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Grambling State QB DeVante Kincade is ready for his close-up

Kincade, NC A&T’s Brandon Parker rep HBCUs on prestigious Walter Payton watch list

Keep an eye on Grambling QB DeVante Kincade and North Carolina A&T tackle Brandon Parker this fall. They’re on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the country. They’ve both played in the Celebration Bowl, the championship of black college football, and their road back to the title game in Atlanta has begun again.

“I told my mom two days ago … I feel like a grown man, because of my decision-making and the things I want to do with my life to get better each day. Football, life, treating people right.”

DeVante Kincade’s moment has arrived, and he’s ready for it. Ask him, and he will tell you without hesitation, breaking down every nuance like a true field general.

“Man … everything I’ve gone through … I was the No. 12 quarterback in the country. I went to Ole Miss — I redshirted; I was a backup, all the way through. All those years, God was prepping me for this situation right here, playing quarterback for one of the greatest HBCUs ever.”

Kincade beams with pride knowing that Grambling State University’s success sits squarely on his 22-year-old shoulders. The journey to get to this point came with heartache, stress, injury and disappointment. To think after all of that, Kincade is happy with the journey.

“This is really my first year playing college football, being a starter,” said Kincade, a former four-star, dual-threat quarterback at Skyline High School in Dallas who signed with Ole Miss in 2013. “I played a lot at Ole Miss, but I never really started full games. [Grambling State] is really a different experience. I’ve had a whole offseason, a whole spring, a whole summer to work out, to be the starter for a university. I’ve never had the opportunity. I really cherish it.”

The Ole Miss experience was a taxing one for Kincade. He was far from home and needed to be closer to his mother, who had a series of health challenges, including a stroke, blood clots in her legs and an aneurysm. Kincade would consistently make the 16-hour round-trip to Dallas to check on her, sometimes going once a week.

The emotional stress drained him. “It was a stress, man, because I was thinking about my mom and I wanted to practice, plus I had homework on top of that,” Kincade told The Clarion-Ledger newspaper last year. “I told her I just want to come home and be closer to her so I won’t have to be going back and forth that far.”

It didn’t help that life on the field wasn’t going well either. After redshirting in 2013, Kincade appeared in eight games as a redshirt freshman, completing 16 of 20 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown and rushing 28 times for 95 yards. He completed 9 of 15 passes for 79 yards and one touchdown and rushed nine times for 87 yards in 2014, but would eventually be the odd man out in a three-way battle among himself, Chad Kelly and Ryan Buchanan for the starting role going into the 2015 season.

Kincade needed a lifeline. Even though there was interest from Houston, North Texas, Prairie View A&M, TCU, Texas and Sam Houston State, Grambling State became his landing spot.

Kincade made it official in 2016 and transferred to Grambling to be closer to his family, a move that cut his road trips home down to 2 1/2 hours from Louisiana to the Dallas area.

With his heart and head in the right place, Kincade went to work, leading Grambling to an 11-1 record, throwing for 2,999 yards and 31 touchdowns to only four interceptions, and earning Offensive Player of the Year honors from the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).

Kincade, a criminal justice major, is hardly surprised at his success. It annoys him when people compare FBS and FCS schools, suggesting that there is a sizable divide in level of play. “Stop looking at the conference — look at the play,” he claps back. “Look at the skill set. Evaluate off the skill set, not at the conference. My goal is to dominate each game, each quarter. Each quarter, each game. If I’m dominating as an individual, then we have a good chance of being dominant as a team.”

The Legacy of Walter Payton

Kincade admits to not knowing much about Payton, who’s on most everyone’s list for the greatest of all time. Even though Kincade excelled at the game as a kid, he was hardly a student of the game. When the finalists for the esteemed STATS FCS Walter Payton Award for offensive player of the year were announced in early August and included two players from historically black colleges and universities, the SWAC’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year was hardly in the know. Besides, he admits to not being on social media like that.

“Some of my defensive backs were coming up to me, telling me, ‘Congratulations!’ I was like, ‘Man, I ain’t got nobody pregnant! What’s wrong with y’all?’ They were, like, ‘Nah, man. You’re on the Walter Payton Award watch list.’ I wasn’t even aware, man,” said Kincade. He and North Carolina A&T offensive lineman Brandon Parker are among the 22 finalists and are the only two representing HBCUs.

“It’s a testament to where both conferences and both teams are,” said Jarrett Payton, the son of the late, great Chicago Bears running back who starred at Jackson State University from 1971 to 1974 and whose high-steppin’, dip-the-shoulder running style is legendary. “It goes to show you that there’s talent all over the place. That’s the one thing that I always think of with my dad, coming from the SWAC. At one point in time, some of the best players in the ’70s and ’80s in college football came from HBCUs.”

First awarded in 1987, the Walter Payton Award for the most outstanding offensive player in Division I FCS football has had a who’s who of past winners who have gone on to NFL careers, including quarterbacks Tony Romo and the late Steve McNair.

Offensive lineman Brandon Parker (70) poses for a photograph in the locker room at the Joseph And Kathleen Bryan Fitness And Wellness Center at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, Thursday, August 24, 2017. The redshirt senior is a top NFL prospect with plenty of accolades to show for his 2016 season. Parker, a self-described jokester, graduates this December with a degree in electrical engineering. He takes his responsibility for creating pre-game playlists for the entire locker room very seriously.

Eamon Queeney for The Undefeated

NC A&T State head coach Rod Broadway believes Parker will add his name to that exclusive list. “It’s well-deserved,” said Broadway, who has been A&T’s head coach since 2010. “Brandon is a really intelligent, hardworking kid who’s gotten better and better. I’m excited for him; hopefully he has the type of year that will get him a future in the league.”

When Walter Payton chalked up yardage for Jackson State, and later for then-Bears coach Mike Ditka, the nine-time NFL Pro Bowler and Pro Football and College Football Hall of Famer hardly thought about leaving a legacy for HBCUs; his only goal was to be the best, Jarrett Payton attests.

“To be one of the best players to ever play the game, that drove him,” said Payton, whose father also has the NFL Man of the Year award (honoring a player’s charity and volunteer work) and the Walter Payton Achievement Award (given to high achievers from schools participating in the preseason MEAC/SWAC Challenge) named in his honor. “I don’t know if he would ever think about awards. I just think he wanted to be the best, and he’d be super happy to see the kids who are up for the award and what it means to the foundation that he helped set for young men and to be able to come out of HBCUs and be successful in sports and in life.”

The understated Parker is humbled by the appointment. He understands that his name is linked to that of Tarik Cohen, another Aggie who is now playing with the Chicago Bears. If you see a Cohen college highlight, chances are No. 70 is somewhere close behind — or in front, opening holes for A&T’s career leader in rushing yards.

Courtesy of North Carolina A&T

“There isn’t enough words to describe the type of character that guy has,” said Parker, the only non-senior among the offensive linemen selected to the STATS FCS All-America first team last year and twice named the Offensive Lineman of the Year in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

“I tell him all the time when I see him that I could never thank him enough for what he’s done for me,” Parker said of Cohen, whom Chicago selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft. “While he’s out there running, getting the shine, somebody is out there blocking for him. They’ll look at him run, and they’re also looking to see who’s blocking for him. I’ve been the one who’s stood out the most, and I’m just grateful. Working with a guy like that who did so much for me, I can never really thank him enough.”

A projected late-round NFL prospect for 2018, Parker had 48 knockdown blocks, did not allow a sack and committed only two penalties as a junior. Broadway expects his big man’s excellence to continue in his curtain-call season.

Offensive lineman Brandon Parker (70) poses for a photograph on the field of Aggie Stadium at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, Thursday, August 24, 2017. The redshirt senior is a top NFL prospect with plenty of accolades to show for his 2016 season. Parker, a self-described jokester, graduates this December with a degree in electrical engineering. He takes his responsibility for creating pre-game playlists for the entire locker room very seriously.

Eamon Queeney for The Undefeated

“Brandon is an engineering major [who will] get his degree here in December,” Broadway said. “He has the ability. If he gets stronger and continues to develop, he could have one of those 10-, 12-year NFL careers. I think he’s that type of player.”

Kincade: A point guard on the field

Grambling State head coach Broderick Fobbs is mindful to temper his enthusiasm when the discussion centers on his star quarterback. He is careful to preach “team” and “team effort” — but he can’t argue that Kincade is arguably the biggest piece to his puzzle.

“DeVante is in his second year of this offense,” explained Fobbs, whose team outlasted North Carolina Central 10-9 in last year’s Celebration Bowl. “I’m expecting him to really take the bull by the horns … but I don’t want him to overwork himself. The offense works great when he allows it to work and not have to make plays for himself. We have a great deal of playmakers on the outside as well as in the backfield, so when it comes to getting ball to those guys, that’s the important part: just getting it to ’em. At the end of the day, we want DeVante to understand that he’s the point guard of the offense and his job is to make sure we’re in the right play and get the ball to the right people and make them make plays with their legs.”

Echoing his coach’s sentiments, Kincade agrees — almost verbatim: “I’m really a point guard for really, like, the Dream Team,” he said. “That’s how I’m looking at it. I feel like I’m playing for the Dream Team, and I’m just the point guard. I’ve got Michael Jordan … all the old-school guys. All I have to do is take care of the ball and get it to them.”

A dream scenario for both teams would be a meeting in December at the third annual Celebration Bowl, something both coaches weren’t afraid to speak into existence:

“We do have our sights set on the Celebration Bowl,” said Fobbs, who’s in his fourth year at the helm. “We have something to play for — it’s a national championship, it’s a bowl game — a chance to play on national TV. But at the end of the day, you can’t get there until you take care of business on the home front and in the conference.”

Added Broadway, whose team won the inaugural game behind a record-setting performance by Cohen: “Hopefully, we’re good enough to make it this year.”

For Kincade, that would be the ultimate cap on his collegiate career, particularly since his mom is “about 95 percent healthy now” and will most definitely be in the stands to see him at Eddie Robinson Stadium this season.

“Mr. Doug Williams, James Harris … look at the legends who played [quarterback] here. It’s an honor to be here and play ball. I came to college to get a degree and play football and grow as a man and grow closer to God.”

Spoken like a grown man, Mr. Kincade.

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.