By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS)—If there wasn’t a Division I-AA level, or what today is called the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), who knows where Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and Buck Buchanan would have wound up.
The three all-time greats played at an underappreciated level of college football. If it wasn’t for the opportunity afforded Payton at Jackson State, Rice at Mississippi Valley State and Buchanan at Grambling, would all three ever eventually wear the yellow jacket of the NFL Hall of Fame?
Rice was there again Monday for the FCS annual award dinner, sponsored by the Sports Network, at the Society Hill Sheraton to present the next batch of FCS hopefuls to make an impact at the pro level.
Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp was the recipient of the Jerry Rice Award, given to the best FCS freshman in the nation, while Montana State’s Brad Daly earned the Buchanan Award. The finalists up for the Walter Payton, considered the Heisman Trophy at the FCS level, were Towson State running back Terrance West, Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams.
Towson and West will be facing Adams and Eastern Washington in the FCS semifinals this Saturday (while the other game is North Dakota State vs. New Hampshire).
“The FCS I’m proud to be a part of it, and honored to come back and support this,” Rice, the Hall of Famer, said. “The years I put in at Mississippi Valley State are something I’ll never forget. What I was able to learn and accomplish on the football field is something you can’t believe. You can touch so many lives to be able to speak to these young men and the lives they impacted. I got letters from all the major division schools, but Mississippi Valley State is the only one to come and watch me. It proves it’s a great level.
“If you have the work ethic, and you have the dedication, they’re going to find you. I was able to bring so much attention back to Mississippi Valley State with what I was to accomplish with my work ethic. I cannot believe that this country boy from Mississippi has gone on to Mississippi Valley, go on to the San Francisco 49ers, go on to win Super Bowls and then go on to the Hall of Fame. It started there at that level of football. I sometimes have to pinch myself where it’s all taken me.”
Jim Tressel was also there at the dinner. Tressel won four Division I-AA national titles while coaching Youngstown State, where Ron Jaworski played college football, during his 14-year tenure, spanning 1986-2000.
“We were never called FCS back then, but there was nothing like it, a 16-team tournament each year and it was a battle week after week, after week,” Tressel said. “It’s a special division and it’s a special level of football. It’s a level of football that presents an extraordinary opportunity to show what kids can do. Tonight, we get to award the best of the best and I’m sure they’ll go on and do some good things. In the FCS playoffs, the whole process is what I remember the most. I think Division I will one day end up with a similar model as the FCS. My best guess is that they’ll wind up with four major conferences of 18 to 20 teams and have a championship game out of that group. If someone asked me to design it, that’s how I would do it.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.