JACKSON, Miss. -- Mississippi isn't home to an NFL team and
hasn't had a national college football champion in decades, but on
Friday the state was named America's best in the sport.
The honor, a glass football statue, came from USA Football, a
nonprofit organization founded in 2002 by the National Football
League and the NFL Player's Association.
Some of Mississippi's greatest sports heroes, including Archie
Manning, L.C. Greenwood and Hugh Green, were at the state Capitol
when Gov. Haley Barbour accepted the award.
While there are few who would dispute that Mississippi produces
first-class players, USA Football executive director Scott
Hallenbeck knows he'll have to justify the award to fans in Texas,
Kansas and Florida.
"That's a fair point. That's why we tried to make sure we set
up this great equalizer on a per capita basis," Hallenbeck said.
"Mississippi, because it was such a great football state, and you
can see the incredible talent that comes out of this state ... is
justification in and of itself."
Hallenbeck said USA Football chose Mississippi after a
state-by-state analysis measured the per capita percentage of fans
interested in collegiate and professional football, number of NFL
players who hail from Mississippi and the percentage of lettered
high school football players.
"Football is huge part of Mississippi," Barbour said at the
news conference held at the state Capitol. "It is part of our
spirit. It is our passion."
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, whose team wrapped up
preseason training Friday at Millsaps College in Jackson, said
practicing in Mississippi, under the sweltering heat, is "going to
help us produce a great football team."
The award comes a day before the Saints play against the
Indianapolis Colts at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium near
the college campus.
Manning, a former star player for the Saints and whose son
Peyton Manning is quarterback for the Colts, didn't say who he
would cheer for since it's a preseason game.
"I got to tell you, if it was a regular-season game ... I'm
going for the Colts," said Manning. "I've got three favorite
teams these days, the Colts, Giants and the Saints."
Manning's other son, Eli, is quarterback for the New York
Manning said that on a national scale Mississippi isn't
considered in the same league as other states, including
Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.
"It's kind of a secret that Mississippians have always known,
that we've turned out players here," said Manning. "It all goes
back to the coaches. It's not just about turning out NFL players,
it's about turning out good people and making men out of boys."
USA Football is a national youth football advocacy group that
provides support to youth leagues across the nation. The
organization on Friday announced that it will award $500,000 in
equipment grants to youth teams across the country.
Benson said that the Saints will match the grant funds.
USA Football gave a $1,000 grant check to the Northwest Rankin
Athletic Association on Friday. The amount will now double thanks
to the Saints' match.