HBCU Sports

We rank ’em: The Top 25 HBCU athletes of all time

Althea Gibson, Jerry Rice and Earl the Pearl, Sweetness represent the best of HBCU athleticism

Some of our greatest athletes have come from historically black colleges and universities. These male and female athletes honed their skills at HBCUs in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field.

These 25 HBCU athletes, many of them among the greatest athletes of all time, have carved out a special niche in their sports.

Charles Oakley Virginia Union

Forward Charles Oakley led Virginia Union to the 1985 CIAA championship. The Panthers had a 31-1 overall record that year, with Oakley averaging 24 points and 17.3 rebounds a game. Oakley was named the NCAA Division II Player of the Year. He scored 2,379 points and grabbed 1,642 rebounds in his college career.

In 1985, he was the first-round pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he was quickly traded to the Chicago Bulls. Oakley played for the Bulls, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets in his 18 NBA seasons.

John Taylor Delaware State

John Taylor was named to All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference teams from 1983-85. At wide receiver, Taylor had great speed and the ability to make catches in heavy traffic. He was a good punt returner too. He had 100 receptions for 2,426 yards and 33 touchdowns with the Hornets. In 1985, he was named the MEAC Player of the Year.

Taylor was a third-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 1986. He had a 10-year career with the 49ers. A member of three Super Bowl championship teams, Taylor had a memorable performance in Super Bowl XXII, where he caught the winning touchdown pass to beat the Cincinnati Bengals.

Shannon Sharpe Savannah State

Tight end Shannon Sharpe was a three-time All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selection and a three-time Black College All-American. In 1987, Sharpe was a seventh-round pick of the Denver Broncos. He played nine seasons for the Broncos, including two Super Bowl champion teams. The three-time Pro Bowler played two seasons (2000-01) with the Baltimore Ravens, helping them win a Super Bowl as well. After that, he came back to play for Denver until 2003. Sharpe, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, has 815 catches for 10,060 yards and 69 touchdowns.

Rick Mahorn Hampton University

Rick Mahorn was a three-time NAIA All-American, averaging 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds a game during his college career. The 6-foot-10 center played 18 seasons in the NBA. In 1989, he helped the Detroit Pistons win the NBA championship. Mahorn was known as one of the baddest Pistons’ “Bad Boys.” He was infamous for his ability to wreak havoc on the court and his physical tenacity.

Johnny Sample Maryland State (Now Maryland, Eastern Shore)

Johnny Sample led Maryland State to an overall 28-1-1 record and helped the Hawks capture two CIAA championships.

In 1957, Sample, a defensive back, was named to the Little All-American team and to the All-CIAA team. He was the first black college player to play in the College All-Star Game. He played 11 seasons of professional football for the Baltimore Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins and New York Jets. He is the only football player to win NFL, AFL and Super Bowl championships. The five-time All-Pro selection played from 1958 to 1969.

Yolanda Laney Cheyney University

Yolanda Laney helped to put women’s HBCU basketball on the national map. Laney played guard for Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer at Cheyney State. She and teammate Valerie Walker led the 1982 Lady Wolves to their first-ever NCAA women’s basketball championship game. Cheyney lost to Louisiana Tech, 76-62, in the national title game. In 1984, Laney was named to the Kodak All-American team as a guard.

Steve McNair Alcorn State

Steve McNair could do it all at quarterback. A three-time first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference standout, McNair carried the Braves to a 8-3 record in 1993 while amassing 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. He set career FCS records with 14,496 passing yards along with the division mark for total offensive yards with 16,283 yards.

In 1995, he was taken with the third selection overall by the Houston Oilers in the NFL draft. McNair played 12 seasons in the NFL for the Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens. In 1999, he led the Titans to the Super Bowl.

Willis Reed Grambling State

Center Willis Reed led Grambling State to three Southwestern Athletic Conference championships as well as a 1961 NAIA crown. He averaged 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds a game his senior year. Reed tallied 2,280 points and 1,851 rebounds in his college career. The 6-foot-10, 240-pounder went on to have a great NBA career with the New York Knicks, including an NBA championship in 1970.

Cleo Hill Winston-Salem State

Guard Cleo Hill had a great outside shot, and he could get to the basket, too. Hill was the first big-time player to play for Hall of Fame coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines. As a senior guard, he averaged 26.7 points a game for the Rams. He completed his college career with 2,488 points. In 1961, he was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Hawks.

Aeneas Williams Southern University

Aeneas Williams didn’t play football at Southern until his junior year. Although he got a late start, he emerged as a marvelous defensive player. He played cornerback and free safety, and in 1991 he was drafted by the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals in the third round. Williams played for the Cardinals from 1991-2000. He was traded to the St. Louis Rams in 2001, leading them to an appearance in the Super Bowl that year. He played for 14 years in the NFL and finished with 55 interceptions. In 2014, Williams was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mike Davis Virginia Union

Mike Davis is the all-time leading scorer at Virginia Union with 2,758 points. Davis, a standout in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), averaged 36.3 points a game during the 1967-68 season. In 1969, he was named the Player of the Year. He’s the second all-time leading scorer in the CIAA behind Earl Monroe. Davis, a guard, was a first-round pick of the Baltimore Bullets. In 1970, he was named to the NBA All-Rookie team.

Lou Brock Southern University

Lou Brock was a handful on the basepaths for pitchers and catchers on most major league baseball teams. With his speed and anticipation, Brock stole an incredible 938 bases in his 19-year major league career. He held the career record until it was broken by Rickey Henderson in 1991.

Brock played baseball at Southern before the Chicago Cubs signed him as an amateur free agent. He played center field and right field for the Cubs from 1962-64.

In 1964, the Cubs traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, where Brock became a six-time All-Star. He led the Cardinals to World Series championships in 1964 and 1967. He finished his career with a .293 batting average, 3,023 hits and 900 RBIs. In 1985, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Dick Barnett Tennessee State

Dick Barnett had a classic left-handed jump shot and a great touch from the outside. He is Tennessee State’s all-time leading scorer with 3,209 points. A three-time Little All-America selection at guard, Barnett led the Tigers to three consecutive NAIA championships (1957-59). As an NBA standout, he helped the New York Knicks win the league championship in 1970.

Buck Buchanan Grambling State

Buck Buchanan was an NAIA All-American at defensive end. He had the ability to rush the passer and play the run. He starred for the Tigers from 1959 to 1963. He was the first HBCU player selected as the No. 1 overall choice in a pro football draft when the Kansas City Chiefs selected him first in the 1963 AFL draft. In 1990, Buchanan was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Andre Dawson Florida A&M

Florida A&M has produced a lot of great baseball players over the years. Andre Dawson is one of them. In 1975, he was an 11th-round pick of the Montreal Expos in the free-agent draft. He spent two seasons in the minors before to coming up to the Expos in 1977, winning National League Rookie of the Year honors. Dawson won eight Gold Gloves as an outfielder and made eight appearances in the All-Star Game, retiring after the 1996 season with a .279 batting average, 438 home runs, 2,774 hits and 1,591 RBIs. Dawson played for the Montreal Expos, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and the Florida Marlins in his 21-year baseball career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Althea Gibson Florida A&M

Althea Gibson, a product of Florida A&M University, became the first African-American woman to win a singles tennis championship at Wimbledon. She won the 1947 National Negro Women’s singles title. In 1950, she was the first African-American to compete in the U.S. singles championship at Forest Hills, New York. Gibson won several international tennis tournaments and captured the 1956 French Open championship. She was also a talented golfer. In 1963, she became a trailblazer for African-American women by joining the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

Sam Jones North Carolina Central

Sam Jones could really knock down the bank shot and was a terrific basketball player with the game on the line. He played for Hall of Fame coach John McLendon. Jones scored 1,770 points in his career at North Carolina Central. He was a brilliant NBA player with the Boston Celtics and won 10 NBA titles from 1959-69.

Michael Strahan Texas Southern

Michael Strahan was a two-time Southwestern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year at Texas Southern as a defensive end. He holds the school record with 41.5 sacks. In 1993, Strahan was a second-round pick of the New York Giants. He set the NFL record for 22.5 sacks in one season in 2001. Strahan led the Giants to a Super Bowl championship over the New England Patriots in the 2007-08 season. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

Bob Hayes Florida A&M

Bob Hayes was a magnificent Olympic sprinter who was also a great wide receiver. Hayes was a track and field and football star at Florida A&M, where he played football for legendary head coach Jake Gaither. In 1964, he won the 100 meters at the Olympics in Tokyo. That same year he was an eighth-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys. Hayes played 11 seasons with the Cowboys and one with the San Francisco 49ers (1975). The three-time Pro Bowler had 371 receptions for 7,414 yards and 71 touchdowns. In 2009, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Walter Payton Jackson State

Walter Payton played 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears. Payton, nicknamed “Sweetness,” was a great all-around running back and rewrote the NFL record books, amassing 16,726 yards and 110 touchdowns on 3,838 carries. Payton also caught 492 passes for 4,538 yards and 15 touchdowns. In 1985, he broke Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record of 12,312 yards. He also led the Bears to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl championship.

Payton was a big-time player at Jackson State, gaining 3,563 yards in his college career. He scored an NCAA-record 464 points on 66 touchdowns, five field goals and 53 extra points. In 1975, Payton was a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears.

Jerry Rice Mississippi Valley State

Jerry Rice had an unbelievable football career at Mississippi Valley State. Rice, a brilliant wide receiver, played for a high-powered offense under head coach Archie Cooley and quarterback Willie Totten. They brought national attention to the Delta Devils’ football program.

He totaled 4,693 yards and set NCAA Division I-AA records during his four years. He was an All-American with 100 receptions in his junior and senior seasons. In 1984, he compiled 1,845 yards and scored 28 touchdowns. Rice was a 1985 first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers. He played from 1985 to 2000 with the 49ers, leading them to three Super Bowl championships. Rice also played with the Oakland Raiders and the Seattle Seahawks. He finished his pro career with 1,549 receptions, 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns. In 2010, Rice was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Edwin Moses Morehouse College

Edwin Moses received an academic scholarship at Morehouse, where he was a physics major. In 1976, Moses landed a spot on the Olympic track team. He set a world record of 47.64 in winning the 400-meter hurdles. For more than decade, he didn’t lose a race in the 400-meter hurdles. In 1984, he won a gold medal in the Olympics in Los Angeles and had won 107 consecutive races before L.A. silver medalist Danny Harris upset him in Madrid in 1987. Moses would get 10 more consecutive wins for a total of 117 victories in 119 starts.

Wilma Rudolph Tennessee State

Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. She earned gold medals in the 100 meters, clocking 11 seconds, and the 200 meters with an Olympic-record time of 23.2 seconds. She anchored the world record-setting 400-meter relay (44.4 seconds).

Before becoming an Olympic champion, she ran track for Ed Temple’s Tiger Belles at Tennessee State. Rudolph overcame polio as a youngster to become a track and field star.

Earl Monroe Winston-Salem State

Earl Monroe, a Philadelphia basketball legend and Hall of Famer, thrilled the fans at Winston-Salem State. Monroe, a guard, averaged 41.5 points a game his senior year. He connected on 16 of 30 shots for 40 points as Winston-Salem State defeated Southwest Missouri State, 77-74, in the 1967 NCAA College Division championship. Monroe was named the NCAA College Division Player of the Year. He played for Hall of Fame coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines at Winston-Salem State.

Monroe, who was nicknamed “Earl the Pearl,” was a first-round pick of the Baltimore Bullets in 1967 and became Rookie of the Year. He played his first four seasons with the Bullets and in 1971 was traded to the New York Knicks, where he joined Walt Frazier in the backcourt to help the Knicks win an NBA title.

Doug Williams Grambling State

Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to lead his team to a win in the Super Bowl. In 1988, Williams guided the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. He threw for 340 yards and four touchdowns in that win while picking up MVP honors.

Before that sensational accomplishment, Williams starred at Grambling State playing for legendary head coach Eddie Robinson. In 1977, he was a first-team All-American. He led the Tigers to three Southwestern Athletic Conference championships, throwing for a career total of 8,411 yards and 93 touchdowns. In 1978, Williams was a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played nine seasons in the NFL and two years in the United States Football League.

Honorable Mentions
  • Ben Wallace (Virginia Union, basketball)
  • Charlie Joiner (Grambling State, football)
  • Marquis Grissom (Florida A&M, baseball)
  • John Stallworth (Alabama A&M, football)
  • Bobby Dandridge (Norfolk State, basketball)

Liner Notes

All images except Yolanda Laney from Getty Images. Yolanda Laney from AP Photos.

Donald Hunt, a writer for the Philadelphia Tribune, is a longtime ESPN contributor who has covered Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Follow him on Twitter at @DHUNTTRIB.