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Road to the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl

Celebration Bowl is a stage where players showcase their talents

Tarik Cohen, Brandon Parker and Chad Williams are now in the NFL, with more than 20 other ex-HBCU players

Today’s players from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have an opportunity to show off their skills that their predecessors didn’t have with the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, considered the championship of HBCU football.

Yet, it didn’t take a bowl game to give great HBCU players the chance to showcase their talents, as these schools have produced some of the NFL’s all-time great players. There are more than 29 former HBCU players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This season, there are 25 players currently playing with 16 NFL teams.

The matchup of Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champions has given the conference finalists a stage for the players to be seen by NFL scouts and general managers. In 2015, the Celebration Bowl introduced the football world to current Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen. Cohen, from North Carolina A&T University, rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries, along with 53 yards on two receptions.

He eventually went in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft and has become a star for the Bears the past two seasons. This season, he’s helped them to an NFC North-leading record of 9-4, contributing as a receiver out of the backfield with 679 yards and four touchdowns to lead the team in receiving.

One of Cohen’s N.C. A&T teammates, offensive tackle Brandon Parker, also got noticed in 2017 and was drafted last year by the Oakland Raiders. He made his way into the starting lineup in Week 5 versus the Los Angeles Chargers. Although Parker is a starter, he’s still figuring out how to adjust as a rookie in the league.

He says the Celebration Bowl is a way to give exposure to the abundance of HBCU talent.

“I think it’s helped people realize just the type of talent that we have at the HBCU level. The MEAC does get TV games, but it’s not on a national scale like this,” said Parker. “So I think it gives players the exposure they need and also gives you a chance to show people what you can do.”

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Chad Williams was the first Celebration Bowl alum to be selected in the NFL draft in 2017. Williams, now in his second NFL season, was drafted in the third round. He’s started several games this season and now plays in a reserve role.

The Indianapolis Colts have two players who attended HBCUs, but neither had a chance to play in the Celebration Bowl. Former South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard is having a season to remember. As a rookie, he leads the Colts’ defense in solo and total tackles and is a candidate for AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Leonard’s teammate and HBCU counterpart Chester Rogers is a receiver for the Colts who attended Grambling State. Rogers is a third-year pro and enjoys seeing his HBCU brothers thrive on the field.

“We’re setting a stage and showing the world that there are lots of players from HBCUs and you can’t overlook us,” said Rogers. “We got Darius Leonard, who will probably get Defensive Rookie of the Year, maybe even Defensive Player of the Year. Then you got Tarik playing his butt off, you got Chad Williams, you got a lot of guys in the league. I think it’s just going to create a path for the younger guys coming up.”

Leonard and Rogers have both played a major part in resurrecting the Colts this season. After starting 1-5, the Colts are now second in the AFC South at 7-6 after a five-game winning streak.

Washington Redskins rookie cornerback Danny Johnson also knows firsthand that HBCU football gave him an incentive and ability to make every game count, although his team didn’t make it to Atlanta and the Celebration Bowl.

“It gives you something to look forward to. It’s a nationally televised game. I think it’s everyone’s dream to play in the Celebration Bowl, so they can be put on that big stage with everyone watching,” said Johnson, who played for Southern University.

“You know that was always my goal when I was playing, whether it was playing any game, I made sure I played every game like it was my last game. But everyone knew that you wanted to get to the Celebration Bowl, because that’s a nationally televised game.”

What does Parker think now that he’s playing on Sundays?

“It’s not like you’re in college. You know in the MEAC, and you’re not only adjusting to teams, but you’re adjusting to different play styles, players, and everyone has their tricks and tools that work for them,” he said. “So you only have a limited amount of time as far as film study and stuff to learn what they’re doing. To me, it’s about adjusting when you’re playing your opponent.”


HBCU players in the NFL

  • Arizona Cardinals

Antoine Bethea — Howard, safety

Chad Williams — Grambling State, wide receiver

Rodney Gunter — Delaware State, defensive tackle

  • Baltimore Ravens

Anthony Levine Sr. — Tennessee State, defensive back/linebacker

  • Buffalo Bills

Rafael Bush — South Carolina State, safety

  • Chicago Bears

Tarik Cohen — North Carolina A&T, running back

  • Cincinnati Bengals

Tony McRae — North Carolina A&T, cornerback

  • Dallas Cowboys

Joe Thomas — South Carolina State, linebacker

  • Denver Broncos

Temarrick Hemingway — South Carolina State, tight end

  • Indianapolis Colts

Darius Leonard — South Carolina State, linebacker

Chester Rogers — Grambling State, wide receiver

Grover Stewart — Albany State, nose tackle

  • Los Angeles Chargers

Trent Scott — Grambling State, offensive tackle

KhaDarel Hodge — Prairie View A&M, wide receiver

  • New Orleans Saints

Terron Armstead — Arkansas-Pine Bluff, offensive tackle

Michael Ola — Hampton, offensive tackle

  • New York Giants

Jawill Davis — Bethune-Cookman, wide receiver

Antonio Hamilton — South Carolina State, cornerback

  • New York Jets

Trenton Cannon — Virginia State, running back

Isaiah Crowell — Alabama State, running back

  • Oakland Raiders

Montrel Meander — Grambling State, cornerback

Brandon Parker — North Carolina A&T, offensive tackle

  • Pittsburgh Steelers

Javon Hargrave — South Carolina State, nose tackle

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ryan Smith — North Carolina Central, cornerback

  • Washington Redskins

Danny Johnson — Southern University, cornerback

Tucker Toole is a 2020 Morehouse College graduate. This Chicago native was sports editor for the “Maroon Tiger” and is a die-hard Chicago sports fan.