oak Golf Club in Saucier, just northeast of Biloxi, since 2010. The $1.6 million, 54-hole tournament has featured some of the biggest names in golf from the 50-and-over crowd. Past winners have included Tom Lehman, Fred Couples, Miguel Angel Jimenez (twice) and Steve Stricker.



Since 2015, the Shuckers have played in the Southern League as the Class AA affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Shuckers play in beautiful, new MGM Stadium just across US 90 from the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino and the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico. Already the Shuckers have sent more than 40 players to the Major Leagues including Brewers All-Star pitcher Josh Hader.


When this Tour tournament debuted in April of 2018, it made Mississippi one of only five states in the US that hosts tournaments on all three PGA-sponsored professional golf tours. Played at the Oxford Country Club in historic Oxford, the event features future PGA TOUR stars.

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