by Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today

Our task today? We’re going to put together Team Mississippi, an All-Time, All-Pro football team of native Mississippians. We are going kick rear ends and take names. We’ll mess with Texas and anyone else who wants to try us.

Before we get started, I’ll emphasize: These will be native Mississippians and will not include imports from other states who played college ball here. That leaves out Pro Football Hall of Famers such as Gene Hickerson and Ray Guy, not to mention future Hall of Famer Patrick Willis. Today’s team will be Mississippi born and bred.

We’ll start with the offense. And why don’t we start at quarterback where we’ll go with Brett Favre (Kiln), a three-time league MVP who retired as the NFL’s all-time leading passer and now ranks fourth. Not bad for starters. We’ve got Steve McNair (Mount Olive), Charlie Conerly (Clarksdale) and Archie Manning (Drew) if Favre needs a break, which, famously, he never did. He started 321 consecutive games, a pro football record.

With arms like that we’ll need lots of wide receivers. Not to worry. We’ll split Jerry Rice (Crawford), the NFL’s all-time leading receiver and scorer wide to the left. We’ll flank seven-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer Lance Alworth (Brookhaven), Bambi himself, wide to the right. In the slot? Take your pick: Harold Jackson (Hattiesburg), Eric Moulds (Lucedale), Willie Richardson (Greenville), Ray Perkins (Petal) and we could go on and on. This is fun, no? When we run, we’ll give it to Sweetness, Walter Payton, No. 34 on his uniform, No. 2 on the all-time pro football rushing list. He’s only the best football player these eyes have ever seen. The quarterbacks will appreciate his blitz blocking, too. Ready in reserve will be Wilbert Montgomery (Greenville) and Deuce McAllister (Ludlow).

Jimmie Giles (Greenville), the first offensive player chosen for Tampa Bay’s Ring of Honor, is  one tight end and Wesley Walls (Pontotoc), Carolina Panthers Wall of Honor, is the other. Between them, they caught 95 touchdowns. Both ought to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The old saying is that it’s what’s  up front that counts. Kent Hull, a Buffalo Bills Wall of Famer  and three-time Pro Bowler from Greenwood will snap it, flanked on either side by Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw (Vicksburg) and Gabe Jackson (Liberty).

For offensive tackles, we’ll trot out maybe the best ever Jackie Slater (Jackson) on the left side and Walt Suggs (Hattiesburg) on the right. Tom Goode (West Point), who famously snapped for Jim O’Brien’s winning field goal in Super Bowl V, will handle long snapping.

And now for the defense. We’ll be nasty on this side of the ball with L.C. Greenwood (Canton) at one end and Ben McGee (Durant) on the other. Both were Steelers and both were splendid. At defensive tackle, we’ll go with the great Bruiser Kinard (Pelahatchie), another Pro Football Hall of Famer and Fletcher Cox (Yazoo City), presently one of the best in the business and surely a future Hall of Famer. Have you noticed how many small-town guys make this team? Amazing.

We’ve got linebackers galore. The only problem is deciding whom to start. Hugh Green (Natchez) gets one nod. Run away from him, and you’ll find Larry Grantham (Crystal Springs) on the other side. In the middle, I’m going with tackling machine Johnie Cooks (Leland). And then there are present day stars K.J. Wright (Olive Branch) and Jamie Collins (McCall Creek), both All-Pros.

No state, anywhere or any size, can match us at cornerback. Yazoo City’s Willie Brown and Gulfport’s Lem Barney are two more Pro Football Hall of Famers. If they aren’t the best two ever to play the position, they are in the first sentence of any conversation about it.

For safeties, we’ll go with Jimmy Patton (Greenville), a five-time Pro Bowler for the New York Giants and Jim Marsalis (Pascagoula).

On special teams, Stephen “Beaver” Gostkowski (Madison) ranks as one of the most accurate placekickers in pro football history and is money when the game is on the line. Most will assume that Ray Guy, who kicked at USM and lives in Purvis, is the punter. He would be except that USM recruited him out of Thomson, Georgia. Jerrell Wilson? Born in New Orleans. Not to worry, Chunkin’ Charlie Conerly could punt it just fine. So could Sweetness Payton for that matter. So could Julian Fagan of Laurel and Jim Miller, the barefoot wonder from Ripley.

But keep in mind, with our offense, who really needs a punter?