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Why is the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic important?

Why is the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic important?

08/31/2019
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Story Courtesy of Cleveland.com

A football game at the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend will pit two out-of-state historically black colleges. But the game's benefits affect the schools off the field while raising awareness for the Black College Football Hall of Fame, which will be formally recognized in a ribbon cutting today, Saturday, Aug. 31. The inaugural Classic is Sunday between Alabama A&M and Morehouse College.

The inaugural Classic being played Sunday in Canton has one of the most unwieldy formal descriptions: The Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic, pitting a pair of HBCUs - Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

But the Classic is bringing a lot more than just a ton of syllables to Canton. Networking, marketing visibility, tradition, academic recruitment and entertainment all will converge even before Alabama A&M and Morehouse College take the field.

What's happening off the field will be as much, if not more, of a focus than what is happening between the yard markers. Tertiary events will take on a lead role, and that's OK with many of those involved.

One of the thousands of people coming in for the game and everything it brings is James “Shack” Harris, the first black quarterback to start a season opener in 1969 with the American Football League's Buffalo Bills, and later the first to start a playoff game. He would play a decade in the NFL.

Harris didn't come from a powerhouse university that automatically counts on post-season bowl appearances. He was out of Grambling State University, a school of a few thousand students in Louisiana.

Despite the pioneering marks he left on the game, his legacy is in part being shaped by what he did 30 years after he retired. In 2009, he and Doug Williams - another pioneering African-American player - started the Black College Football Hall of Fame.

It's rooted in accomplishments of the past so memories of the future can be created.

"We'd talk about our history," he said. "At one time we had some of the best players in the country. We began to think of our coaches and the contribution our schools made for us. We weren't able to attend the majority of white universities at the time. Grambling and other schools gave us an opportunity. We thought it was important to preserve the history of our fine universities."

The names of those who shaped that history form an impressive collection: Walter Payton (Jackson State) has the second most rushing yards in NFL history. Jerry Rice, No. 1 in career receiving yards, and Deacon Jones, a fearsome defensive end, both came out of Mississippi Valley State. Williams earned Super Bowl MVP honors and was from Grambling.

"These names and historical accomplishments go on and on," Harris said. "We thought there was a need to preserve this tradition."

They started in Atlanta, and Harris called Joe Horrigan, former executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, for advice.

"With their vision they invited us to have a permanent home in Canton, and we're excited about it," he said.

Morehouse and Alabama A&M - each more than 600 miles from Canton - are among about 100 HBCUs in the country. The acronym did not come about until the 1960s, but many of the colleges date to the Civil War era. Black students, excluded from university admission, turned to create their own schools.

Harris and Williams' vision grew into the BCFHOF gaining a permanent home at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. About 10 percent of the enshrines in the Pro Football Hall of Fame are from HBCUs. What Harris and Williams created has evolved into expanded educational programming and special events at the Hall, a traveling exhibit, and post-graduate internship opportunities for HBCU graduates.

The Hall of Fame will hold a ribbon-cutting for the BCFHOF at 3:30 p.m. today - Saturday, Aug. 31.

Sunday's game will draw visibility - not just to the schools involved but for the BCFHOF. Its timing fortuitously limits competition for entertainment time and dollars: Ohio State plays Saturday, the Indians are on the road, and the Browns haven't started.

"I think it will bring awareness," Harris said. "So many people are coming into the Hall of Fame who have never heard of it (BCFHOF). The NFL and Cleveland community have been very supportive. I think that visibility adds some credibility. We're hoping, too, that families and schools and students will come and see the game … and some of those students may want to attend some of our schools. It has an educational element as well."

The educational component isn't lost on Aaron O'Brien.

O'Brien, a 35-year-old lawyer, has led Morehouse College's Greater Cleveland alumni chapter for two years.

"I think we're not trying to sell someone on the school. What we're trying to do is raise awareness of another option. I think the school has done a great job of establishing a tradition since 1867."

That tradition includes nationally known figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee as alumni. Locally, Cleveland councilman Basheer Jones and The Rev. Otis Moss Jr. are graduates of the Atlanta college.

"Now it is tough to compete with Ohio State, when kids grow up dreaming and planning to be an Ohio State Buckeye. But there is value in being a Morehouse Maroon Tiger. … At Ohio State, they're more focused on the scoreboard. At Morehouse we're were more focused on the experience and the person in the seat to the left and right of us."

Awareness is critical, O'Brien said, because HBCUs have limited endowment pools to draw from.

"We have 3,000 students who attend the college. We've got 16,000 living alumni on the planet. Some schools graduate 16,000 kids a year. Games like this are vitally important because there's another opportunity to assure survival of these institutions. ... We're dispatching leaders into America on a limited endowment."

O'Brien added the NFL and Hall will glean "the ancillary benefit" of having folks come to town for the game. That's good for everyone, he said.

"There's some duality in terms of the benefit," he said. "I think the hall is making a multi-year bet in bringing the game to Canton."

The hall has committed to hosting Classics in 2020 and 2021 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

"In terms of the HBCU schools, they look at the Classic as major colleges look at bowl games," Harris said. "It's bringing your alumni together where everybody marks it on the calendar and decides to support their team on the road. But it also gets them into a new area in terms of recruiting, getting that name and marketability in the Ohio area. I think it's a win-win for everyone."

Albert Benifield Jr., president of Alabama A&M's National Alumni Association, says academic recruiting "definitely" is a byproduct of the Classic.

"We get a lot students from the Ohio-Michigan area," Benifield, said. "I think what is probably happening you’ve had families that over the years have migrated up and they still have relatives down south. So they tend to want to send their kids down south to get that education. The south has a lot of HBCUs, and people tend to want to send their kids there because of the nurturing there."

The university, which Benifield said has more than 6,000 students, has about 30,000 to 40,000 living alumni. He said many of the local alumni are unable to travel back to Alabama for games and events, but they are sponsoring bus trips to go to Canton, he said. And that's solid exposure for the university.

Alabama A&M is well versed in exposure through football. The school plays Alabama State in the Magic City Classic, an annual rivalry matchup in Birmingham that is the largest game between HBCUs.

Harris, who was scheduled to travel Friday to Canton, wants to experience as much as he can - the music, entertainment and game.

"People don’t go to halftime and leave," he said. "They stay and watch the bands."

In the end it's about more than a game and more than the pageantry.

As O'Brien said, "The game is great - there'll be shoulder pads cracking - but it’s about the people."

More info

A drumline and dance competition is noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, at Canton Memorial Field House, 2323 17th St. NW, Canton. A tailgate party is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the hall's campus. The schools' bands will play on the campus before the game and at halftime, and Morris Day & The Time will perform a post-game concert. For complete schedule and ticket info go online.

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