Much of the appeal of writing about Mississippi sports for nearly half a century is trying to pick out who's going to be next.
Next? The next Archie. The next Jerry. The next Walter. And so on...
In Mississippi, there's always going to be a next. Before Archie, their was Chunkin' Charlie and Jake, and after Archie, there were Reggie, Brett and Steve.
The devil is in the details. We can see the physical tools. That is, we can see how big they are, how fast they run, how high they jump, how strong they are.
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We can't see inside.
We can't see how badly they want to be the best, how hard they will work. We can't see their will. We can't measure their grit. We can't measure their "it" -- as in the "it" factor.
Jerry Rice was not the biggest or the fastest wide receiver. He was simply the best, and he was that because nobody worked harder than he. He was the proverbial first on the field and last off it. I well remember Rice winning the Super Bowl MVP Trophy and then hearing that upon his return to the West Coast, he was out on the practice field working out. All his teammates had packed up and left the 49ers training facility. Rice was back at work. Rice had eight months to prepare for his next game. He wasn't going to miss a day.
Much the same was true of Walter Payton. He wasn't the biggest or the fastest. He was just as good as he could possibly be in every phase of the game. He maxed out. You couldn't get any more out of Walter than what we saw first on Friday night, and then Saturday and finally Sunday.
We have had more gifted running backs than Walter Payton, more gifted wide receivers than Rice. But the most gifted don't always turn out to be the best. And that's a long preface to today's subject, which is that high school wide receivers A.J. Brown of Starkville and D.K. Metcalf of Oxford have excellent opportunities to be "next." They can be as good as they want to be, as we saw in Mississippi's 28-21 victory over Alabama last Saturday afternoon at Hattiesburg.
The two wide receivers were named co-MVPs. Brown had nine receptions for 137 yards and two touchdowns while Metcalf caught five passes for 151 yards and two scores. Alabama's defensive backs were simply overmatched.
I happened to be standing on the sidelines, chatting with an old friend early in Saturday's game, when we heard the home crowd begin to cheer loudly. Even with the roar, I could hear loud, pounding steps coming rapidly down the sideline. I turned, just as Metcalf flashed by, an amazing blend of speed and sinew leaving smaller, slower players behind en route to a 69-yard touchdown catch and run.
Thankfully, they showed the replay on the big screen.
Metcalf took a short pass, shed two defenders as if he were brushing away gnats and then raced down the sidelines putting more and more distance between him and his pursuers. It was not unlike Secretariat at the Belmont.
What I'll not forget: The sound of Metcalf speeding down the sidelines, heard over the roar of the crowd.
Both Metcalf and Brown continued to make plays, as much with their muscle as with their speed, hands and agility. They were the most impressive parts of a Mississippi team that was remarkable in both size and depth of talent.
"Pretty," was the word coaches used over and over to describe the Mississippi players. As in, as long-time Mississippi high school coach Junior Graham, put it, "I've never seen such a pretty group of high school football players."
It struck me that these 17- and 18-year-olds were as big and as fast as NFL players three decades ago.
This is not to say that Metcalf and Brown, either one, will become the next Jerry Rice. Indeed, there may never be another. But both have a chance. We shall see.
Rick Cleveland, (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.