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Was the 2022 NFL draft the start of giving HBCUs a chance again?

The HBCU-to-pros pipeline may not be as rich as it was 30 years ago, but former NFL player and Delaware State coach Rod Milstead believes the talent and dedication are there

Rod Milstead remembers every detail of his NFL draft day experience in April 1992.

He had finished a successful career as an undersized offensive lineman at Delaware State, a historically Black university in Dover, Delaware. To celebrate what he anticipated would be a triumphant moment, Milstead threw a draft party at a friend’s house.

“We were sitting around all day long and all my boys were there, so we were feeling really good,” Milstead said during a phone conversation Friday. “I remember watching it on ESPN and just seeing the first round, seeing the second round.”

Milstead, an All-American and three-time All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference guard, anticipated being drafted in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, the 49ers chose Brian Bollinger, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound guard from the University of North Carolina.

“I got frustrated and I went to sleep,” Milstead recalled. 

He received a phone call from his agent at 8:30 that evening with the good news: Milstead had been selected in the fifth round by the Dallas Cowboys. He was the 121st player and fifth guard taken.

Thirty years later, Milstead watched this year’s NFL draft as the football coach at his alma mater, Delaware State. After an eight-year NFL career and stints as a high school coach and an offensive line coach at North Carolina Central University, Milstead was named coach in 2018.

“It was an emotional time,” he said of being drafted. “Every year at this time I think about it and it brings back a lot of emotion, because from the time you start playing football, you always say, ‘Well, you want to go pro.’ And then when it happens, it’s a real soothing, numbing type of emotion that all these years that you’ve worked and dreamt about hearing your name called and being in an NFL uniform and being with the guys that you’ve seen on TV … now, you’re going to be one of them.”

The presence of players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the NFL draft has changed substantially in the three decades since Milstead was drafted, and has become a source of controversy and debate.

Rod Milstead (left) played in the NFL for eight seasons after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of historically Black Delaware State.

Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

“Since then [the 1990s], it’s slacked off, and so, it makes you question: Is it the fact that we don’t get the exposure that we could? But we didn’t get the exposure back in 1992, either.”

Although the heyday of HBCU football players in the NFL draft ended in the early 1970s, Milstead was part of a brief renaissance. The year Milstead was drafted, Robert Porcher of South Carolina State, Jimmy Smith of Jackson State and James Brown from Virginia State were relatively high draft picks. Porcher was drafted in the first round by Detroit, Smith was a second-round pick of the Cowboys and Brown was drafted in the third round by Dallas.

The 1990s overall were good for HBCU football in the NFL draft. Besides Porcher, six players chosen in the first round were from HBCUs: Lester Holmes from Jackson State, defensive end John Thierry and quarterback Steve McNair from Alcorn State, defensive end Hugh Douglas from Central State, cornerback Tyrone Poole from Fort Valley State and offensive tackle Jamain Stephens from North Carolina A&T.

“Since then [the 1990s], it’s slacked off,” Milstead said, “and so, it makes you question: Is it the fact that we don’t get the exposure that we could? But we didn’t get the exposure back in 1992, either.”

On Saturday, the final day of the NFL draft, four HBCU players were selected: Joshua Williams of Fayetteville State was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Los Angeles Rams drafted Decobie Durant from South Carolina State, both cornerbacks going late in the fourth round. Linebacker James Houston of Jackson State was drafted by the Lions in the sixth round, and offensive guard Ja’Tyre Carter of Southern was taken in the seventh round by the Chicago Bears.

“Each of those players [has] NFL measurables,” Milstead said on Saturday. “I’m just very happy for those guys.

“Hopefully, this will open up the spigot and encourage more teams to take a serious look at players from HBCUs.”

HBCU football has a rich history. I was part of the so-called golden age of Black college football at Morgan State when talented Black players routinely attended HBCUs because white programs would not recruit them. Then came the lean years when white schools began snatching up Black football players who traditionally went to HBCUs.

Milstead, 52, is part of a reconnective era. HBCU football is attempting to create a new legacy by attracting players with an assortment of sales pitches that emphasize history, tradition and the notion that talent will ultimately prevail.

Milstead is a shining example of that last principle. Indeed, his path to the NFL via the HBCU pipeline is a blueprint of how HBCU football can once again become a consistent pipeline to the NFL. The greatest selling point is not just football but self-discovery. 

“I learned how to be a Black man at Delaware State,” he said.

Delaware State wide receiver Kwannah Kollie does a broad jump at the NFL HBCU combine at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama, on Jan. 29. It was the first combine for historically Black colleges and universities.

Dan Anderson/AP Images for NFL

Milstead, born in Washington and raised in Bryans Road, Maryland, won a Maryland state title at Lackey High School in 1986. He wanted to attend the University of Maryland, but the Terrapins’ football coach at the time told Milstead’s high school coach that his players were too small.

“That crushed my dreams,” Milstead said. “That was a dagger.” 

Delaware State was not his second choice, and Milstead said he did not want to attend an HBCU and had misgivings in general about attending a Black institution.

“I grew up in a very integrated, predominantly white institution,” Milstead said. “I guess you could say, if you ever heard the description of an Oreo, that’s probably what I would’ve been labeled back then. Definitely Black on the outside, but definitely white on the inside.

“Not saying that in a negative way, but when you don’t have a concept of self and you don’t have ownership of self, meaning of your self’s culture, then you’re lost. And that was me. I was totally lost.”

Milstead didn’t know about the rich history of HBCUs, their legacy of educating some of the best and brightest — and their legacy of producing great football players.

He blossomed at Delaware State on and off the field.

“So these things I was ignorant of. I didn’t even know who Medgar Evers was and I was living in Medgar Evers dorm,” he said, referring to the slain civil rights leader. “The only thing I knew about Black history was it was in February, slavery, Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman. And that was the sad part. That was the reality that really broke the camel’s back. That opened my eyes to make me realize that I need to focus in on being a Black man and understanding where we come from, understanding those that have come before me and that have paved the way so that I could play this game of football.

“I don’t care how long I coach at Delaware State. I can never repay them for what they’ve given me because it keeps giving to me as we speak today. And that’s why that school is so special to me.”

Still, the mountain for HBCU football to climb remains steep, no matter how many players are drafted. HBCUs can offer nurturing and a family atmosphere. Predominantly white institutions offer resources.

“That’s a huge challenge,” Milstead said. “When you have a school like Maryland with the new facilities, indoor arena, football practice facilities, and big weight rooms and nice locker rooms, if it’s too hot, they just go inside. If it’s too cold, they go inside. So, they have options. We don’t have that option.

“When we played in the spring in ’21, when it was 11 degrees, we were outside. I mean, I remember kicking ice off the field so that we could practice, and our guys never complained. We’re just used to it.”

Milstead said he went to Delaware State with the idea of playing pro ball. That contradicts a certain HBCU narrative that football athletes who attend HBCUs jettison the idea of reaching the NFL and focus on being students. 

“Every kid is looking for the NFL, OK? We got to stop playing with ourselves,” Milstead said. “Every kid from Division III, NAIA, Division II, every kid feels they have the skill set to make it to the league. Period. OK? Period. That’s the bottom line. Now in all actuality, less than 1% actually get an opportunity to try out for a pro team.”

Milstead went to Delaware State with the idea of being part of that 1%.

“Absolutely. I wanted to go to the NFL since my junior year in high school when Bruce Davis, who’s an alumnus of my high school and played for the Raiders and went to UCLA, came back and accepted a Hall of Fame award,” Milstead said.

“I looked at him and realized he went to the same high school, wore the same helmets, was in the same locker room. And I made my mind that day that if he could do it, I could do it. So, my life was really geared towards getting to the NFL. That’s what I thought about.”

Southern offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter, pictured at the NFL combine in February, was picked in the seventh round of the NFL draft on April 30.

Justin Casterline/Getty Images

“I just wish that there was something that we could do to entice NFL personnel to really give a good assessment of the HBCU players. … We may not have the best top-of-the-line facilities, but we’re so used to making do with what we have. That’s been our culture. That’s been in our blood from day one.”

When Milstead thinks back on draft day 1992, he thinks about how he would like more players, from Delaware State and from HBCU schools in general, to share that experience.

That means HBCU coaches have to recruit better and coach harder. It also means NFL teams must change their sometimes dismissive attitude toward HBCU football.

“I just wish that there was something that we could do to entice NFL personnel to really give a good assessment of the HBCU players,” Milstead said. “Understand that those guys work just as hard. We may not have the best top-of-the-line facilities, but we’re so used to making do with what we have. That’s been our culture. That’s been in our blood from day one.”

All it may take is a handful of HBCU players to break out — as Walter Payton of Jackson State did, as Jerry Rice of Mississippi Valley State did, as Darius Leonard of South Carolina State is doing.

“When one team jumps out there and starts really drafting a lot of HBCU players, that’s when it’s going to open up everyone’s eyes,” Milstead said. “They’re going to start sending a lot of scouts out to HBCU schools, and our guys are going to get the same opportunities. That’s my goal. That’s my dream. And I hope and pray that I’ll be able to see that within the next couple of years.”

The pipeline from HBCUs to the NFL may never be as wide as it was in the 1960s or 1970s. Or even as wide as it was in 1992. But Milstead believes there are talented football players who want an HBCU experience.

The challenge is to show them they can still make it to the NFL. Perhaps this year’s NFL draft was a start.

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.