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Red Tails Classic

Matchup of Tuskegee and Fort Valley State should be battle of dueling offenses

These traditional rivals meet in a new classic that honors the Tuskegee Airmen

There’s a uniqueness to HBCU football that is impossible to replicate.

Whether it’s 1,500 fans or 150,000 of them packed into a historically Black college and university (HBCU) stadium, there’s no duplicating the pageantry. The pomp and the circumstance – from the drumline to the dancers to the generations of alumni whose fandom is part of their DNA.

And, while Sunday’s matchup of Tuskegee University and Fort Valley State in the inaugural Boeing Red Tails Classic isn’t on the level of the Magic City Classic or the Bayou Classic, Gregory Moore can appreciate that it could be the beginning of something greater.

“Outside of the Power 5 leagues,” explained Moore, commissioner of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC), “generally national television exposure for athletic events can be difficult to secure; as a consequence, I’m certain that student-athletes, coaches, students, alumni and fans from both Tuskegee University and Fort Valley State very much appreciate the opportunity to showcase these two historic football programs. From the SIAC league office perspective, this game is part of a much larger and quite special media partnership between the SIAC and ESPN that will include an additional 22 football games appearing on ESPN platforms this fall.”

As such, the inaugural game – which will air at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU – should benefit from the additional exposure that television coverage can provide, shining a light on two Division II programs whose history is rarely seen outside of their borders.

This matchup, played at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, will feature more than football. It will spotlight the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces, who served during World War II. The game will give fans nationwide an opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments.

What it means for the game to be played as a kind of commemoration of the Tuskegee Airmen’s service to the nation is not lost on Moore.

“The Red Tails Classic is not only a great idea, but a great gesture on the part of ESPN to honor the historical contributions and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen,” he said. “I look forward to seeing this event mature into one of the premier HBCU events in short order.”

Teams Packed with Promise

Tuskegee University coach Willie Slater has one of the historically stronger teams in the SIAC. The Golden Tigers, who were 5-5 overall in 2019, 4-2 in conference play, are predicted to finish in second place in the West Division of the conference.

Slater greatly relies on two offensive stars: running back Taurean Taylor and wide receiver Steven Hodges.

Taylor had 99 carries for 597 yards and six touchdowns in 2019, leading the team in rushing with an impressive 6.0 yards per rush.

Hodges has the ability to stretch the field with his quickness. His 31 catches for 535 yards and one touchdown were good enough for 17.26 yards per reception in 2019.

“It’s important for us to build on where the country is right now through sports, which has always been a unifier. When you consider all those things coming together: Labor Day weekend, the Red Tails Classic, illuminating the Black excellence … I think that is very, very important.”

Montgomery, Alabama, Mayor Steven Reed

And Fort Valley State, which finished 2019 at 6-4 overall and 4-2 in SIAC play, is quietly impressive. Coach Maurice Flowers’ Wildcats were picked to finish third in the East Division. Flowers’ standout players include defensive lineman Jahseari Patterson and cornerback Zach Anderson, who earned preseason all-conference honors.

Patterson had 48 total and 23 solo tackles with 6.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries in 2019. Anderson registered 61 total and 24 solo tackles. Both are stalwarts against the run.

As Hodges does for Tuskegee University, wide receiver Shemar Bridges gives the Wildcats a deep threat. He led the team with 51 receptions for 765 yards and four touchdowns in 2019, averaging 15.0 yards a catch. These two rosters full of talent ensure that, for such a significant game, the players will do their part. And, while it’s yet to be determined how quickly the Boeing Red Tails Classic will grow into one of the elite HBCU games – with all the trimmings of the Florida Blue Florida Classic, which is regularly televised – Steven Reed, mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, is a believer.

It’s special – to have this game take place right here in Montgomery,” said Reed. “It shows how we value HBCUs, the students, the alumni and how we value the sport of football and the stage that comes along with it. It’s important for us to build on where the country is right now through sports, which has always been a unifier. When you consider all those things coming together: Labor Day weekend, the Red Tails Classic, illuminating the Black excellence that existed far before hashtags were thought about. I think that is very, very important.”

Donald Hunt, a writer for the Philadelphia Tribune, is a longtime ESPN contributor who has covered Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Follow him on Twitter at @DHUNTTRIB.