Starting tonight, hundreds of professional football hopefuls will wait to hear if they are one of the 253 players whose names will be called in the 2012 NFL Draft.
The conventional story, fueled by Hollywood's Friday Night Lights myth-making, is of the kid making it to the pros from small rural southern towns. The myth is so powerful even NFL executives, coaches, and scouts buy into it. Buffalo Bills GM Buddy Nix recently told reporters:
The reason we go south is we go where the players are ...
Football is a way of life down there. Where you get a guy, let's just go back to high school quickly. In some areas you got four coaches in the high school that teach class all day and they don't make a lot of money. Then you go to Texas or down south and you'll have 12 coaches. None of them teach and they make good money and get a good car once a year to drive.
All this raises the question: Where do today’s NFL players actually come from?
It’s an empirical question – one that can be answered with data. To get at it, I turned to Martin Prosperity Institute alumnus and UCLA doctoral student Patrick Adler, who tracked data on the cities and metros of birth for the 1,846 NFL players who were on the preseason rosters for NFL teams during the 2010 season, using team media guides and data on nfl.com.
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While it is true that the South has historically been the place of origin for the largest share of NFL players, its dominance appears to be waning, according to the chart above. The chart shows the birth year of every 2010 NFL player, and the share of Southern players born in 1987 (read: the youngest) is at its lowest point ever, while the share of NFL players from nearly every other region except the Midwest is on the rise for the younger generation of NFL players.
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The map above by Zara Matheson of the MPI (based on the Adler's data) charts the metros of origin for NFL players. Large metros dominate in terms of total player production. Los Angeles leads the way with 114 players, followed by Miami (73), New York (55), Houston (44), and Chicago (39). Rounding out the top 10 are Dallas (38), San Francisco (35), Atlanta (34), and Washington, D.C. (34); Detroit and New Orleans are tied for 10th, each with 29. The map below shows the flow of players from their high-school to college to the pros.
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Some of this is simple statistics: large metros have more players simply because they are more heavily populated. The third map, directly above, shows the leading metros for NFL player production per 100,000 people. Now small southern metros do much better. Here we can see an NFL player production belt that runs from North Carolina thorough Louisiana to Texas.
Jackson, Mississippi, comes out on top with roughly 35 players per 100,000, followed by Jacksonville, Florida (27); Monroe, Louisiana (20); Lexington, Kentucky (15); Canton, Ohio (11); Lafayette, Louisiana (6); Pine Bluff, Arkansas (4); Athens, Georgia (4); Midland, Texas (3); and Billings, Montana (3) round out the top 10. Of the large metro areas, New Orleans was 16th with 2.5 players per 100,000. Miami is 32nd in player production, Los Angeles is 47th and New York is even further back at 110th.
No discussion of where NFL players come from would be complete without a closer look into where pro football's field generals – its quarterbacks – hail from. After all, teams are willing to invest millions in their star quarterbacks.
This year's top two draft picks are likely to go for quarterbacks. With Peyton Manning headed to Denver, the Indianapolis Colts are expected to use their first pick on Stanford's Andrew Luck. The Washington Redskins will reportedly use their second pick, which they traded for, to acquire Baylor's Robert Griffin III, who they hope will be the face of the franchise for years to come.
The South is noted for producing great quarterbacks. Texas is said to be a veritable “breeding ground" for NFL quarterbacks, having produced Griffin and Ryan Tannehill, both of whom are expected to go in the first round this year, as well as greats from Sammy Baugh to Drew Brees. Louisiana spawned the Manning brothers and Terry Bradshaw. Brett Favre hails from Mississippi and Bart Starr grew up in Alabama. That said, many greats - from Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath to Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino hail from the hard-scrabble industrial towns of Western Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh.
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The South has less of an edge in QBs than it does in overall players, according to Adler's analysis. It is tied with the Pacific as the place of origin for roughly 30 percent of NFL quarterbacks. This compares to the South's 44 percent share of all NFL players. Eighteen percent of NFL quarterbacks hail from the Midwest, 16 percent from the Northeast, and just 4 percent from the Mountain states. QB is the only position where the South doesn't command a clear plurality of players.
When it comes to metros, QBs reflect the same pattern as NFL players broadly. Los Angeles leads with 10 quarterbacks (11 percent of the total share), followed by San Francisco with five (5 percent). The greater Pittsburgh area stands reasonably true to its legend with four (4 percent). New York and Seattle each have three (3 percent of the total). Austin, Columbus, Knoxville, Louisville, Mobile, New Orleans, and San Diego account for two quarterbacks each.
Again, it makes sense that places with large populations will also produce a high number of quarterbacks, so Adler again controlled for population, looking at quarterback production per 100,000 people.
The ranking changes, but not as much as for NFL players overall. Now Mobile, Alabama, leads with 0.49 QBs per 100,000, followed by Knoxville (0.29), New Orleans (0.17), Pittsburgh (0.17), Louisville (0.16), Austin (0.13), San Francisco (0.12), Columbus (0.11), Seattle (0.09), and Los Angeles (0.08).
When it comes to NFL players, the bottom line is this: Just as America is a metro nation (with 84 percent of its population hailing from metro areas), football is a metro sport. Nearly 8 in 10 NFL players come from metros. And more than half (53 percent) were born in the nation's 50 largest metros.
While high school football reigns supreme in small towns and rural communities on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, the NFL stars we watch on TV hail disproportionately from large metro areas.
Top image: Reuters/Joshua Lott