Tracking the legacy of HBCU football in 2,500 miles
William Rhoden took a road trip to uncover the stories that uplifted Black people, our colleges and traditions
It doesn’t take much to get me to hit the open road, so earlier this month, when one of the Rhoden Fellows suggested taking an HBCU road trip in an RV to trace the roots of Black college football, I was all-in.
Happily, so was The Undefeated.
There were several news pegs for this trip. In November, Kamala Harris became the first Black woman and the first person of South Asian descent to be elected vice president of the United States. The fact that Harris was a Howard University alum put all eyes on the unique world of historically Black colleges and universities.
Then last year with great fanfare, Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders was named football coach at Jackson State University. Not to be outdone, Tennessee State University introduced Hall of Famer Eddie George as its football coach earlier this year. Never mind that neither former NFL star had college coaching experience. The important part of the story was that two Black NFL stars were bringing national attention to Black institutions.
As the Fellows and I discussed all the attention paid to the hiring of Sanders and George, a number of questions arose. The recurring question was why did the attention go away from HBCUs in the first place.
That question was the genesis of my road trip: Where did all the Black gold go? And will it ever return? These Fellows represent part of the answer. They are the fifth class of undergrads — aspiring journalists — selected annually from HBCUs to produce content for The Undefeated and ESPN. They spark conversations and debate about the state of Black colleges and they constantly remind me that my primary role is lighting the way and passing the torch to them as others have passed it to me.
About the trip: I have taken five cross-country trips by car. This 2,500-mile excursion through five states would be different. I’d be in a full-blown recreational vehicle in the company of a crew that would document the history, which I divided into three sections: where we’ve been, where we are, and most challenging, where we’re going. You can see Rhoden’s Road Trip on ESPN+ beginning on Wednesday.
My journey started in 1968
When I left Chicago for Morgan State College in August 1968 on a football scholarship, the world of Black college football was bursting with pride, possibility and promise. On top of that, HBCU marching bands such as Florida A&M’s high-stepping Marching 100 had turned the world of college bands inside out. This was the golden age of Black college football, an era that began roughly after World War II.
When I left for Morgan State, the war between the fledgling American Football League and the established National Football League was at a fever pitch, with renegade AFL millionaires battling established NFL millionaires for muscle. While the NFL continued its tradition of placing quotas on Black talent, the AFL went all-in on Black muscle. What gems they found. Indeed, Black college football became the AFL’s gold mine. You can make the argument that Black college football players pushed the AFL over the top and eventually forced the NFL to accept a merger.
Looking back, we see that 1968 was the tail end of the golden age. HBCU football was like an open faucet that gushed Black talent. The question I explored on this trip was why did that faucet close and whether it will reopen.
It’s a question that Sanders and George will have to confront as they attempt to bring Black gold to their respective campuses. Sanders left North Fort Myers High School in Florida for Florida State, and bypassed Florida A&M (FAMU); Eddie George left Fork Union Military Academy and chose Ohio State, bypassing the HBCU universe. They’re back now — better late than never — so how will Sanders and George convince blue-chip Black talent to do what they didn’t do? What constitutes progress? Do you sacrifice the survival of Black institutions for a wider opportunity that eventually accrues to the advantage of white institutions?
The NAACP, as part of its assault on the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, believed that Black people had to be willing to “give up their little kingdoms” at HBCUs for the greater good. With most Black college students now attending predominantly white institutions and virtually every great Black high school player doing the same, the question is have we achieved the greater good.
WHERE WE’VE BEEN
During the course of a five-decade career in journalism, I’ve visited hundreds of college campuses. Been there for big games and experienced the tailgating. Each campus had its own history and traditions. None of them connected with me.
When I stepped onto the campus of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, on the first stop of this HBCU road trip, I felt a connection. Livingstone was the site of the very first Black college football game on Dec. 27, 1892, against Biddle College, now known as Johnson C. Smith University.
Those students couldn’t know that 129 years later, Black college football, complemented by the pageantry of marching bands, would be a cultural staple on HBCUs campuses.
Only a handful of curious spectators watched Biddle and Livingstone slog around in the snow that afternoon. In September 1968, 76 years later, two HBCU programs — Morgan State and Grambling — would play a football game before more than 63,000 mostly Black fans at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
My trip to Livingstone was the first of many reminders I’d receive along the way about the uncertain nature of legacy. In the moment, you aren’t always aware that you’re building something that will echo across generations. This trip and the history it uncovered spoke to the importance of being intentional about building one’s legacy, pulling younger generations along and being ever aware how much today and tomorrow depend on yesterday.
There were no marching bands on the Livingstone campus that day. I’m not sure how HBCU football and marching bands become linked, but a historic symmetry took place in 1892. As the roots of Black college football were being laid at Livingstone that year, the seeds of Black marching band culture were planted in Tallahassee, Florida, by P.A. Van Weller, who organized the first band at FAMU, then called State Normal College for Colored Students.
There would be other band directors but it was William P. Foster who provided the impetus for innovation that would make the FAMU marching band world-famous. I spoke with Foster’s youngest son, Anthony, in Tallahassee, about his father’s legacy. Foster’s journey to greatness was familiar — familiar to African Americans. The essence of his success is the building blocks we instill in the Rhoden Fellows: determination, hard work, resilience and the pursuit of excellence.
A native of Kansas City, Kansas, Foster attended the University of Kansas. He endured the humiliation of segregation to get the benefit of the KU music education he so desperately wanted. A few days before graduation, Foster stopped by the dean’s office to discuss his future. When Foster shared that his desire was to become a band director and conductor, the KU dean told him that he should abandon that course of action, that there was no future in a white world for a Black conductor.
Foster left, determined to create such a world for himself and determined to create a band that was superior to any white band. Throughout the course of my 2,500-mile journey, we would hear similar stories of resolve and determination, grounded in a sense of mission to create a trail for others to follow.
From Kansas, Foster worked as a bandleader at a Black high school, went on to Fort Valley State College, and then to Tuskegee Institute. Foster was recruited from Tuskegee by FAMU in 1946 with the marching orders to put the school on the map with a world-class marching band. Foster wanted to create great musicians who happened to march. He wanted pageantry, drama and energy. Over the next decade, Foster turned the staid orthodoxy of college marching bands inside out. He was effectively the Charlie “Bird” Parker of marching bands. As Bird changed the nature of jazz music and expanded possibilities, Foster created an unprecedented high-stepping, show-stopping marching band with a unique symphonic sound. The marching band became so famous that in 1989 the French government invited Foster and his band to perform at the parade marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
Foster’s impact is memorialized by his house, which has been turned into a museum. Jake Gaither’s impact is memorialized by a statue. A year before Foster’s arrival, Gaither was named FAMU’s head football coach. Gaither was charged with creating as great a dynasty on the football field as Foster would create with his marching band. Gaither was part of a second wave of great HBCU football coaches that included Tennessee State’s John Merritt, Morgan’s Earl Banks, Alcorn’s Marino Casem and Mississippi Valley’s Archie Cooley. Each coach used the suffocating barriers of segregation to give Black football players an opportunity and built fantastic football programs. They specialized in finding diamonds in the rough. While big schools in the Midwest and West skimmed off the cream of the crop, HBCUs developed athletes who needed polish and sent them to the NFL.
So, what happened to the HBCU faucet that produced so many pro players in the 1960s and early 1970s? How was it turned off? I often wonder if those great Black coaches of the era would have anticipated integration, could they have built an infrastructure that continued to attract top Black players even after schools in the South began the wholesale recruitment of Black athletes. Probably not.
GREAT IS ABOUT A PLAN AND PREPARATION
I had this conversation in Orlando, Florida, with James “Shack” Harris, the legendary Grambling quarterback who enjoyed a 12-year pro football career in both the AFL and NFL.
As an All-American quarterback, Harris was a key character in the golden era of HBCU football.
I first met Shack — indirectly — in September 1968. I was an 18-year-old freshman at Morgan, Shack was a senior “all-everything” at Grambling. We met in Yankee Stadium for a sold-out clash of titans that neither of us will ever forget. The game was a national coming-out party for HBCU football, the Whitney Young Classic. More than eight players in that game were drafted — one, Charlie Joiner, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills and made history by becoming the first African American to start a regular-season NFL game at quarterback. In 1975, Harris, then with the Los Angeles Rams, became the first Black quarterback to start and win an NFL playoff game.
From Orlando, we drove the RV to Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, the scene of the 1970 game between the University of Southern California and Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama Crimson Tide.
This is where the HBCU faucet began to be shut off.
Alabama was humiliated 42-21 in the Sept. 12, 1970, game that showcased a bevy of great Black USC players led by Sam “Bam” Cunningham at fullback and Birmingham native Clarence Davis. USC even had an African American quarterback, Jimmy Jones.
Richard Carter coached at Bullock County High School in Alabama at the time. He said that while Alabama’s humiliation didn’t lead to wholesale integration in the South, it set the tone and cracked the door.
Carter remembered the game as though it were yesterday.
“The atmosphere was electric because everybody, regardless to who Alabama played, Alabama was expected to win. Everybody thought that they were going to win, but then once they unleashed Sam Cunningham, it was proven fact then that there was no way. I mean, he just, he romped all over this field up here. I mean, he punished people and I think that was one of the things that persuaded Bryant to persuade his board of trustees. And he carried a lot of weight in this state and that persuaded him to say, ‘Hey, we need to go and try to recruit the best Black athletes in our state as well.’ “
By 1975, the Southeastern Conference would be fully desegregated.
The faucet was turned off at HBCU programs, but it continues to gush at predominantly white institutions with big-time football programs that now thrive on the Black muscle they once shunned.
But there clearly is top-level talent that finds its way to HBCU programs. We caught up with one such player in Huntsville, Alabama.
Quarterback Aqeel Glass was not highly recruited out of high school in St. Louis. His father played at Alabama A&M. His mother went to Howard, and he had enough faith in his talent to believe that he can play his way into the NFL.
Glass is on a mission: He wants to play quarterback in the NFL. Even as the NFL seems to have turned away from HBCUs — only one HBCU player was taken in last year’s draft, and none this year — Glass sees himself in the tradition of great HBCU quarterbacks such as Harris and Steve McNair, who flourished in the NFL.
I was encouraged about the future of HBCU football after hearing Glass talk.
HBCUs may never compete with the resources and material accouterments of big-time programs. But as the players at Livingstone proved in 1892, Foster displayed with his FAMU band and Black coaches who did much with little have proven over the years: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Glass has the will.
“The size of the stadium doesn’t matter,” Glass told me in Huntsville. “Michigan has 110 people on their football team, just like we do, and not every one of those players get drafted. So, at the end of the day, if you want to go for the glitz and glamour, then of course the big schools are for you. But, if you really want to make your mark and have a community and a following and an alumni base that truly care about you and love you and have a place where you can go at any time, HBCU is for you.”
Glass added that he is following footsteps and creating footsteps for others to follow.
“I think it’s thinking about more than just yourself. At the end of the day, you’re creating a legacy for not only yourself at the present, but you’re building things in the future.”