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Only with TV and fan support will the Celebration Bowl be here for the long haul

Predecessors Pelican and Heritage bowls lacked key support

His glasses sit right at the bridge of his nose, and veteran eyes wander from page to page. His work area is organized – to him, for sure – surrounded by game stats, a media guide, team rosters, and a Coke. His cellphone is on silent; his laptop in sleep mode.

As North Carolina Central marches down the field on its first offensive drive – in the second annual Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl – Bill Hamilton records every play, the same way he’s always done it: with a pen and notebook.

He’s dressed all in black – as to not show his allegiance to either team, but everyone who knows this former longtime sports information director at South Carolina State University knows he is rooting for the team reppin’ the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).

Brandon McLaren’s field goal with six minutes and five seconds to go in the first quarter is the game’s first score, and Hamilton can rest for a bit – until the next kickoff.

Hamilton is old-school, and we say that respectfully. “The Hardest Working Man in Orangeburg” has been retired since 2013, but the pull of the game is always there. When the phone rang, he was already dressed.

“I’m just here helping out — recording stats and plays for the game,” said Hamilton, 67, a member of three halls of fame (S.C. State Athletics, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and College Sports Information of America). “I just love it.”

It’s fitting that Hamilton is here – recording and logging history. As the fledgling Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl continues to establish itself as the game to crown a champion of black college football, Hamilton remembers a time when, some four decades ago, the Pelican Bowl had the same mission.

“In 1974, I was in my second year as the sports information director at South Carolina State,” recalled Hamilton. “The Pelican Bowl was festive … in the Super Dome. We didn’t have a real large crowd, but it was an event that we thought had a chance to grow. It was a well-played game. [Quarterback] Doug Williams was a freshman that year and we lost to Grambling 28-7.”

The Pelican Bowl, established in 1972, matched the overall champions or top-seeded co-champions from the MEAC and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).

The game, however, was short-lived – due to low attendance – and folded following the 1975 contest; the concept would be revived from 1991 to 1999 with the Heritage Bowl.

Hamilton blames lack of marketing, poorly staffed schools and lack of buy-in. “Only the two schools [participating in the game] were supporting the game and we needed fan support from both leagues,” he said.

The Celebration Bowl, established in 2015, sits on the shoulders of the Pelican and Heritage bowls. With a corporate partner in the Air Force Reserve, the game plans to be around for a long time, but in a crowded bowl universe and the need to make a profit, success is far from a guarantee.

MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas is optimistic: “If we look ahead to the 10th anniversary of the Celebration Bowl, I want us to consistently fill this stadium with not only fans from both institutions playing in the game, but fans of HBCU football – period. It can’t be something that only two schools hold up, we need buy-in from the school level, from the institution level, from the corporate level on down to the fans and alumni.”

Times are also different. The inaugural Celebration Bowl, played at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 2015, opened the bowl season and was televised live on ABC. Upward of 35,000 fans – including Hamilton – saw North Carolina A&T edge Alcorn State 41–34. The game drew a 1.9 overnight rating, the second highest of the day, trailing only the Las Vegas Bowl, according to Sports Media Watch.

“I was very pleased with year one,” Hamilton said. “There was support from other schools and other conferences. That’s the only way it’s going to sustain itself,” he said, looking over his crystal ball spectacles. “I hope we come very close to filling this place up. I think that can happen. I like the progressive athletic administrations. I think they see an opportunity to build and make it something lasting.”

Williams, who went on to lead the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl in 1988 – the first African-American quarterback to win the Lombardi trophy – remembers the Pelican Bowl fondly.

“It was a great game,” said Williams, the eventual MVP who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in the Grambling win. “It reminds of me of this game today. Black college football was at its pinnacle. Schools had players all over the NFL. The Pelican Bowl is no different than me following greats like James ‘Shack’ Harris and Joe Gilliam.

“What the Celebration Bowl has that the Pelican and Heritage didn’t is TV. That’s what’s going to keep these games alive. At the same time, we as black colleges have to support it and find a way to make sure that even if your school isn’t participating in the game, that we show up and show out and support the bowl.”

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