We are nearing the home stretch in our series of the greatest pro football players to come from the college ranks of Mississippi. As we saw in our last installment Mississippi has had some very good defensive linemen move on to the next level.
In this installment we will look at the best linebackers to play pro football out of the Magnolia State. As we will see just about every major university has a player on this list. All three Division I schools have at least one player and two of the three historically black universities have at least one player as well.
We will also see a player who should be in the NFL Hall of Fame on this list. Once again in no particular order or raking here is our look at Mississippi linebackers.
Johnny Brewer: Cleveland Browns via Ole Miss Rebels
Brewer was a great player during his time on the Oxford campus in Mississippi. He was part of two claimed National Championships in both 1959 and 1960 playing for legendary coach John Vaught.
After his final season playing for Ole Miss Brewer is named first team All-American in 1960. He was also named first team All-SEC and SEC Most Valuable Offensive Lineman in both 1959-60. Brewer also played in the 1961 Chicago All-Star game, Senior Bowl, and Coaches Association All-American Bowl game.
The Cleveland Browns selected Brewer in the fourth round with the 41st pick in 1960. Brewer started his pro career as a tight end.
As a tight end Brewer caught 89 passes for 1,256 yards and 6 touchdowns. Brewer spent his first five years in the NFL as a tight end.
Brewer switched to linebacker in 1966. Brewer made one Pro Bowl in his career and it was a linebacker for his performance in 66.
Brewer played 10 NFL season retiring with the New Orleans Saints in 1970. In 1991 Brewer was elected in to the Ole Miss Athletic Hall of Fame and in 2004 elected to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
Dave Washington: San Francisco 49ers via Alcorn State Braves
After his career at Alcorn State; Washington would be drafted in 1970 by the Denver Broncos. Washington would be taken in the ninth round with the 219th pick.
Washington would play in the NFL for 11 seasons. He would be a journey man player while playing pro football. Washington would play for five different teams.
Washington would spend time playing for the Broncos (two seasons), Buffalo Bills (three seasons), San Francisco 49ers(3seasons), Detroit Lions (two seasons), and the New Orleans Saints for one season.
Washington would have his best season in 1976 with the 49ers. He would be named to his only Pro Bowl of his career for his work in the '76 season. After his career Washington was named in 1999 to the Alcorn State Athletic Hall of Fame.
Adalius Thomas: Baltimore Ravens via Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Thomas was one of the best players on some very good Southern Miss teams during his stay in Hattiesburg. He was part of Golden Eagles teams that won three (1996, 1997 and1999) C-USA Championships.
Thomas would put his name in the USM record books for most sacks in a game with 12.5 in 1998 and in a season with 34.5 in his career. He would help USM win two (1997 and 1999) Liberty Bowls and would be named 1999 Liberty Bowl MVP.
Thomas in his four Years at USM would be named to first team Freshman All-American team in 1996. He was a 3 time first team C-USA team from 1997-99, two time C-USA Defensive Player of the Year.
While at USM Thomas would be named first team All-American by various sports outlets. After his career he would be named to the C-USA Team of the Decade, and the USM Team of the Century.
Thomas would be drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 with the 186th pick in the sixth round. He would spend his first three seasons competing for playing time.
In a 2003 preseason game in Atlanta would give notice to the NFL how good Thomas was after he chased down Michael Vick and in tackling him on a scramble and fracturing his right fibula. Thomas would finally brake in to the starting lineup in 2003.
Thomas would be named to the 2003 and 2006 Pro Bowl teams. He would be named first team All-Pro in 2006 as well.
Thomas has played in two Super Bowls. The first with the Raves in 2001 helping them beat the New York Giants. In 2007 Thomas signed with the New England Patriots and came up on the losing end against the Giants.
Patrick Willis: San Francisco 49ers via Ole Miss Rebels
Willis has to be one of the most honored players ever to come out of Ole Miss. He would one bright spot for some very bad Ole Miss teams his final three years.
Even though he played on losing teams Willis was named first team All-American 2005 and 2006. He was first team All-SEC and as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in his junior and senior seasons as well.
Plus Willis won the Conerly Trophy as Mississippi’s best college football player and the Butkus Award and the Jack Lambert Award as the best college linebacker in 2006.
The 49ers used the 11th pick in the first round in 2007 to draft Willis. San Francisco was not disappointed in their selection of Willis.
In his rookie year Willis was named the A.P. NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and in his two years in the NFL has been named to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro both seasons. Willis should barring major injury continue building upon a stellar career for years to come.
Larry Grantham: New York Jets via Ole Miss Rebels
Grantham played for the Rebels at the same time as Johnny Brewer and was part of the 1959 team that lays claim to a National Championship. He played for Ole Miss from 1957-59 and was one of the best players on both offense and defense. He was named All-SEC in 1958 and 1959.
The Baltimore Colts drafted Grantham in the 15th round with the 178th overall pick. Grantham instead decided to play for the New York Jets who drafted him in 1960.
Grantham would play for the Jets for 13 seasons. He would see the Jets start out as the Titians and change to the Jets. He would see the start of the AFL and the merger to the NFL.
Grantham would be named to five (1962-64, 1966, and 1969) Pro Bowls and select to five (1960-64) All-Pro teams. During his time with the Jets Grantham would call the defensive plays and help New York make the playoffs in 1968 and 1969. He would start all but 3 games in his pro football career.
The 1969 Jets team would upset the Colts of the NFL who also drafted Grantham in Super Bowl III. Grantham is best known for taking the game ball from the official after the upset and jumping up and down with it.
He is only one of 20 players to play for the same team all 10 years the AFL was in existence and one of only seven players to play for the same team while with the AFL.
After his career Grantham was elected to the Ole Miss Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995 and was named to the Team of the Century in 1993. He would be elected in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
Joe Fortunato: Chicago Bears via Mississippi State Bulldogs
Fortunato is considered to be one of the best linebackers to ever play for Mississippi State. He began his career at VMI but did not like it there. When assistant coach Slick Morton got the head coaching job for the bulldogs Fortunato transferred to MSU.
He played from 1950-52 and was named All-American in 1951. Fortunato was also named All-SEC in 1951 and 1952. Fortunato was part of one of the biggest wins in MSU history. The Bulldogs 7-0 win over the 1950 National Championship Tennessee team and their only loss.
The Chicago Bears selected Fortunato in 1952 in the seventh round with the 80th pick. He would play for the Bears for 12 years. Fortunato would play for Chicago from 1955 to 1966 at outside linebacker.
During his time with the Bears Fortunato would be named to five (1958, 1962-65) Pro Bowls and three (1963-65) first Team All-Pro. He would help Chicago to three playoff appearances. He would also become the Bears defensive coordinator in 1968.
After his career Fortunato would be named to the 1950’s All-Decade Team in 1965. He would be elected in to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.
Robert Brazile: Houston Oilers via Jackson State Tigers
Brazile played with super talented Jackson State teams that featured Jerome Barkum, Jackie Slater and Walter Payton. He still is third in the JSU record books for interceptions with 21. Brazile was named first team All-SWAC in 1974.
The Houston Oilers were able to draft Brazile after a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs were able to acquire John Matuszak and the Oilers received Curley Culp and the sixth overall pick in the 1975 draft.
Houston used that first round and 6th overall pick to draft Brazile in the 1975 draft. The main reason the Oilers drafted him was because of Bum Phillips who was switching the defense from the 4-3 to the 3-4.
Brazile would show he was a perfect fit for the outside linebacker position in the 3-4. He was even named the 1975 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year he was such a good fit in Phillips defensive scheme.
Earning the nickname “Dr. Doom” Brazile would be selected to seven (1976-1982) Pro Bowls and two (1978 and 1979) first team All-Pro. He even helped the Oilers reach two AFC Championship games in 78 and 79 as well.
After losing in the post season in 1980 Phillips was fired by owner Bud Adams. Houston entered several seasons of losing that many thought made Brazile suddenly retire in 1984. Later, he would say the death of his wife, Cookie, in a car crash that made him decide to retire.
Brazile would be named to the NFL’s All 1970’s Team and is the only linebacker named to the team that is not in the Hall of Fame. He would also be named to All-Time Black College Football Team in 1993 and in 2007 to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
While the case could be made for both Larry Grantham and Joe Fortunato enshrinement to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for their pro career Brazile could have an even better case.
While most cite Lawrence Taylor as the proto-type outside linebacker to rush the quarterback some including Phillips think that Brazile made the 3-4 popular. Brazile was not only good at rushing the quarterback he was very good in pass defense as well.
Many think Brazile has been over looked for Hall of Fame selection being over shadowed by other linebackers of his era. Brazile should be in the hall for a great playing career that brought the 3-4 defenses into popularity.
That concludes our look at linebackers who came from Mississippi universities that went on to have great pro football careers. Next we will look at the best players to ever play in NFL secondaries from the state of Mississippi.
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