Home Best of 2021: My Year in HBCU Football

Best of 2021: My Year in HBCU Football

by killyp

The decision to move the 2020 FCS football season to Spring 2021 aimed at increasing the chances of completing a full, interrupted year in the midst of COVID-19.  Though it was an imperfect solution with opt-outs, game cancellations and no fans in some locations, that goal was indeed accomplished.  Conference champions were crowned and a 16 team playoff bracket culminated in Sam Houston State winning their first FCS title.

The Spring FCS season also presented a unique opportunity for a self-described “game traveler” such as myself.  Division I football has 258 teams: 130 FBS football schools and 128 FCS schools.  With only 13-15 Saturdays each Fall season, it’s impossible to attend all the games I’d like to.  So given the chance to focus solely on FCS for a 3-4 month period was something I took full advantage of.

The vast majority of my travels were to the South.  The Northeast, Midwest and West were either not playing or not allowing fans.  Most of the South, by contrast, was both playing and allowing fans.  The OVC (Ohio Valley Conference), SoCon (Southern Conference), The Big South and the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) all offered games in the region.

The SWAC really piqued my interest.  Over the years I’d visited many SWAC stadiums during my travels.  It’s amazing to think about the conference’s rich football history and the countless NFL Hall of Famers who played for these universities.  Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Deacon Jones, Mel Blount, Willie Brown…the list is almost endless.  I was beyond thrilled to finally catch actual games at some of their most significant stadiums.  Additionally the OVC played many Sunday games during the Spring, so I wanted to see Tennessee State play a home game in Nashville as well.  My Spring 2021 slate was as follows:

  • 2/26/21 – Southern @ Alabama State
  • 3/6/21 – Jackson State @ Grambling
  • 3/28/21 – UT Martin @ Tennessee State
  • 4/10/21 – Alabama A&M @ Jackson State
  • 4/17/21 – Magic City Classic (Legion Field: Alabama A&M vs Alabama State)
  • 5/1/21 – SWAC Championship (Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium: Alabama A&M vs UAPB)

Talk about a murderer’s row of incredible stadiums!  New ASU Stadium in Montgomery is probably the “nicest” looking venue in the SWAC (Prairie A&M & UAPB are right there too):

The energy at Eddie Robinson Stadium (aka ‘The Hole’) was electric for the Grambling-JSU game.  Watching Alabama A&M’s QB Aqeel Glass put up over 400 yards and 5 TDs at ‘The Vet’ in Jackson was an incredible sight.  And getting to see him do it twice more, first at the Magic City Classic and then at the SWAC Championship game, convinced me he was the best quarterback I’d seen all Spring.

It wasn’t just seeing the stadiums and talented players that made it so great though.  It was my interactions with HBCU/SWAC enthusiasts.  Getting the opportunity to talk with passionate fans at the games was really a lot of fun.  Social media played a huge role as well and Twitter was where I formed the best connections with the HBCU community.  I was able to interview several of the most well-known HBCU personalities over Zoom during the Spring season:

  • BJ Jones (@InsideHBCUFball):  I interviewed BJ twice and he has been a great resource for all of my HBCU/SWAC football related questions.  His Tuesday night Twitter Spaces attracts coaches, players, fans, etc and sometimes lasts 3-4 hours.  A great place to gain knowledge in real time and interact with HBCU football fans.
  • Keisha Kelley (@BlackCollegExp):  She is one of the best ambassadors for HBCU athletics, period.  Whether it’s as an advocate, fundraiser or media personality, her love for what she does is infectious.  It’s inspiring to see her in action.
  • De’fron Fobb (@coachfobb):  Creator of the Anthony Lawrence Collection (@ALCollection) HBCU clothing line.  I wore his shirts to all of my games and then give away my followers.  High quality clothing and I can’t begin you how many times people asked me where I got my shirts from.
  • Duane Nash (@TheYardHBCU):  Duane founded www.theyardhbcu.com and runs the Hero Sports HBCU Twitter account.  He is a wealth of knowledge and an excellent interview.  A North Carolina A&T grad, his insight and perspective have also been a great help to me.

Building on the momentum from the Spring, I was very excited for the Fall season.  Though we were back to both FBS and FCS playing full schedules, I made HBCU games a high priority.  Here’s what my Fall 2021 HBCU football schedule looked like:

  • 9/16/21 – Alabama A&M @ Bethune-Cookman
  • 9/23/21 – Alcorn State @ UAPB
  • 9/26/21 – Southern @ Mississippi Valley State (at ‘The Vet’)
  • 9/30/21 – UAPB @ Prairie View A&M
  • 10/8/21 – Morgan State @ Howard
  • 10/23/21 – Prairie View A&M @ Southern
  • 11/4/21 – Delaware State @ Morgan State

The difference between the Spring and Fall was full stadiums.  The bands were back and tailgating was in full force.  A true, authentic snapshot of what HBCU football is all about.  There were so many highlights for me, too many to list them all in fact.  Here’s some of my best experiences summarized:

  • I met Charles McClelland, the SWAC’s commissioner, at the Houston airport. We were both waiting to fly to Little Rock for the UAPB game and he was nice enough to chat with me.  We talked about how the Spring season enhanced exposure for the conference and that TV ratings were really high for the first month of the Fall season.  We discussed the fundraiser for new turf/track at Mississippi Valley State, as well as possible conference expansion.  An awesome conversation with Commissioner McClelland and I really appreciated his time.
  • I had great interactions with Chris Robinson, Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Athletic Director, as well.  When I met him outside of the stadium prior to the UAPB game, I was dressed head-to-toe in UAPB colors.  He complimented my gear, but afterwards I changed into ‘neutral’ clothes because the media credential I was given said ‘Alcorn State sideline’.  I thought it was bad idea to be dressed in UAPB stuff on the Alcorn State sideline for obvious reasons.  When he saw me again he asked where my UAPB gear went and when I told him why I changed, he said “I like your UAPB clothes better, let’s fix your credential”.  He gave me a new pass with ‘All-Access’ and I changed back into my UAPB clothes.  Pretty funny story.
  • In Daytona Beach, I went to the Bethune-Cookman-Alabama A&M game dressed in a BCU shirt.  I planned on walking around the stadium throughout the game, but when it started raining buckets I was ‘stuck’ on the Alabama A&M side.  A Bulldog fan approached me and asked “Why are you on the AAMU side with a BCU shirt?”  When I told him about my travels he liked what he heard and told me “you need some AAMU gear”.  He took my name and address and said he was going to mail me something.  I didn’t really think it was going to happen, but a couple weeks later I received a package with two new AAMU shirts.  I was blown away and posted it on Twitter:

  • I attended Southern’s homecoming and spent the entire day in Baton Rouge.  De’fron had just opened his new AL Collection store on Harding Blvd, which is right next to AW Mumford Stadium.  I visited and met him for the first time.  A great guy who told me I could take any apparel I wanted for free.  Talk about being generous.  I didn’t want to greedy, so I grabbed a pair of Southern shorts and thanked him.  I spent a couple hours tailgating and met a ton of enthusiastic Jaguar fans.  I had a great time at the game and captured one of the best ‘Shots of the night’ all season the sun went down over the top of the stadium:

  • I also met Tiffany Greene and Jay Walker on multiple occasions.  The top announcing team for ESPN’s HBCU football coverage of course.  I introduced myself to them at UAPB and they had no idea who I was, but they were both nice to me.  Two weeks later at Prairie View , Tiffany waved in my direction and I looked behind me to see if she was actually waving at me haha.  She was, which was pretty cool.  And when I saw her again during the Friday night broadcast at Morgan State, she said “you’re everywhere!”  Really awesome to get that kind of recognition from one of the most well-known people in HBCU football.

I could go on and on, as there are countless other stories which demonstrate how much fun I had in 2021 following HBCU football.  In total, I went to 13 games and have now seen a game at 7 of the 12 SWAC football schools:  Alabama State, Bethune-Cookman, Grambling, Jackson State, Prairie View, Southern and UAPB.  Remaining are Alabama A&M, Alcorn State, Florida A&M, Mississippi Valley State and Texas Southern.  I’ve also seen games at 3 MEAC schools (Howard, Morgan State & Norfolk State) and now have Delaware State, NC Central and South Carolina State remaining.  Not to mention North Carolina A&T and all of the ‘Classics’.  I’ve been to the Magic City Classic, but not other games such as the Bayou Classic, Orange Blossom Classic, Florida Classic.  Commission McClelland told me that the Bayou Classic is like a Super Bowl atmosphere inside the New Orleans Super Dome, but with 100,000+ people outside of the game as well.  That paints quite a vivid picture.

The only reason I was able to even begin to immerse myself in the HBCU football community is because the Fall 2020 season was moved to Spring 2021 due to COVID-19.  A blessing in disguise.  I knew at minimum that I would get to see some extra football games, but I never imagined all of the positive experiences that would come along with it.  Literally life altering interactions that have reshaped my goals as a college football fan and “stadium traveler”.  I know the 2021 HBCU football season just ended a couple weeks ago with South Carolina State’s victory in the Celebration Bowl, but I can’t wait for Fall 2022.  Looking forward to adding more great experiences in some new places.  The off-season cannot go by fast enough!

@CFBcampustour (Twitter & Instagram)