Steve McNair, Alcorn State
McNair was an all-state prep selection in Mississippi and probably could’ve gone to a bigger school if he had been willing to play defensive back. But he chose Alcorn State so he could play quarterback. A Heisman finalist in 1994 and the third overall pick by Houston in 1995, he made three Pro Bowls and nearly guided the Titans to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Walter Payton, Jackson State
Not recruited by any SEC schools, Payton chose to go where older brother Eddie went. The fourth overall pick by the Bears in 1975, he was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher until Emmitt Smith broke his record.
Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State
Rice grew up 20 minutes from Mississippi State but was never recruited by the Bulldogs. So the wide receiver went to Mississippi Valley State and became, arguably, the best small-school player in NFL history and just maybe the greatest football player of all time.
Howie Long, Villanova
Long could have gone to Boston College but turned down that offer to play at Villanova. He made a name for himself by being MVP of the Blue-Gray game in 1980. A second-round pick of the Raiders in 1981, Long went on to become an eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end and a Hall of Famer.
Doug Williams, Grambling
A native of Louisiana, Williams decided to play for legendary coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling. Drafted 17th overall by the Bucs in 1978, Williams led the young team to three playoff appearances. Later with the Redskins, he became the only African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl, earning game MVP honors.
Deacon Jones, South Carolina State/Mississippi Vocational College
Jones went to two small schools, playing three years at S.C. State before losing his scholarship after he took part in a civil rights sit-in then moving on to what later became Mississippi Valley State. A 14th-round draft pick, Jones was a member of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome and one of the greatest defensive linemen ever.
Art Shell, Maryland State
Today, the school is known as Maryland Eastern Shore, and its most famous alumni are Shell and Bruce Springsteen‘s saxophonist, Clarence Clemons. Shell played in eight Pro Bowls and is considered one of the greatest offensive linemen ever.
Phil Simms, Morehead State
Little-known fact: The 49ers had Simms rated ahead of Joe Montana in the 1979 draft and figured he would slip to the third round. Instead, the Giants surprised everyone by taking Simms with the seventh overall pick. The quarterback was the MVP of Super Bowl XXI.
Kurt Warner, Northern Iowa
Warner was a third-stringer at Northern Iowa until his senior season. Undrafted, Warner bounced around the Arena Football League and NFL Europe before becoming one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, winning two MVP awards and starting in three Super Bowls, winning one.
Terrell Owens, Tennessee-Chattanooga
T.O. is one of the NFL’s most controversial figures, but the guy can play. He is a five-time All-Pro wide receiver and a six-time Pro Bowl player.
Other famous small-school players
Michael Strahan (Texas Southern), Larry Allen (Sonoma State), Andre Reed (Kutztown University), Darrell Green (Texas A&I), Adam Vinatieri (South Dakota)