HBCU Football Gets The ‘Powerful, Important’ Stage It Deserves With The Celebration Bowl

ATLANTA, Ga. – John Grant likes to tell a story. He’s recanted it so many times at this point, he’s able to add extra flourishes and really hammer it home to new audiences. This day’s retelling falls right after a TV interview Grant has recorded in the catacombs of the Georgia Dome the day before the inaugural Celebration Bowl. Dressed in a black suit, Grant clasps his hands together and laughs when he’s asked to predict how many people he expects at the game on Saturday. “A lot,” he responds.

The story goes that in 1892, the very first game between HBCUs (historically black college and universities) was played in the snow between Livingstone College and Biddle College right on the lawn of Livingstone’s main building in Salisbury, North Carolina. The two teams attached cleats to their dress shoes, and the uniforms were made on campus in the textiles department. The final score was 5-0.

“That was 123 years ago,” Grant says. “Now we’re here, and our players have the best uniforms, and the best cleats, and they’re getting set to play a game in an NFL stadium on national television. This is powerful. This is important. HBCUs are critically important to the fabric of our nation, and this is our chance to showcase that.”

Grant is the executive director of the Celebration Bowl and the CEO of Atlanta’s 100 Black Men, which aims to support and enrich the African American community by focusing on leadership and youth services. He also serves on the boards of a variety of different non-profits in the Atlanta area. At an event hosted by ESPN a week prior to the Celebration Bowl, Grant gave an impromptu toast to a group of media at the STATS sports bar, welcoming everyone to the unofficial start of bowl season.

Showcasing the tradition and impact of HBCUs in a championship-quality atmosphere was the aim of ESPN when it created the Celebration Bowl. Thanks to the hard work of people like Grant and MEAC commissioner Dr. Dennis Thomas, it became a reality when Alcorn State and North Carolina A&T played on ABC at noon on Dec. 19. The first hurdle was convincing the other MEAC institutions that playing in a bowl game against the SWAC and forfeiting the league’s automatic berth into the FCS playoffs was a worthwhile gamble.

“With all decisions there’s going to be difficulties,” Thomas said in a press conference following the game. “With all visions, there’s going to be difficulties. But you have to persevere. That’s what achieving a goal and a vision is all about.”

If the bowl’s first edition is a sign of things to come, that gamble is one that’s going to pay off in a big way. The initial step was putting a quality product on the field and into the homes of all those watching on ABC. The Braves and the Aggies delivered on that from the get-go. The first quarter alone saw four different 70-plus yard scores, including a punt return touchdown for each team, and two long runs into the end zone by North Carolina A&T’s Tarik Cohen, one of the most explosive players in all of college football. The game came down to the final drive by the Braves, who had a few shots at the end zone before a fourth down pass was well-defended and the Aggies sprinted off the field in, well, celebration.

“Finally people get to see what we’re capable of,” NC A&T wide receiver Denzel Keyes says the day before the game. “I feel like Tarik Cohen is one of the best players in the country, and that’s one of the things people are going to see.”

Cohen is named the game’s MVP and dabs while holding his trophy, which he almost drops due to the forcefulness of the movement. Plenty of fans stick around to hear a high school battle of the bands, a fitting coda to the greatness that was both the Alcorn State and North Carolina A&T bands in their performances at halftime. (Of course, Alcorn State played “Halftime (Stand Up And Get Crunk)” by the Yin Yang Twins during the game, and both bands even dropped in their own versions of Rae Sremmurd’s “Throw Sum Mo.”)

The prediction of “a lot” of people by Grant would prove to be prophetic. The announced attendance at the game was 35,528, almost double the paid attendance of another first-time bowl game to be played that day, the Cure Bowl between Georgia State and San Jose State in Orlando. Swarms of Alcorn State and NC A&T fans turn out in Atlanta, either tailgating before the noon kick, or opting to congregate around the SportsCenter set, which is shooting live in the hours before the game.

ESPN’s Jay Harris, one of the SportsCenter anchors who was on site in Atlanta, was surprised by the turnout and sees a bright future for the Celebration Bowl.

“We were getting ready for the show and we walked to the set,” Harris says. “There was like nobody there about 45 minutes before the show. We were doing our thing, and I look up right before we go on, I turn around, and it seems like the whole thing is completely full. I was amazed because it was cold, and it was two hours before the game. The crowd was boisterous. They were excited. They were yelling on cue, and they were yelling whenever they felt like it. I remarked on television that I felt like we were in Mississippi there were so many Alcorn State people behind us. It was absolutely phenomenal. They had an energy that was really, really cool.”

If the viewers at home were entertained, and the bowl’s executives were happy, the players were probably the most delighted of anyone. This was a chance for both conferences to get the feel of a true bowl game, and as one North Carolina A&T player says after the game, “They treated us like kings.” The participants get a gift suite that includes an XBox One and a backpack, and they get private tours of the College Football Hall of Fame and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. ABC, which was initially supposed to cut away from the game at 3:30, sticks with the fantastic finish, and millions get to see Cohen rack up 295 rushing yards and three scores.

This was the chance for the nation to see what HBCUs can do, and to honor programs that not only have had an impact on college football history, but on American history at large. This is the third time a bowl like this has been attempted – with the Pelican Bowl and the Heritage Bowl existing in the 1970s and 1990s respectively – but neither of the two prior iterations had the backing power of ESPN to sustain it and push it forward.

“We’re all in,” Harris says. “It depends on the match-ups. It depends on how those fanbases travel. And most important in my mind, it depends on the support of the higher profile HBCU brands to come back and see this game as we do – as something necessary. If we can get Jerry Rice and Michael Strahan to come back and support this game, to sign autographs, and to turn this into a real celebration, then it’s definitely here to stay.”

Following the game, even in disappointment, the Alcorn State players admit this was the biggest game of their life, and the seniors were happy to get one more huge memory with their teammates. The Aggies are elated, and with coach Rod Broadway sitting in sweatpants and a sweatshirt in a chair along with the media, the players at the podium rattle off simultaneously what he told them time and again throughout the year – and once more during the bowl game. “When something bad happens, keep playing. When something good happens, keep playing.”

Broadway, who played in bowl games at North Carolina and coached in bowl games at Florida and UNC, laughs and seems like he couldn’t be prouder of his guys and the chance to play in a game like this.

“This is a beautiful experience,” he says. “I bet if you talk to those guys now, the experience that they’ve had this week has been well worth it. They’ll be thinking about this 20 years from now. Those experiences live with you for a long, long, long time.”