Panola and Covington counties can each make a case to be Mississippi's "NFL Capital."
Mississippi is known for its football stars. If Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, and Brett Favre aren’t the best running back, wide receiver, and quarterback in NFL history, then they are at least the best tandem any single state has produced.
The secret to Mississippi’s quality is actually its quantity. Between 1931 and last Sunday, 573 Mississippians have played in 30,606 professional football games. Eight are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Favre will certainly be the ninth once he becomes eligible in 2016.
We spend a lot of time on this site sizing up Mississippi’s challenges. Today I thought we’d look instead at something Mississippi does well — better than almost anyone else, in fact. Among current players, Mississippi’s 32 pros rank third per capita, behind Louisiana and South Carolina. One out of every 92,728 Mississippians will put on a uniform next Sunday. The U.S. average is twice as high, at one player per 184,216 people.
This map shows the state-by-state breakdown. As you can see, Mississippi sits squarely in the middle of America’s football heartland:
Of course, not all parts of Mississippi produce athletic talent equally. I set out to find out which counties have the highest rate of football fertility.
Using the best available data from pro-football-reference.com, I pulled a list of Mississippians who have played in the NFL since 2000. A total of 128* players from the state have suited up in the past 14 seasons.
I sorted the players by home county. Over half (44) of Mississippi’s 82 counties have sent at least one player to the League in that span — a remarkable distribution that speaks volumes about the statewide obsession with football.
Here’s what the state looks like when you divide each county’s NFL output by its latest population figures:
While many counties can brag about their football prolificacy, Covington and Panola stand above the rest. Both counties have turned out NFL talent at an astounding rate of more than one per 5,000 residents.
That should come as no surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of Mississippi high school football. A team from Covington County — Mt. Olive, Seminary, or Collins — has won its classification’s state championship five times since 2000. Meanwhile, South Panola High School has been as dominant as any team in the country over the past decade. “The University of South Panola” didn’t lose a game between 2003 and 2007, a stretch that included five state championships. That run of perfection makes their recent record — only winning three of the past six titles — seem like a slump.
The NFL Players Association estimates that only 215 of every 100,000 high school football seniors will ever make an NFL roster. It is incredible, then, that Covington County (population 19,958) has produced four players who’ve suited up in the NFL since 2000. The most notable is Mt. Olive’s Steve McNair, former quarterback for the Tennessee Titans and a legend dating to his time at Alcorn State. The others are running back Correll Buckhalter, who spent most of his seven-year career with the Eagles, Rams defensive end Eugene Sims, and former Dolphins corner Brandon McDonald.
Panola County’s 34,707 residents have sent seven players to the League in that span, or one for every 4,958 residents. Those players include the Steelers’ two-time Super Bowl champ Deshea Townsend, Vikings and Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd, Vikings defensive back Jamarca Sanford, and the brothers Peria and John Jerry of the Falcons and Dolphins, respectively. Six of Panola County’s seven NFL players attended South Panola High School. Assuming the football team averages 25 seniors a year, South Panola has produced NFLers over the period at the rate of 1.8 percent, or 1,800 per 100,000 players — more than eight times the national average.
For those looking for methodological quibbles, however, Panola County is also credited as the birthplace of five-time Pro Bowl tight end Wesley Walls, even though he played his high school football in Pontotoc (see footnote).
It should be noted as well that Sharkey County’s 4,916 residents turned out one NFL player, an impressive feat no doubt, though Antoine Cash’s undistinguished two-year playing career hardly qualifies the rural county as a football factory.
Sharkey’s small sample size highlights the deficiencies of a county-level analysis, so I also evaluated the football fertility of the state’s six identifiable regions: Northeast, the Delta, East Central, Capital, Southwest, Pine Belt, and the Coast. There can be some debate about where the borders should fall, though these regions bear well-recognized geographic, cultural, and economic distinctions.
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Broken down by region, the Delta comes out as the clear winner — even without the inclusion of Panola, a border county that I assigned to the talent-deprived Northeast region (where I grew up, not surprisingly). The Delta may have declined economically in recent decades, but Bolivar, Leflore, and Coahoma counties still produce as many elite athletes as any part of the country:
*Note on sources: The pro-football-reference.com database isn’t perfect. I added three omissions that I noticed, but there are certainly more. It only lists birthplaces, so some of the players may be assigned to different counties than where they attended high school. A large percentage of active players’ birthplaces are unknown, therefore I used the Sporting News’s calculation for the number of Mississippians playing during the 2013 season, which was twice as high as the number listed on pro-football-reference.com.