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Commentary: Black college football history is American history

Commentary: Black college football history is American history

Every year in late July or early August, Canton, Ohio, the birthplace of the National Football League, becomes the epicenter of the pro football world as the local citizenry joins the Pro Football Hall of Fame to honor the latest class of enshrinees and to celebrate the history and tradition of America’s favorite sport. No other hall of fame, sport or community does it better. I know; I’ve proudly been a part of the festivities for the past 42 years. On Sept. 1, and then on successive Labor Day weekends, Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame again will team up to host a new annual football jubilee, the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic. This new, weekend-long celebration will be culminated in grand fashion by an exciting, nationally televised football game between two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The inaugural game will feature the Alabama A&M University Bulldogs and the Morehouse College Maroon Tigers. But, as anyone who has attended a black college football classic knows, while the game is the focal point, it is significantly enhanced by exciting surrounding events. The Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic will be no exception. Already planned are other crowd-pleasing elements, including a halftime battle of the bands, drum line and dance competition, a golf tournament, autograph sessions and celebrity appearances, tailgate parties and a postgame concert, as well as numerous other exciting local events. Important to the Canton community, classics typically attract large crowds of alumni, fans, pro football scouts, national sports media and corporate support. Equally important, however, is that this Classic will support the Black College Football Hall of Fame as it continues to develop its plans to make Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame its permanent home. So, what exactly is “black college football” and the Black College Football Hall of Fame? Black college football began Dec. 27, 1892, when Biddle University defeated Livingstone College 4-0 in the first football game played between two black colleges. No, that score is not a typo. Touchdowns were worth four points back then. The Biddle-Livingstone game came 23 years after Rutgers and Princeton played the first college football game in America, and 55 years after the first African American school of higher education, the Institute of Colored Youth — better known today as Cheyney University in suburban Philadelphia — was founded. Over the succeeding decades, more than 100 colleges and universities for black students opened across the United States, the majority operating in the South following the Civil War. While some were founded by well-meaning philanthropists or religious denominations like the Quakers, many were created as a means of preserving segregation and inequality in public schools. As the popularity of college football grew and young black players wanted to participate, they found they couldn’t play the sport wherever they wanted. For more than 70 years, black college-bound football players flocked to black colleges and universities. Prior to 1965, most black football players played at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Few opportunities Opportunities for black players in the pros were equally rare. Between 1892 and 1920 when the National Football League was founded, only four African Americans played professionally. From 1920 until 1933, only 13. And from 1934 until 1946, there were no African Americans in the NFL. Some pro coaches at the time argued (or better put, defended) the omission of black players by suggesting that there were few playing major collegiate football for them to recruit. While it was true segregation did result in few blacks in major white colleges and universities, award-winning author Samuel Freedman points out in his book “Breaking the Line” that “a parallel universe of black excellence in football flourished in the black colleges strewn about the border states and the South.” Unfortunately, that was pretty much where it stayed. But something happened in the 1960s that finally brought the “parallel universe” to the attention of the mainstream sports community and in the process changed the pro game forever: competition. With the birth of the American Football League in 1960, there was an immediate need for quality players for the young league to compete with the established NFL. Realizing there was an abundance of good players at HBCUs who were overlooked or uninvited to the pros because of the color of their skin, the AFL capitalized. Then the NFL followed. Remember, it wasn’t until 1963 that the Washington Redskins integrated — the last NFL team to do so. Suddenly, pro football rosters included players from Grambling, Morgan State, Jackson State, North Carolina A&T and dozens of other HBCUs. Once a rarity, black players from HBCUs became commonplace. Bumpy road The road to equality in football that began in 1892 has been long and often bumpy. But thanks in large part to two African American pioneers, James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams, the stories of how African American players, coaches and administrators successfully overcame great obstacles to achieve their dreams will be preserved and shared with generations to come. Together, in 2009, these former Grambling State University and NFL stars founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame whose mission is to preserve the history and honor the greatest football players, coaches and contributors from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. There are currently 77 inductees in the Black College Football Hall of Fame. Twenty-nine are also members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, among them Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Michael Strahan and Deacon Jones. While we will never know how many more might have been enshrined in both halls had the playing field always been level, we do know that when given the chance, hundreds of HBCU players distinguished themselves in the NFL. That legacy now will be preserved in the Black College Football Hall of Fame and celebrated annually at the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic. The story of black college football and the HBCU experience is not just an essential chapter of sports history and black history, it is, as Freedman summarized in his book, “most of all, American history.” Joe Horrigan, who worked 42 years at the Pro Football Hall of Fame before retiring two months ago, is one of the foremost experts on the game of football and its history.

Commentary: Black college football history is American history

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