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Walter Payton and Jerry Rice are two of the best NFL players from HBCUs.
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images (left), Photo by David Madison/Getty Images (right)

It’s no surprise traditional college football powerhouses produce the most NFL players. A lot of the top high school prospects go to schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame and Clemson precisely to prepare for the pros. I mean, Alabama had six players selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft alone.

However, there’s no exact map on how to get to the NFL, and throughout the history of the league, several legends have come from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). There are 107 HBCUs in the U.S., with most of them located in the southeastern part of the country.

It’s no secret the Southeast loves its football, and with the cultural significance of attending a HBCU, it makes sense some phenomenal players chose to go the HBCU route and found success in the NFL. That being said, there are 11 HBCU players who had iconic NFL careers, and several are among the greatest players in league history.

Let’s take a look at the best NFL players who played their college ball at a HBCU.

The 11 Best NFL Players Who Attended HBCUs

11. Donald Driver, Alcorn State

Donald Driver scores a touchdown against the Detroit Lions.
Jonathan Daniel via Getty Images

Having spent his entire career with the Green Bay Packers, Driver played with some of the best quarterbacks of all time in Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. The 6-foot wide receiver was an insane athlete (he cleared 7.65 feet in the high jump while at Alcorn State), making him a prime target for jump balls.

Along with winning a Super Bowl and making the Pro Bowl five times, Driver is Green Bay’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards.

10. Doug Williams, Grambling State

Doug Williams passes in Super Bowl XXII.
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

RELATED: Doug Williams Made History as the First Black Quarterback to Win a Super Bowl

Doug Williams was not only half of the first all-Black quarterback matchup in NFL history, he was also the first Black starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Williams lit up the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII by throwing for 340 yards and four touchdowns.

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The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington signal caller also had one of the strongest arms the NFL has ever seen.

9. Steve McNair, Alcorn State

Steve McNair winds up to throw in an NFL game.
Rex Brown/NFLPhotoLibrary via Getty Images

“Air McNair” is an all-time nickname. Just fantastic. As for his play on the field, McNair led the Tennessee Titans to a Super Bowl appearance in 1999, but the young Nashville franchise fell to “The Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams.

McNair quickly became one of the best quarterbacks in the league in the early aughts. He won the NFL MVP in 2003 and made the Pro Bowl three times between 2000 and 2005.

The Titans legend was tragically murdered by his girlfriend in 2009, but his legacy lives on forever.

8. Richard Dent, Tennessee State

Richard Dent in between plays against the Los Angeles Raiders.
Owen Shaw/Getty Images

Richard Dent was the key cog of the dominant 1985 Chicago Bears defense. The Hall of Fame defensive end was the Super Bowl MVP in Chicago’s Super Bowl XX win, and he won a second ring as a member of the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.

Dent was a First-team All-Pro in 1985, a three-time Second-team All-Pro and a four-time Pro Bowler during his career. He retired with 137.5 career sacks, which was the third-best mark ever at the time. He’s now tied for 10th.

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7. Michael Strahan, Texas Southern

Michael Strahan rushes the quarterback against the Philadelphia Eagles.
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Strahan is one of the biggest media personalities in the business today, but before he joined the other side of the press room, he was one of the best defensive players in the NFL.

The defensive end spent his entire career with the New York Giants, where he won a Super Bowl, was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2001, led the NFL in sacks twice, made seven Pro Bowls and received four First-team All-Pro nods in his 15-year career.

Not bad.

6. Shannon Sharpe, Savannah State

Shannon Sharpe runs after the catch in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Allen Kee via Getty Images

Long before he was lining up across from Skip Bayless every day, Shannon Sharpe was lining up across from defensive ends. The Hall of Famer spent a majority of his career catching passes from John Elway on the Denver Broncos and finished his playing days as the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a tight end.

Sharpe won three Super Bowls with the Broncos and helped set the mold for the modern tight end.

5. Art Shell, Maryland State

Art Shell blocks against the Cleveland Browns.
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Art Shell is one of the greatest offensive linemen of all time. The longtime Oakland Raider won two Super Bowls, was named a First-team All-Pro twice and made eight Pro Bowls over his 15-year career. His remarkable time in the league was more than enough for him to make the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team that was unveiled before the 2020 season.

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In 1989, Shell was named the head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, making him the first Black head coach in modern NFL history. He held the position for six years and later returned for the 2006 campaign before retiring.

4. Deacon Jones, South Carolina State & Mississippi Valley State

Deacon Jones runs toward the action.
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Arguably the greatest defensive player ever, Deacon Jones finished his career with two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, five First-team All-Pro nods, three Second-team All-Pro nods and eight Pro Bowl appearances. To top it off, he led the league in sacks five times.

Speaking of sacks, per Pro Football Talk, Jones is the one who coined the term before a game by saying, “Before we play those Dallas Cowboys, we’re going to take that Morton salt and pour [Cowboys QB Craig Morton] into a sack.”

3. Mel Blount, Southern University

Mel Blount points before a play against the Baltimore Colts.
George Gojkovich via Getty Images

Blount was a key piece of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dominance in the 1970s. The cornerback was known for his size, physicality and ability to adjust on the fly. Over his career, he won four Super Bowls, was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1975 (the same year he led the league in interceptions), made six total All-Pro teams and five Pro Bowls.

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The all-time defensive back was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989 and was named to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team in 2020.

2. Walter Payton, Jackson State

Walter Payton runs during an NFL game in 1983.
James V. Biever via Getty Images

Walter Payton was ahead of his time. He set several career rushing records and was also one of the first running backs to double threat as a receiver. All in all, the legendary Chicago Bear won a Super Bowl, MVP, Offensive Player of the Year award, had five first-team All-Pro selections and made nine Pro Bowls.

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Payton was astonishing on the field, but his work off it, primarily his advocacy for organ donation from his battle with liver disease and cancer, inspired the NFL to name its humanitarian award after him.

1. Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State

Jerry Rice runs after the catch against the New Orleans Saints.
Peter Read Miller /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

There are very few football players who could rank ahead of someone like Payton. Jerry Rice is one of them. The undisputed GOAT wide receiver, Rice tore up the league for 20 years, winning three Super Bowls and earning pretty much ever individual honor out there multiple times (except the regular season MVP award).

Looking at Rice’s stats is just ridiculous. The dude was a machine and surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in a season 13 times, with his career best 1,848 coming in 1995. Rice isn’t only the best HBCU player to ever suit up in the NFL, he’s arguably the best player of all time.

MORE: Kenny Washington Became the First Black NFL Player, But Why Isn’t He a Household Name?

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Joe Grobeck About the author:
Joe is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and lives in Austin, Texas. He believes Ndaumkong Suh should've won the 2009 Heisman and is an avid basketball fan.
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