HBCU football teams have produced some of the NFL’s greatest players. And instead of moving on, many NFL players have looked recognized the value in teams like those at Florida A&M University, Jackson State University and more. See how NFL greats are putting HBCU football on the pedestal it deserves in the story from Michelle Kaufman at the Miami Herald below.
Deion Sanders made his entrance as Jackson State head football coach last year the way anyone who followed his career would expect — with flash, passion, and bold promises.
The JSU marching band escorted him to his opening press conference, which made national headlines. Before running his first practice or winning his first game, he had already raised the profile of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
The moment Sanders, the former Florida State and NFL star, put on his blue and white JSU gear it became a bit cooler to be a Tigers fan. Recruits and sports reporters who previously overlooked HBCU programs were suddenly intrigued, particularly during a time when racial issues were dominating the news.
Other NFL greats also took note. Former Michigan and NFL running back Tyrone Wheatley accepted the head coach job at Morgan State after consulting with Sanders. Eddie George, Ohio State’s Heisman winner and the Tennessee Titans’ all-time leading rusher, also spoke to Sanders before being hired at Tennessee State in April 2021.
Sanders will bring added exposure to his team and HBCUs on Sept. 5, when the Tigers head to Miami Gardens to play Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic, America’s oldest black college football classic.
The event was started at FAMU in 1933. For 13 years, the game rotated between Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa and in 1947, it was moved to Miami, where the first predominately black teams would play in the Orange Bowl Stadium. Attendance grew from 5,000 to a high of 47,191 in 1961, when FAMU defeated Jackson State to finish the season with a perfect 10-0 record.
Sanders hopes the Classic will showcase HBCU athletes who might not normally get national exposure.
“You’re going to see some draftable athletes, I promise you that,” Sanders said. “This is not just a game. It’s a celebration. It’s an opportunity for us to put our players on stage.”
Sanders, who is referred to as “Coach Prime” these days, took to social media earlier this year to express his disappointment that no HBCU players were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
“There is no way that the next time the draft comes around there won’t be a single person from an HBCU school not drafted,” Sanders said during a May press conference at Hard Rock Stadium. “I promise you that will not happen. Not on our watch.”
Wheatley and George share the same motivation.
“The SWAC and MEAC have always had great coaches, don’t get me wrong, but Deion is called Prime for a reason,” Wheatley said by phone. “His light is the one that shines bright, but the rest of us still get the illumination from it. It does help to have a guy like Deion out there promoting HBCU schools.”
But it isn’t just Sanders and spectacular marching bands the fans will see.
“Fans will see a great game,” Wheatley said. “FAMU’s Willie [Simmons] is a hell of a coach, too. They’re going to see two great coaches with good, disciplined teams. The tradition and atmosphere are great, but without football there’s no marching bands. We need to produce good football. We have to break the stigma that HBCU football is not good football.”
Although HBCUs have turned out 30 Pro Football Hall of Famers, including Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State) and Michael Strahan (Texas Southern), top high school recruits and NFL scouts tend to focus on the traditional powerhouse programs.
George says Sanders’ decision to lead Jackson State is already having a profound impact on HBCU football.
“Deion has already been a game-changer,” George said. “He told me we can definitely be agents of change and bringing the resources and exposure, changing the way people perceive HBCUs and the way they do business. Deion has always been a trendsetter. There’s only one Prime. One. That’s it. I respect him for that. And the rhetoric he’s pushing is ‘It’s not about me. It’s about getting our conference and kids exposed.’ Highlighting our colleges.”
Sanders, upset that few HBCU players were invited to NFL Combines, helped launch an HBCU combine. His next goal is to have those players be evaluated at the same combine as prospects from schools such as Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Ohio State.
Both George and Wheatley stressed the importance of TV exposure for their teams and their universities.
“During the games, we can show videos that promote the schools of business, agriculture, dentistry, we can showcase that Oprah Winfrey is a Tennessee State alum,” George said. “People need to see that a lot of successful people graduated from HBCUs.”
Added Wheatley: “It’s very important for TV networks to cover our games because everything is visual now, people want to see it in order to believe it. When I bring recruits to Morgan, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is nice!’ And I say, ‘What did you think it would be like?’ They say, ‘Well, it’s an HBCU.’ The exposure our football teams get can help change that perception.”
Jason Horn, athletic director at Florida Memorial University, a historically black school in Miami Gardens, says having Sanders, Wheatley and George in HBCU coaching jobs is impactful.
“Deion getting the job at Jackson State is newsworthy, it creates a news angle that school wouldn’t get otherwise,” Horn said. “The key now is to continue to build off that.”
Sanders, Wheatley and George were all drawn to their new jobs by something bigger than football.
“This is what I’ve been doing my whole life. I’ve been called to take things to another level,” Sanders said on his podcast 21st & Prime. “What God is calling me to now, I’m ecstatic. It’s my people. It’s my people I get to touch. A multitude of the parents are the same age as me. … I’m so excited.”
Wheatley said social justice issues played a part in his decision to coach at Morgan State.
“The Colin Kaepernick issue, Black Lives Matter, those things first spurred it,” Wheatley said. “I felt as a black man having to choose between football and being black. That was really hard. You had fans losing it, not understanding what was going on. I got tired of explaining myself.
“I’ve been at PWIs [Predominately White Institutions] my entire life in terms of college and pro sports and the more I looked at black colleges, I thought of players like Willie Brown, Harry Carson, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Doug Williams, [Steve] Air McNair and I thought, ‘Why not HBCU? Why not?’ I have a chance to be a coach who can truly empathize with his players because I experienced the same things they have.”
George had similar sentiments.
“College football has become transactional with the transfer portal, Name Image and Likeness, super conferences, it’s becoming like the NFL,” he said. “I see these athletes as men with valuable lives and I want to help cultivate their spiritual life, social life, physical life and mental life.”
George said the Tennessee State job was “a calling” that kept tugging at him after he declined previous offers.
“What drew me was the opportunity to affect lives in a way I never visualized myself doing,” George said. “Given what’s happened with Black Lives Matter, the racial issues we’ve gone through in our country the last 24 months, that definitely raises the profile of HBCU schools.
“The key now is sustainability. This can’t be a flash in the pan or 15 minutes of fame. We want kids to know you can come to a HBCU and have the same type of experience as someone going to Ohio State. You can have a great education, social life, and get to the NFL because if you’re good enough, they will find you.”
Wheatley agreed: “With the Black Lives Matter movement, you have to strike the iron while it’s hot, but you have to keep it hot. During that whole time, I had lots of kids calling, but then parents, high school coaches, 7-on-7 coaches talked to them and said, ‘Hey, you’re bigger than that. You’re better than that. You need to go to a bigger school.’
“Heads are starting to turn this way, but we still have a lot of ground to make up in terms of getting the overall top-notch recruits. Can a Morgan State, Jackson State, can we really go head-to-head with the Alabamas and the Clemsons of the world? Not yet. Are we making strides? Yes.”