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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Who has The Best College football In The Nation?

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 Giants.

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.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press


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