Dent travels football road from Vicksburg Gator to hall of famer|[5/14/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 15, 2006

In high school, Kevin Dent played out of position and was overlooked. In the NFL, he wasn’t quite good enough to make a roster.

In the middle, however, on the college level, Dent was one of the all-time greats.

Dent, who starred at Vicksburg High and Jackson State, was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame last week. He is the first player from Vicksburg to be picked for the hall, and one of only three from Jackson State. Walter Payton and Willie Richardson are the others.

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“I really don’t think about the hall of fame when you’re 17 or 18 years old. You’re thinking about winning,” said Dent, who will turn 39 later this month and now lives in Jackson.

Dent was a winner, both at Vicksburg and Jackson State.

In high school, he played quarterback and safety for the Gators. In three seasons as a starter, he threw for 1,817 yards and 17 touchdowns while leading VHS to a 23-9 record.

Dent also intercepted five passes during his senior season – when the Gators were 10-2 and ranked No. 1 in the state for a time – and learned the intricacies of the passing game from playing nearly every down on both sides of the ball.

“He was one of those guys that was on top of his game. He didn’t make any mistakes,” said Alonzo Stevens, the defensive coordinator at VHS during Dent’s high school career. “He was a true student of the game. You couldn’t fool him.

“He was calm, collected, and ran the offense for us … He was the difference in four or five wins his senior year.”

Somehow, college scouts overlooked Dent. He was recruited by several Southwestern Athletic Conference schools but no big-time programs. Then again, in those days the SWAC was hardly without talent.

Mississippi Valley State was coming off some of its best seasons, with a high-flying passing attack and a record-setting receiver named Jerry Rice. Rice, coincidentally, will enter the College Hall of Fame this summer along with Dent.

Grambling State, coached by Eddie Robinson, was always tough in those days and Alcorn State had some good teams. And Jackson State, where Dent ultimately decided to go, had produced its own share of legends. The memories of future Pro Football Hall of Famers Payton and Jackie Slater were still fresh in everyone’s mind when Dent arrived on campus in the spring of 1985.

“I had to grow as a competitor and get better. I went to the right school and everything fell into place,” Dent said, adding that his first set of practices made him realize how much he had to improve. “You have to grow up fast once you get to college. They run faster, they hit harder, work longer, and that first spring really opened my eyes up.”

Dent took it all in, though, and cracked the starting lineup midway through his freshman season in 1985. He never left.

Over the next four seasons he intercepted 21 passes, leading the team twice, and became the school’s only three-time All-America selection. He was also named the SWAC’s Defensive Player of the Year twice, and his career interception total is still among the top 25 all-time in NCAA history.

In his sophomore season, Dent tied for the Division I-AA lead with 10 interceptions and returned two for touchdowns. Opponents started throwing away from him in 1987, but he still managed to pick off a team-high six passes and make 70 tackles.

And, most importantly, Jackson State was winning. In Dent’s four seasons, from 1985-88, the Tigers won three SWAC championships (1986, ‘87 and ‘88) and were a staggering 27-1 in conference play.

“What I accomplished on the field, nobody can take away from me,” Dent said. “I think I had quite a few good years there.”

Unfortunately, Dent’s success wasn’t appreciated by the NFL. He was not selected in the 1989 draft and signed a free agent contract with the Phoenix Cardinals. They cut him during training camp, and he never played a down of professional football.

“I went in as a free agent and didn’t make it. That was hurtful. That was my childhood dream, was to play in the NFL,” Dent said.

So Dent returned to Mississippi and set out on his life’s path. Nearly 20 years later, he was nominated for the college hall of fame and last week he received a letter informing him that he had been selected to the hall’s Divisional Class of 2006. The Divisional Class recognizes players and coaches from NCAA Divisions I-AA, II, III, and the NAIA.

Dent will join Rice and 18 other honorees in South Bend, Ind., for the hall of fame induction ceremonies Aug. 11-12.

“They sent me a letter FedEx. It was a big shock. When I opened it up and read it, I was speechless,” Dent said. “It was something I never thought I’d accomplish … This puts the icing on the cake right here.”