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Alabama A&M’s Ruben Studdard

The former offensive tackle dropped football to focus on music

The second season of American Idol premiered Jan. 21, 2003. That’s when the show’s zillions of fans were blessed with the smooth voice of R&B and gospel singer Ruben Studdard. Studdard’s vocals are a little bit Teddy Pendergrass, a bit Marvin Gaye, some Luther Vandross and even a bit Lionel Richie. His performances were a weekly reminder that there was a time when love conquered all in musical expression. America agreed and the big win led the Alabama native to stardom. Nicknamed the Velvet Teddy Bear, his fashion choices back then were suits — or his shirts bearing the 205 Birmingham area code. Now it’s 13 years later and Studdard has released six albums. But before all that? He was a student at Huntsville’s Alabama A&M University. He attended on a football scholarship — he was an offensive tackle on the field – but nothing could take him away from singing. Here he looks back:

I attended Alabama A&M from 1996 until the fall of 1999. The majority of my family members on my mother’s side attended Alabama A&M. It wasn’t my first choice, it’s where I [got] my athletic scholarship. [But] it was the best thing for me. I love A&M, and I built my own friendships there, so I wouldn’t change it for the world. At that time, we had an area on campus called ‘The Block.’ It’s not open now, because they don’t want people driving on The Block. But it’s where the Student Center was. It’s where the main cafeteria was. It’s where all the fraternity stones and sorority stones were. The energy was always exciting. Especially during the fall. Football and basketball season, there’s always something to do, a game to go to, a party to be had. It was always fun.

“Football, of course, is king in the South. Everybody always gathers around during football season. Not just for the football team.”

I went on football scholarship, but what made me choose Alabama A&M over the other schools that were recruiting me was my experience at a basketball game. It was against … Tuskegee. The energy in the gym was so electric. I signed my letter of intent that night after the basketball game. We always looked forward to when Tuskegee would come to town. Football, of course, is king in the South. Everybody always gathers around during football season. Not just for the football team. HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] are known for the energy around the band program, so everybody is always looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen at halftime. I only played my [football] freshman year — but I was a music major. I was having difficulty juggling the responsibilities of being a music education major and also playing football. I had to pick one, and music won.

“We used to have a dance called a Dusk to Dawn dance every year, and going to that was always fun.”

The style on campus was more preppy than anything. We wore a lot of polos and khakis and loafers and stuff. That’s pretty much how everybody dressed if they were from Alabama. The good thing about going to school, or going off to college, is that you get an opportunity to meet people from all over the country and even the world. We have a lot of international students. A lot of our soccer players were from Africa and Jamaica and different places. A lot of our track people were from different countries. We definitely had a lot of different cultures represented at A&M. I pledged a music fraternity. It’s called Phi Mu Alpha [Sinfonia]. I pledged Phi Mu Alpha in the spring of ’97.

I received a really quality education. I learned so much from the professors and my music instructors that I use to this day. I’m really thankful for my experience, and all of the love and care that they took to make sure we would be the best we could be. My best memories are the simplest ones. Being in the dorm rooms playing cards. Going out. We used to have a dance called a Dusk to Dawn dance every year, and going to that was always fun. I remember Southern University came to A&M in ’98 for our homecoming, and how much fun we had at the game. We still talk about that to this day.

“I pledged a music fraternity. It’s called Phi Mu Alpha. I pledged Phi Mu Alpha in the spring of ’97.”

The last homecoming I attended was three years ago. I never miss our big game every year, which is the Magic City Classic. I do everything I can to be off on the weekend of the Classic. It’s really like we have two homecomings every year. A secret about the school not widely known is that W.C. Handy was our band director at one time.

We all loved our cafeteria. It was great. I don’t know if it’s that good now, but we weren’t missing any meals there. Things are different now on college campuses. They have Burger King and McDonald’s and stuff inside the cafeteria now. It isn’t the same anymore. They have a lot more options than we had, but we enjoyed it.

Go Bulldogs.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.