Historically black colleges play significant role in NFL’s 1st 100 years
NFL rosters are crowded with players who performed in the national spotlight at major colleges: Notre Dame, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, etc.
Sprinkled throughout, however, are players from schools such as North Carolina A&T, Howard and South Carolina State. Those schools, identified as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), aren’t recognized as college football juggernauts, yet they can claim their share of NFL talent.
Entering this weekend, nearly two dozen players from HBCUs were on active NFL rosters, including Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Javon Hargrave (S.C. State).
HBCUs continue to recruit NFL-caliber athletes. But not long ago, they produced some of the greatest players in the league’s 100 years.
The big football schools weren’t recruiting black players, particularly in the South. Mel Blount said many of his peers and some of his older siblings — he is the youngest of 11 — picked cotton, joined the military or migrated north to work in automobile manufacturing plants.
Blount’s parents encouraged him to go to college. Like they had done with his older sisters, he said, his family sold crops from their farm to pay his tuition.
“They knew it was the only way out of the depressing situation that existed in the South at that time,” Blount said.
During a game in his senior season, Blount scored five touchdowns. A referee working the game knew someone associated with Southern University’s football program and encouraged the Jaguars to look at Blount.
Blount said he knew nothing about football at historically black colleges, let alone realize it could be a viable option to continue his sport — and get a free education. Blount got a scholarship to Southern, and the rest, as Steelers fans know, is football history.
Blount became a cornerstone of the Steel Curtain defense that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s and is regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history. His journey to the NFL is typical of many black players of that time.
Most black players who came up through the 1950s, ’60s and into the ’70s were unable to attend predominantly white schools, so the best black athletes turned to HBCUs. As a result, HBCU football produced many of the game’s legends: Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Deacon Jones, Marion Motley and Charlie Joiner, to name a few.
Twenty-nine members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame played at black colleges.
“There wasn’t any integration hardly then,” said former Steelers and Buffalo Bills receiver Frank Lewis, who played at Grambling. “Unless you were in a large city and maybe going to UCLA or USC … those top schools at the time, black guys my age weren’t getting recruited by those schools. A lot of those guys wouldn’t have got the opportunity to play.”
One man used the blight of segregation to build a powerhouse. Eddie Robinson coached Grambling for 56 years and won 408 games, a record at the time of his retirement in 1997. He lured top athletes by promising parents their sons would play football, get an education and go to church.
“If you didn’t go to church, you better have your coat and tie on and try to fool him into thinking you were there,” Lewis said with a laugh.
Robinson — with the help of shrewd marketing by sports information director Collie Nicholson — turned the Tigers into not only the most prominent HBCU football program but also a nationally known program. There even was a Grambling football highlight show that aired nationally.
“I remember looking at the radio stations that broadcast Grambling football, and it was a whole page of radio stations across the country,” said Ray Higgins, a Grambling alum who helped to launch the Eddie G. Robinson Museum. “At the time, there were only two nationally broadcast (college football TV) shows, and one was Grambling. The other was Notre Dame.”
Robinson sent scores of players to the NFL, including hall of famers Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Willie Davis and Joiner.
One of his biggest achievements was getting quarterbacks James Harris and Doug Williams to the NFL. With the L.A. Rams in 1974, Harris became the first black quarterback in the Super Bowl era to start the majority of his team’s games.
“I think once James Harris got a chance to play in the NFL, I think (Robinson) felt complete from the standpoint of coaching all positions in football that played in the NFL,” said Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl (XXII with Washington). “That was important to him.”
Long before Williams’ historic feat, HBCU players played key roles for Super Bowl-winning teams. The Super Bowl IV champion Kansas City Chiefs featured 10 players from black colleges, including six starters, two of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
Perhaps no team used the HBCU pipeline better than the Steelers. Bill Nunn Jr., a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, brought national attention to HBCU football by naming black-college All-American teams. He parlayed his knowledge of those teams into a scouting job with the Steelers and discovered many players who were stars of the franchise’s first four Super Bowls, including Blount, Lewis, L.C. Greenwood, John Stallworth, Ernie Holmes, Glen Edwards and Donnie Shell.
The end of segregation, in a strange twist, took a toll on HBCU football programs. With blacks finally being accepted at Power 5 schools, many of the elite players opted for the TV cameras and bigger crowds.
While HBCUs continued to produce quality players — think Richard Dent, Shannon Sharpe and Michael Strahan — the quantity diminished.
“There’s no question,” Blount said. “Once the doors were opened, opportunity presented itself to the top black athletes. The (big) schools were smart enough to see what a value they were going to be to them.”
Some, Lewis included, believe the rich football history of HBCUs is being lost on today’s young players. Recently, steps have been to try to change that.
In September, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, created in 2009 by Harris and Williams, got a permanent home at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Akil Blount, Mel’s son and former linebacker at Florida A&M, is working with the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of a fellowship through the Black College Football Hall of Fame. He said having the black college display in Canton is important for educating future generations.
“HBCUs and their importance and relevance is a critical part of the history of college football and the NFL,” he said. “The game of football would not be where it is without the tough moments as well as the glorified stories of how we have been able to come together and the color barrier has been broken.”
The Celebration Bowl, created in 2015, pits the champions of the Southwest Athletic Conference and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — both made up of HBCUs — in a December postseason matchup. It serves as a national showcase for HBCU football.
North Carolina A&T, winner of three of the four Celebrations Bowls, has become the new Grambling in terms of its profile. The Aggies, ranked No. 11 in the latest AFCA FCS poll, have beaten an FBS team four consecutive seasons and have four players on active NFL rosters.
Coach Sam Washington, a former Steelers defensive back, said he can see a change in the HBCU football landscape. Schools such as his own, Florida A&M, South Carolina State and Bethune Cookman, he said, are starting to get their swagger back.
“I think it’s in a much better place than it was five to 10 years ago,” Washington said. “I think we have been on a see-saw. I think it’s on an upswing now.
“We have a lot of guys in the NFL. … And if you look at the quality of coaching now, it’s increased drastically from where it was 10 years ago.”
Added Akil Blount, who was in camp with the Miami Dolphins (2016) and Steelers (’17): “If you can play (NFL scouts) will find you. … I didn’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to go to the NFL. There’s a lot of opportunities for a lot of players by attending (HBCUs).”
When asked to quantify the effect of HBCU football on the NFL’s first century, Williams has a quick answer.
“That’s a question that can be answered in Canton,” he said.
Added Mel Blount: “It’s a part of American sports history that we should never lose.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .