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Morgan State shooting reminds football alums of students’ new reality

Former Bears players recall how Morgan was a safe haven and homecoming was their time to put on a show

From the moment I set foot on the Morgan State campus in August 1968, I never felt unsafe – quite the opposite. During my 4½ years there, Morgan’s campus became a refuge.

I suppose that’s why it’s difficult for many of my classmates to adjust to the new reality that the openness we cherished – and probably took for granted – no longer exists. The safe haven of our youth has been replaced by an uneasy truce with chance. That reality was brought home last week when five people – including four students – were shot outside of a dorm on campus.

Sadly, this was the third consecutive year a shooting has marred homecoming at Morgan, and Morgan State president David Wilson made the tough but wise decision Wednesday to cancel homecoming activities for the first time in school history.

With no suspects named or arrested, the campus was left to deal with disruption and uncertainty following the shooting, and students are experiencing a vulnerability I never felt.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s homecoming, I had been in touch with three former football teammates who planned to attend the game. Reggie Ballard and I came in together as freshmen, and Robert “Bobby” Hammond was a freshman when I was a junior. Maurice Tyler and I were teammates for two years. 

“I was on the plane in Atlanta getting ready to take off when my wife called and told me what had happened,” Tyler said last week. “I spent the night with my niece [and] changed my flight back to Atlanta. I planned on being there until Sunday.”

Clockwise from left: William Rhoden took several of Andscape’s 2023 Rhoden Fellows to visit his alma mater, Morgan State University in Baltimore: Scott Lipscomb, Jaicee Christian, Pam Rentz and Zoey Hodge.

William Rhoden

I made two recent trips to Morgan. In July I attended Wilson’s family reunion with three Rhoden Fellows at the Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management, and we took a quick tour of campus. With students out during the summer session, the vibe was peaceful.

A month later, I took my brother and his husband, who were visiting from Germany, on a campus tour on our way from New York to Birmingham, Alabama, for the National Association of Black Journalists convention. During the visit, we stopped by O’Connell Hall, the dormitory where I had lived for all four years, and of course we stopped by Hughes Memorial Stadium, where I’d worked my way through college as a scholarship football player.

We could never have guessed that two months later the campus would be in shock in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

William Rhoden stands outside O’Connell Hall, the Morgan State University dormitory he lived in for four years.

William Rhoden

Tyler reminded me he grew up in Baltimore. For him, Morgan’s campus was a peaceful respite from where he was raised. 

“I grew up less than five miles from Morgan. I went to high school right down the street,” he said, referring to nearby Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School.

“There was more danger in my neighborhood than at any time during my years at Morgan. The TV series The Wire – that was Baltimore,” Tyler said. “However, it didn’t come on campus. I always felt safe on campus. During my time at Morgan most of the violence took place on the football field.”

There was only one time I felt unsafe. That’s when the National Guard came to campus in spring 1970 in the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State University. I was among the students protesting and made the mistake of picking up a tear gas canister. I spent the afternoon in the infirmary.

There also was an incident in O’Connell Hall when a drug deal went wrong and there was reportedly some gunplay in a room across the hall from mine, but fortunately I wasn’t there.

Each of us remembered an occasional incident but nothing like a mass shooting – or even being concerned about one.

We discussed how horrified we felt about the shooting — who wouldn’t be? However, we were more ambivalent about homecoming being canceled.

As members of the Morgan State football team, we saw homecoming through a rather hazy lens: We were the entertainment.

William Rhoden played cornerback at Morgan State University from 1968-1971.

William Rhoden

“Most of the time during homecoming, at least when we were students, we were always playing,” Tyler said, adding that what he enjoyed most about homecoming was meeting former Morgan players such as Pro Football Hall of Famers Willie Lanier and Roosevelt Brown and other former players who spoke to the team before the game, “and then the parties after we had won.”

Hammond said he was more focused on the homecoming game than the pageantry. 

“As a former student-athlete on a football scholarship, my goal and our team goal were to ensure that the squad was ready for a fantastic performance,” he said. “My thinking back then was that, particularly during homecoming, winning the game was the main objective since we were a part of the production and performance aspect of the event. … I didn’t really get a chance to savor and fully immerse myself in the celebrations until I was a returning alumnus years later.”

As his family has grown, Hammond has used Morgan’s homecoming to reconnect with teammates and introduce his grandchildren to the culture of historically Black colleges and universities.

“An HBCU homecoming is unlike any other event,” Hammond said. “When they’re ready for college, I also want them to feel a connection to the legacy and inform them of an amazing, highly feasible academic option.”

Friends flank William Rhoden (center) during Morgan State University’s homecoming game in 2021.

William Rhoden

Ballard always has had a deeper, more romantic attachment to homecoming. His father, Reginald Ballard Sr., attended Morgan between 1941 and 1943 and was intimately connected to the history of the university and its football program and especially to the legendary Edward P. Hurt, who coached football at Morgan from 1930 to 1959 and won 14 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships.

Reggie and his father taught me to appreciate Morgan tradition.

“My first memories of Morgan State homecoming were somewhere around the year 1958, when my father took me to my first homecoming,” Ballard said. “When we arrived on campus, one of the first views that I could see was the rolling fields in front of Cummings Hall.”

Morgan State University alumni Reginald Ballard (left) and Darwin Yarborough (right) on campus.

William Rhoden

Though it was a dreary, rainy day, Ballard recalled, the campus was lively as he and his father walked to the football stadium.

“I believe we were playing Norfolk State college at the time. All I can remember is it started to rain, and the band played throughout the game. It was a very joyous occasion,” he said. “The scoreboard lit up like a Christmas tree because Morgan’s football team continually scored points on Norfolk State, and the crowd sang and danced throughout the game. It was one of the most memorable occasions that I can remember of my young life.”

After the game he and his father went to Hurt’s home for dinner.

“My dad and I had a very entertaining evening. Safety was not an issue,” Ballard said. “Everybody was friendly, and all I could remember from that point on was that Morgan was the place that I wanted to attend college.”

William Rhoden (center) visits Morgan State University with former teammate Mark Washington (left) and former NFL player Calvin Hill (right).

William Rhoden

During our time at Morgan, the football team enjoyed success. When we arrived at Morgan in 1968, the football team had not lost a game in three seasons. Several players and many teammates had gone on to play pro football. Hammond spent five seasons in the NFL, and Tyler played for seven seasons in the NFL, two in the Canadian Football League and another two in the United States Football League.

We came along at a time of transition, not only with campus security issues but when HBCUs were a breeding ground for pro football talent. Hammond suggested that as members of a successful football team, we had been insulated. We largely existed in our own world, and things that affected “regular students” seemed foreign.

“I was aware of the several illegal activities that took place on campus. I would be more attentive but not to the point that I felt in danger,” he said. “Being a member of one of the bigger teams on campus, in my opinion, had benefits and an inherent deterrent. Few criminal elements or tough guys that I can remember were willing and able to ‘poke the bear.’ “

As we discussed the current realities of campus violence, Ballard, now an adjunct professor at Bowie State University, said he has seen an increase in security measures on Bowie’s campus, especially before homecoming over the weekend.

Despite those precautions, two people were shot at Bowie State on Saturday night after a week of homecoming festivities, according to Maryland State Police.

“This is the first year that I can remember that the campus has been closed on a Thursday so that they can have games and activities over the weekend,” Ballard said. “Security has been almost double, and the campus has been closed down basically just so that they could have activities over the weekend. These are security methods that are used when we have visits from the president of the United States or the vice president of the United States, not just for a homecoming weekend. I realize that times have really changed since our undergrad years, but I can’t say that it’s for the better.”

How do we keep our campuses open and keep our students safe? Short of building a wall, it seems like a mission impossible. But for all the focus on the shooting at Morgan, it’s important to understand this is not only a problem there:

  • In February, the Michigan State campus went on lockdown after a mass shooting took place in two buildings, leaving three students dead. The shooter took his own life.
  • On Aug. 26, a gunman with a bulletproof vest, gloves and mask attempted to enter the campus of Edward Waters University, a historically Black university in Jacksonville, Florida. Students alerted a public safety officer, who approached the car. The driver sped away — and then shot and killed three Black people at a nearby Dollar General store.
  • Two days later, on Aug. 28, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was locked down for three hours as an armed assailant roamed campus. He was taken into custody after fatally shooting a faculty member.

Viewed in this context, Morgan was fortunate: Though five people were injured, there were no fatalities. What’s unnerving is the shooters remain at large.

This is the reality students must live with, a reality that was a foreign concept when we stepped on campus 55 years ago. The campus has expanded and more buildings have been constructed, but the issues confronting administrators are more complex than ever.

I plan to visit campus on Oct. 19 when Morgan hosts North Carolina Central University, the defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Cricket Celebration Bowl champions.

William Rhoden (center) receives an honorary degree from his alma mater, Morgan State University, in 2019.

Morgan State University

Morgan joined the MEAC in 1971, and Ballard, Tyler, Hammond and I were on the team that won the inaugural MEAC title. The last time Morgan won the title was in 2014. The four of us agreed it would be great for Morgan to win the MEAC championship this year and travel to Atlanta for the Celebration Bowl.

Winning doesn’t cure all ills, but a winning season might speed up a desperately needed healing process. A shooting shattered the university’s peace; a winning season might just help the campus put itself back together.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.