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HBCU Football

Decades in the making, J.C. Smith vs. Livingstone matchup is a instant classic

On Dec. 27, 1892, these two schools became the first HBCUs to play HBCU football

Editor’s note: The Nov. 9, 2019 game between Johnson C. Smith University and Livingstone College will be the 127th meeting of the two schools, in a game called the Commemorative Classic. This video and story were done two years ago, to commemorate the 125th renewal of the rivalry.

There aren’t many matchups between teams with a combined record of 1-17 that will gain national intrigue. However, the showdown Saturday between Livingstone College and Johnson C. Smith University is about way more than the actual play on the field.

This game marks the celebration of the 125th year of football at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). On Dec. 27, 1892, these two schools became the first HBCUs to go mano a mano on the gridiron.

The game was played on a snowy afternoon on the campus of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. It was an extremely low scoring affair and at the end Johnson C. Smith, then known as Biddle University, emerged victorious. They defeated the Blue Bears 5-0.

That game was the birth of all that is now HBCU football – from the rise of the Southwestern Athletic (SWAC) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic (MEAC) conferences to the induction of Hall of Fame HBCU players Jerry Rice and Walter Payton to star players today such as North Carolina A&T’s Tarik Cohen, who is a rookie for the Chicago Bears.

Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association commissioner Jacqie McWilliams said of the game now known as the Commemorative Classic that the matchup between these two schools is more than just another great rivalry.

“This game gives a greater opportunity and presence to share the tradition of the importance of black colleges and black college football,” said McWilliams. “I think with the 125th anniversary happening this year it’s really brought light to the historical background and tradition of this game and why it is so important to our community but to also HBCUs.”

Johnson C. Smith coach Kermit Blount agreed. Teaching new generations about the game is a priority for him.

“Our younger generation is a little different. You have to continue to teach them and give them knowledge about the importance of this game and the importance of the two teams playing,” said Blount. “Some of these kids won’t realize how important it was and the history that they made until they finish and realize they were a part of history and didn’t realize it.”

Livingstone coach Daryl Williams echoed Blount’s sentiments. To him, players are so focused on playing that they overlook much needed historical perspective on HBCU football.

“A lot of our players don’t really understand it because they are from different parts of the country,” said Williams. “But like I said to them all week, once the ball gets kicked off, it’s going to be very, very intense and it’s going to move very, very fast and it’s going to be very competitive.”

The two teams will battle at 1 p.m., back where it all started on that snowy December day in 1892. There might only be one winner on the field Saturday, but thanks to the pioneering of these two institutions, HBCUs will able count their 125th victory.

Donovan Dooley is a former Rhoden Fellow and a multimedia journalism major from Tuscaloosa, AL. He attends North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University.