Remembering the uniquely talented 1974 Jackson State football team

Curious about the changing selection of photos appearing behind former NFL executive Scott Pioli during his appearances on NFL Network? Each image is from a framed cover of a sports magazine, chosen to highlight some of the lesser-known stories from football history that deserve to be widely told. For example, Pioli has focused this season on featuring some of the greats associated with historically black colleges and universities who have not been given their due.

Below, Pioli discusses the 1974 Jackson State football team that featured three players who reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Walter Payton, Jackie Slater and Robert Brazile.

Most football fans know Walter Payton attended Jackson State in the early 1970s and went on to become one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. And some fans know there are three other Jackson State Tigers who have busts in Canton, Ohio: Lem Barney, Robert Brazile and Jackie Slater. The part of the story that isn’t always connected? The 1974 Jackson State football team featured three starters — Payton, Slater and Brazile — who were named All-SWAC that season and later became members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Payton in 1993, Slater in 2001, Brazile in 2018).

Behind this trio’s talent and head coach Robert “Bob” Hill’s vision and leadership, Jackson State finished 7-3 and third in the conference that year. The highlight of the season was a 19-13 win in the season finale over Alcorn A&M, the eventual conference champion and Black College Football Champion. It was Alcorn’s only regular-season loss. As impressive as his players were, Hill was equally spectacular, as he coached the Tigers to a 40-12-1 record and three conference championships during his tenure (1971-75) before joining the New Orleans Saints coaching staff as a conditioning coach for two seasons (1978-79).

Payton was a three-time Black College All-American and a two-time FCS All-American. Despite what some think, he couldn’t do it alone, running behind an offensive line led by Slater at tackle. Brazile was recruited as a tight end, but switched positions in his freshman season and never looked back, leading the Tigers as a linebacker in the heart of the defense.

After that memorable season in which three future HOFers shared the field for Jackson State, Payton was selected with the fourth overall pick by the Chicago Bears and Brazile followed two selections later at No. 6 (Houston Oilers) in the 1975 NFL Draft. Slater joined them in the NFL a year later as a third-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams.

Jackson State, which is located in Jackson, Mississippi, actually had five players drafted in 1975 — more than Ole Miss and Mississippi State combined. Tigers players drafted in ’75 included a pair of running backs, Payton and Rickey Young, who played nine NFL seasons and led the NFL with 88 receptions in 1978. Also, Jackson State tight end Rod Phillips was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Los Angeles Rams that year and converted to running back once in the NFL. Though Phillips was a converted running back in the league, it’s still quite remarkable — and a nearly unfathomable feat — that Jackson State sent three players who played the position in the NFL to the league in the same year.

This team was absolutely loaded with talent, and Jackson State’s football tradition has always intrigued me. While coaching at Murray State University in the early 1990s, I had recruiting responsibilities that included all of the Texas and Mississippi junior colleges. The job entailed driving my state-issued 1988 white sedan — a stereotypical oversized gas guzzler with AM radio, a front bench vinyl seat and the silver and black Commonwealth of Kentucky seal sticker covering both front doors — all across the region.

I made my maiden voyage to Mississippi in the spring of 1990. I loved recruiting, and planned this trip strategically by visiting Coahoma Community College and Mississippi Delta Community College on my way south before spending a weekend in Jackson. Born and raised in New York and not having really traveled, I always craved being proximate to see, feel and learn about our country’s history, as well as indulge my fascination for football history, including the incredible, deep influence HBCU football had on the AFL and NFL. I got both in Jackson, as I was educated on many civil rights events that occurred in the city and introduced to a school that produced some of the greatest NFL players of an era.

It’s not all that common to see three college teammates from a major football powerhouse go on to earn gold jackets, let alone from an HBCU in the early 1970s. The 1974 Tigers are truly unique, a treasure that should not be overlooked.

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