Melvin Barkum is more than just another name on a list of men who played quarterback at Mississippi State.
In 1972, the Gulfport native became the first black quarterback to start a game for the school and the second to start in the Southeastern Conference.
The first black quarterback to start a game in the SEC was Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway, also in 1972.
Barkum, who lived in Long Beach, died Monday at 63 from complications of diabetes.
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Barkum was one of the best athletes to ever compete at Gulfport High School and a groundbreaking football player at MSU, but those who knew him on a personal level will simply remember him for his good nature.
“He was the nicest young man, period. I get a little choked up just thinking about it,” said Dot Regel, a retired teacher from Gulfport. “If he saw that I needed help, he would come in and help. He was always so nice and kind to everybody.”
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Little Rock Baptist Church in Gulfport.
‘Heck of a guy’
Barkum and Rockey Felker were in a battle to become the starting quarterback at MSU as soon as they stepped on the Starkville campus in 1971. During games with the freshman team, Barkum played the first half and Felker lined up behind center in the second half.
When the two men moved up to the varsity squad in 1972, they alternated at quarterback in the first half and whoever had the hottest hand took over in the second half.
You’d expect conflict between two roommates in a battle to become the team’s starting quarterback, but that wasn’t the case with Barkum and Felker.
“We might have fussed about which side of the room we wanted our bed to be on,” said Felker, who served as head coach at MSU from 1986-90. “I can’t remember any problem at all. It was easy to get along with Melvin. He was a heck of a guy. He fit in and Mississippi State fans loved watching him play.”
Barkum, who was a member of the Gulfport Sports Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 2014, was one of the first few black players to join the MSU program and he also happens to be one of the most highly recruited prospects to sign with the Bulldogs.
After leading Gulfport to an 11-0 record and finishing No. 1 in the state during his senior year, Barkum was named a Parade All-American and a long list of top college programs lined up to recruit him.
“Anybody that saw him, wanted him,” said Dot Regel, wife of Leon Regel, who was the head coach at Gulfport during Barkum’s time there.
Notre Dame, Alabama and Michigan State were among the schools who recruited Barkum, a dual-threat quarterback who likely would have thrived in the spread offense that is prevalent on the college level today
“He wast fast and quick,” Leon Regel said Wednesday. “He made such quick movements. He was an outstanding passer and runner.”
Barkum was also a true field general at quarterback.
“He was always picking people up, a great leader,” said Ronnie Cuevas, a legendary high school coach who played with Barkum at Gulfport and MSU. “As far as getting people pumped up, he got people motivated to play. He did a great job of that. He had a great attitude, even in the toughest times.”
Even in an era where college recruiting didn’t operate under the spotlight we see today, Barkum’s recruitment was a big deal in Gulfport.
“It really winded down to Mississippi State and Alabama,” said Prince Jones, a former Gulfport track coach and athletic director. “Alabama sent all the big boys in here, but he ended up at Mississippi State.”
‘It was unbelievable’
Fans back home in Gulfport were disappointed to see Felker eventually beat out Barkum for the starting quarterback job, but Barkum played a significant role at MSU in 1973-74.
As a sophomore quarterback, he threw for 591 yards and rushed for 522 yards and six scores.
By the time he was a senior, he was a standout receiver. He caught 19 passes for 296 yards and one touchdown in MSU’s split-back veer scheme.
Both Felker and Cuevas pointed to a catch Barkum made during his senior year on the game-winning drive to beat Memphis State 29-28 on Oct. 19, 1974, in Memphis.
“We had a 97- or 98-yard drive with about a minute left on the clock to win the ball game. We had to go for two to win it,” Cuevas said. “He made one heck of a catch during that drive. It was unbelievable. If it was today, it would be on ESPN on one of those highlight reels.”
Barkum played football overseas at the conclusion of his MSU career and returned home to take a job with the city of Gulfport.
Barkum was far from the only talented athlete in his family. His brother, Jerome Barkum, played 12 years as a receiver in the NFL for the New York Jets.
“He was proud of his family. He always talked about them,” Felker said. “His brother was an NFL player and he was awfully proud of him.”