Jim Gazzolo column: HBCUs more than sports

Published 10:28 am Thursday, September 16, 2021

When not everyone was welcome on the grass fields of major college football programs, these schools allowed those a place to play.

By doing so, Historically Black Colleges and Universities gave hope to many who otherwise may have seen the doors to their future locked.

Forget the number of great players who came out of these institutions, but rather remember the doctors, lawyers, educators and all the other professionals who got a chance to further their eductions thanks to HBCU football programs.

In doing so they saw their lives change, their families’ lives change. A college degree can alter the direction of families for generations to come. When you look at things that way, it’s not just about football, it’s about much more.

Last week McNeese State and its fans traveled to Baton Rouge to get a look at the history, tradition and culture of LSU and its program. With 94,000-plus in attendance and all that surrounds the game, it can be overwhelming.

This Saturday they will make a similar trip to see a program that is just as rich in history, tradition and culture but often overlooked for what it has meant to our state and nation. It contribution to college football and community should also not be overlooked.

The Cowboys play at Southern University for the second time. Coincidentally, last week’s game to Tiger Stadium was McNeese’s second official trip there, with one game called because of inclement weather.

Southern is part of a resurgence in HBCU football, one being led by some big names. Deion Sanders is leading the charge at Jackson State, but he is not the only former NFL great doing so.

Former All-Pro running back Eddie George is doing the same at Tennessee State. The two got their teams together last week for a game that helped put HBCU football back on center stage.

Sanders is especially outspoken about getting more and more attention for such programs to help raise the profiles of players and coaches in that group. It has caught the attention of McNeese State head coach Frank Wilson, who made history as the first African American to hold his position at McNeese.

“I think it is great seeing what is being done at those institutions,” Wilson said. “They have given so many a chance to play and be a part of this sport that never would have gotten those chances without them.

“It wasn’t that long ago that they were the only places where African-American players could play football. They are such a big part of our sport; it is good to see them getting attention back.”

Without such schools more than a few great football players would have been left on the sidelines. The same can be said for coaches.

However, that’s just the sports angle. There is more as numerous young people were able to attend college when they could not have without these schools.

Just like in the big programs, so many kids have their futures opened by football even if they never play a down. That fact gets lost far too often when we count the wins and losses.

That’s why what Sanders, George and others are doing helps us all, not just football players. It is another level of opportunity given to kids who often need it the most.

“Coaches at HBCUs don’t just wear the hat of a coach,” Sanders said in a recent Sports Illustrated article. “We wear several hats like a Tyler Perry production… When you’re dealing with a team that is 98 or 99 percent African American, you’re dealing with some real issues. Trust me, playing on the field is the entrance to the conversation but it goes well beyond that.”

Wilson probably feels the same way. He spent his first 14 months at McNeese being more of a crisis manager than football coach, dealing with a pandemic and two hurricanes.

He is also trying to rebuild a program through its history and culture but also has a liking to what is going on at programs like Southern.

“I admire what the guys at those schools are going,” Wilson said. “Guys like Sanders and George, they could be doing a lot of other things but they are giving back to their communities and helping keep those traditions and programs alive. That’s great for all of us.”

If you don’t think schools like Southern have an impact on the sport, simply look at the last time these teams played on Aug. 31, 2019. The game drew a Cowboy Stadium-record crowd of 20,437 as McNeese held on to win 34-28.

That shows the drawing power of Southern and other HBCU schools.

While Saturday’s crowd won’t be as large, and the names won’t be as well known, this week’s game in Baton Rouge holds just as much history and tradition as last week so Cowboys fans should appreciated the trip just as much.

If nothing else, the Southern band will make it worth the drive.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com