Some football players at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) and Power 5 schools are accustomed to being a part of the NFL Draft. Only a select few players, however, from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are invited to the party.
Thanks in part to the efforts of former NFL quarterbacks Doug Williams and James Harris, talented HBCU players are getting some extra exposure. This past February, the two legends held the second annual HBCU Legacy Bowl at Tulane’s Yulman Stadium, featuring top players from the SWAC, SIAC, MEAC and CIAA conferences.
The Legacy Bowl is an immersive opportunity for eligible NFL Draft prospects from HBCUs all over to showcase their talent on a major platform. NFL scouts from all 32 teams traveled to explore top athletes. Players live out their dreams of making an NFL team. Just last year, four HBCU football players were drafted after their performances at the Legacy Bowl. These players hope to join the long legacy of former HBCU players such as Jerry Rice, Mel Blount, Walter Payton, Steve McNair and Willie Lanier, just to name a few, who made it to the NFL.
Williams, who was coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson at Grambling State University and was the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl when he played for Washington, believes that it really doesn’t matter where you go to school if you have the talent to be successful.
“You can get there from here, and when I say from here, I’m talking about HBCUs,” Williams said.
Douglas McNeil III, wide receivers coach at Bowie State University, noted that, “Events like this will shed light on a lot of talented guys … having league coaches and league staff is giving guys the experience to also let them know they have the confidence and they have the skill set to be able to perform at the next level.”
At the Legacy Bowl, players have the chance to exhibit their skills on the field but also hope to impress scouts off the field.
Keenan Isaac, a defensive back for Alabama State University, took advantage of the media coverage.
“Another opportunity, so many cameras out here, everybody’s watching, and the game is going to be on NFL Network,” Issac said. “So that’s definitely another opportunity for us to showcase our skills on a huge platform.”
NFL Network sideline reporter Sherree Burruss says, “One of the more important parts is the interview. These guys get to talk to the scouts, tell them who they are, what they represent, and show them their character just not on the field but off.”
Lack of media coverage makes it difficult to gain exposure from mainstream networks. HBCUs have proven they’ve always had the talent — they just need the chance to be seen.
In New Orleans, no one stood out more than Florida A&M wide receiver Xavier Smith, who won the Offensive Player of the Game award and is considered the top draft prospect out of HBCUs. From the start of the week, much of the buzz was about Smith who proved he’s the real deal running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.
Regarding his Offensive MVP award, Smith shared, “It just means a lot, just showing that my hard work paid off and you know, I work really hard, the guys behind me, I couldn’t have done this without them so I just want to thank each and every of my teammates for helping me win this award.”
Smith’s success at the Legacy Bowl clearly means a lot to his Florida A&M community.
“We all know back in Tallahassee that this is nothing new to Zay Smith,” teammate Chris Faddoul said. “He’s been doing this ever since he’s been at FAMU. … It’s nothing new for me to see and I’m just really excited that other people also get to see what I’ve been experiencing for the last five years. [He’s a ] great guy.”
Going into the NFL Draft, this year taking place in Kansas City, Missouri ,from April 27 to April 29, Smith is projected to be taken in a later round. He has created buzz around his name but not enough to be an early target. If he doesn’t happen to go off the board on draft night, it’s very likely he will be a priority free agent with a chance to compete for a roster spot.
Other impressive players included the Southern University duo of Jason Dumas and Cameron Peterson who left no questions regarding if there are defensive talents in HBCUs. Dumas finished the game with a game-leading three sacks and Defensive MVP hardware to take home while Peterson further contributed with six tackles, three of which were for a loss, and 1.5 sacks. He also forced a fumble and broke up a pass.
“This is a tremendous feeling man. Last college game I get to go out on top … I can’t even describe it right now,” Peterson said. “This was a great way to close out my college career [and I am] just looking forward to the things coming ahead. … It’s extremely humbling to know that even though there’s different circumstances everybody goes through, there’s so many people who made it before us. It’s inspiring.”
While Dumas’ size of just under 5 foot 10 may be of concern to NFL scouts, his ability to make an impact on the field definitely won’t be.
Despite not walking away with a win, Bowie State defensive tackle Joshua Pryor is also likely to be on the radar of NFL scouts. Last season’s CIAA Defensive Player of the Year had an impressive combine and helped his team with seven tackles, three of which were for a loss, and two sacks.
Pryor recognized the value of the event.
“It’s definitely a blessing,” Pryor said. “I just want to give thanks to guys like Doug Williams and Shack Harris for even putting this together for us today. They crawled so we could walk so I definitely am appreciative of that.”
Regarding the potential of spring professional football opportunities for HBCU talent, Williams, who played for two years in the USFL before he won the Super Bowl he is known for today, said, “They’ve got three opportunities to land with somebody and this game and the combine give these guys an opportunity. The other day the USFL had their draft and ten players from Historically Black Colleges were drafted. Nine of those guys are playing in this game, which makes me feel good. I think we’re doing what should be done, we got to do more, but they got to [use] this as a situation not only for the guys that are here, but they have to go back to their school and tell those guys what we’re doing.”
Although a few of his players made the trip to New Orleans, Deion Sanders was noticeably missing from the week’s activities. Sanders, the man many credit with bringing more recognition to HBCU football in his two years as head coach of the Jackson State Jaguars, is now the head coach at Colorado. At JSU he led the team to two consecutive Celebration Bowl appearances, coached the team to their first undefeated regular season (11 wins) in JSU’s football history and signed one of the country’s top players in Travis Hunter.
Sanders showed the importance of how coverage can lead to opportunity.
“One word … Notoriety. That’s what he did for HBCUs,” Henry Miller, Southern University defensive coordinator said. “He gave us a stage and that’s what we want. We just want the stage and we will do the rest.”
Media coverage for HBCU football is slowly progressing but is still limited in comparison to PWI football. Increasing media opportunities help spread the awareness of talent at HBCUs.
“Content is king … Everyone should have some form of representation of media from each university,” Ken Clark of KC 1440 media for Jackson State said. “… We got to make sure we make our guys visible.”
Reflecting on the significance of this game, players remembered that “it’s just football.” “It’s a doorway to the next level,” E.J. Hicks, a wide receiver for North Carolina Central, said. “It’s a big opportunity. You have to seize the moment.”
Sanders impacted not just JSU, but all HBCU football programs as a whole. Damarcus Miller, Southern University’s defensive line coach, said, “The attention he brought, the exposure he brought was priceless.”
The Legacy Bowl sheds light on hidden gems that can be found at HBCUs. Players at HBCUs deserve the exposure and opportunity to take their talents to the next level.
Ronnie Thomas, a linebacker for Mississippi Valley State University said, “Not every school in the HBCU world gets national television broadcasts … I think this will help us in the draft process and getting our names out there.”
“It’s important to keep that pipeline from HBCU to the NFL … The HBCU Legacy Bowl is what we make it be,” Clark said. “We hope it continues to grow to the next level because our players deserve that same attention as some of the larger schools.”
Clark also spoke on the impact Sanders had in changing the game for HBCU football.
“When he was at Jackson State he gave us a lot of new eyes,” Clark said.
Even though Sanders has moved on, his players are grateful for the lessons learned on and off the field.
“[New head] coach T.C. [Taylor] is doing a marvelous job of helping continue what Coach Prime left for him,” Jackson State cornerback De’Jahn Warren said. “He’s taking everything that he learned from Coach Prime and he’s using it in his own coaching way.”
Due to a disparate amount of resources and media coverage between PWIs and HBCUs, events like the Legacy Bowl are currently necessary, and even if the playing field is one day more even, coaches, players and supporters of HBCU football hope the game continues for years and years to come.
The culture at HBCUs have lacked the proper attention and acknowledgment. Former NFL player Greg Coleman said, “All these kids need is an opportunity … so we presented the Greg Coleman Golden Touch Award to encourage, expos, and provide opportunity … because there’s great talent at HBCUs.”
Tyler King of Edward Waters College said he’s developed lifelong bonds.
“I definitely got a great relationship with a lot of these guys,” King said. “Respect goes a long way … We all respect each other and we all want to see each other win and grow. … We ain’t just playing this game just to get to know each other for this week. This is a lifetime thing, and that’s the greatest thing about it, it’s priceless.”
Sometimes, however, dreams get deferred. Not all of these players will hear their names called on April 27 and the ensuing days. For those players, the Legacy Bowl has added a career fair that includes many NFL teams and corporate companies.
With the help of the career fair, many of the HBCU Legacy Bowl players have already given thought to life after football.
Jeremiah Holloman of Tennessee State shared his interest in computer technology as well as coaching while Ronnie Thomas discussed his desire to continue to be a part of HBCU athletics.
“I would like to be an athletic director at an HBCU,” Thomas said. “That’s always been my dream because it starts at the top so that’s always been the backup plan in case football doesn’t work out.”
Both CJ Bolar of Alcorn State University and Faddoul mentioned their interests in working in the healthcare field.
“I like working around children,” Bolar said. “Mental health is also a big thing for me, so anything in those fields, those would probably be the best [for me].”
“I have a biology background and right now I’m currently working for a compounding pharmacy [on the] pharmaceutical sales side of things,” Faddoul said. “… I also have a little interest in commercial real estate so if all doesn’t go well I think I’m in good hands.”
While the NFL is the highest level to play professional football, there are other professional options for players to continue to play the game they love, make money and prove themselves against worthy competitors.
NFL Hall of Famer Mel Blount, a member of the Board of Trustees for the Black College Football Hall of Fame, had some advice for all the players.
“Pursue your dreams, don’t ever give up on them,” Blount said. “I think that’s what this life is all about. You got to have dreams, you got to pursue them and when you fall down you got to get up.”
Former NFL player Harold Jackson added, “James Harris and Doug Williams have done a heck of a job with this program … I’m going to be right here supporting them because this is what these young kids need.”
“When you got an opportunity to uplift HBCU, all I’m going to say, please do that,” Williams said.