I’ve attended my share of Gopher football games over the years, but those games are mostly anti-climatic and the home school band painfully plays the same tired old songs. I have yet to see in person a Black college football game, but a good friend of mine tells me once you go Black (college football), you don’t go back.
“Unlike major college football, Black college football is the African American pastime,” states Mark Gray, who broadcasts HBCU games for the Heritage Sports Radio Network. It “is part cultural, part show. It touches a place in your soul that you didn’t know was there until it gets there.”
Black college bands and their halftime shows are as much an integral part of Black college football as the teams. “I know a lot of people want to see those bands as part of the overall [Black college] experience,” says Gray. “At major college games, people leave [their seats] at halftime to get their refreshments. At a Black college game, people go at the start of the third quarter.”
Not unlike mainstream college football, there are traditional rivalries in Black college football. “Everybody wants to win, but there isn’t that unnecessary sense of hate that you see at major college rivalries,” notes Gray.
Like major college football, there also are homecoming games: “There isn’t a homecoming [anywhere else] like a Howard homecoming, because a Howard homecoming brings stars,” Gray points out.
However, besides the bands, what really set Black college football apart from its larger mainstream counterparts are the “Classics” — annually scheduled contests played off campus.
“The top three Classics are the Bayou; the Florida Classic, which is a great family event because you’ve got Orlando and warm sun, and you can tailgate outside the Citrus Bowl, which is in the ’hood; and the Magic City Classic in Birmingham [Alabama],” explains Gray. The Bayou Classic typically features Southern University and Grambling State in New Orleans at the Superdome. The 39th edition was played last weekend.
“Make sure that you start with Friday night at the Battle of the Bands,” Gray strongly suggests. Besides the bands, the game also features the Dancing Dolls, which Gray opines are “the finest collection of dancing women on the planet.”
“Because it is in New Orleans, [the game] is a draw, so you get a lot of people from the West Coast who come to New Orleans to get their Black college swirl on, and you get people from the East Coast to get their swirl on. It’s just a great big party,” says Gray.
The Magic City Classic, held each year in Birmingham, features Alabama State and Alabama A&M, “which is Alabama and Auburn on the football field for Black folk,” says Gray. “But unlike Alabama and Auburn, where one team loses and the other group of fans act like jackasses, the Alabama [State]-Alabama A&M folk will ride the elevator down together and go back tailgating next to one another.”
However, the Florida A&M band hazing incident has cast a temporary pall on HBCU football. Gray says the now-suspended FAMU band has affected attendance, both at home and away. “I thought if [Florida A&M] had a good football team [this year], the fans would still come. The FAMU band had a unique [drawing] power like no other. There are some people who could care less about the football team” and more about the band, he believes.
“Unfortunately it took the death of Robert Champion to bring to light that that stuff has been going on all around the country — it’s a dirty little secret that needs to be brought to light,” proclaims Gray. “Julian White [the FAMU band director] is just as guilty as Joe Paterno [the late Penn State football coach] was on not monitoring Jerry Sandusky. You can’t have a band such as FAMU, which made some money [for the school], that you allowed to get out of control no matter what amount of revenue you are bringing in.”
Gray is currently working on a documentary on the 2012 Black college football season that he hopes to release sometime in 2013. He believes that Black college football compares to no other college football game “when you get a taste of it.”