Despite their athletic contributions and the joy they bring to their respective universities, most Historically Black College University (HBCU) American football players often go unnoticed when it comes to getting an opportunity to compete at the professional level. So the question is, why are these hidden gems going unfound? One reason HBCU players tend to go under the radar is the misconception that they cannot compete at a professional level.
Over the past few decades; there have been a long list of HBCU players who have flourished in the National Football League (NFL), played in and won Super Bowls;, whilst earning Hall of Fame careers. Examples of such players include legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice, who is considered amongst many one of the greatest wide receivers (Mississippi Valley State), defensive end Michael Strahan (Texas Southern), the late great quarterback Steve McNair (Alcorn State) , defensive end Richard Dent (Tennessee State a player on one of the greatest teams in NFL history- The 1985 Chicago Bears) and the late great Running Back Walter “Sweetness” Payton (Jackson State University), who was all time leading rusher in the NFL. Still, HBCUs continue to be largely shunned by the NFL.
In 1994, 17 HBCU players were drafted for the 1994-95 NFL season. The numbers have steadily declined since then. In 2000, there were only 13 players and less than 10 a year since then. The reduction in the number of draft rounds for players to be selected is a probable reason. For example, the 1980 NFL Draft consisted of 12 rounds with 333 players selected, compare that to 7 rounds with 256 players selected in the modern day draft. Another reason these players go undiscovered is due to the lack of and inconsistent amount of sports media coverage they receive, however this is slowly but surely changing.
In recent years, HBCU schools on the Football Championship Subdivision level (FCS or formerly known as Division IAA) have been fortunate to showcase their talents at the national level. Games such as the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference) vs. SWAC (South-West Atlantic Conference game) which is aired on ESPN2 along with other HBCUs throughout the college football season are televised on supplemental television networks for ESPN & CBS like ESPNU. The annual Bayou Classic that features Grambling State vs. Southern University also airs on NBC. There’s even a bowl game now; In March 2015, ‘ESPN events’ announced at the College Football Hall of Fame the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, a postseason College Football game featuring the champions of the SWAC and MEAC conferences. The game is played in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome on the first Saturday of the bowl season. ABC network aired the inaugural game featuring North Carolina A&T Aggies vs. Alcorn State Braves and along with 30,000+ in the GA Dome, 2.56 million people tuned in around the country. Last year, those numbers increased as 2.71 million people tuned in to see Grambling State take on North Carolina Central compete and also see the pride, pageantry, pride, majestic atmosphere and historic tradition of HBCUs.
January 15th & 16th , 2017 will be remembered as historic weekend for not only celebrating the 88th birthday of Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but for having the 1st annual “HBCU Spirit of America” & the 5th annual “Dream Bowl” football games. There were over 200 players that participated in both All Star games, including 110 coming from HBCUs from the FCS and Division II level. Some of the players made their debut nationally as both games were televised and web-streamed on Comcast SportsNet Network. Making the most of this opportunity from these games was 4th annual Dream Bowl standout, former Grambling State and now, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Chester Rogers. Daniel Lococo, VP of Player Relations & Director of Football Operations for Cutting Edge Sports Management, one of the sponsors & creator of the games explained what inspired him to provide the platform for these players. He said, “There is a ton of talent outside of the FBS (Football Subdivision) level of college football. You don’t have to play in the big conferences to be able to play pro football.” Lastly, he wanted to create an avenue to reach their dreams and get the attention they have earned through the blood, sweat, and tears.
Athletes at any level who have put in serious time and sacrifice deserve a shot playing at the next level. There are factors that go into why most HBCU players and other Division II athletes are shunned, but there are cases where those factors should be put to the side. There are hidden gems that scouts and head coaches of professional teams look past, who just may be that diamond in the rough. As former Grambling State great and Former Washington Redskins Quarterback Doug Williams, who is the only Black QB to win a Super Bowl put it, “I think what we have to do is don’t judge the school. We’ve got to start judging the player. It’s all about opportunity.”
By Jamal Clarke
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