By: Bill Carroll
This rich past includes both pain and pride as luminaries recalled events of the distant and recent past. Among them were stellar names like the late, greats Jake “The Snake” Gaither and Kenny Riley of FAMU, as well as: Robert “Dr. Doom” Brazile and
Harold Jackson of Jackson State, James “Shack” Harris, Everson Walls, and Doug Williams of Grambling with taped remarks from the legendary coach Eddie Robinson. The pain included looking back on death threats, segregation, intimidation, humiliation, and discrimination.
Doug Williams received bags filled with hate mail and on one particular occasion a gift-wrapped rotten watermelon. James Harris was an 8th round draft pick of the Bills and he surprised many by winning the starting job. Later he was pulled for Dennis Shaw, this was a theme that would reoccur throughout his career. He was traded to the Rams, he played at a Pro Bowl level, led the team to the NFC Championship games in both 1974 and 1975. Even though he’d played very well four different White QBs were brought in to challenge him, Ron Jaworski replaced him due to injury and he eventually lost his job to Pat Haden. He was then traded to the rebuilding Chargers and soon ended his career. An oddity took place during his Buffalo career when Marlon Briscoe joined the team at receiver. When Harris completed a pass to Briscoe, the first two Black men to start at quarterback were on the field and the first caught a pass from the second. On October 6th, 1968 Marlon Briscoe made history when he started an AFL game at quarterback; his 14 touchdowns are still a rookie franchise record.
One of the positive memories was of the much-ballyhooed 1967 Orange Blossom Classic when FAMU coach Jake Gaither with quarterback Ken Riley, along with Grambling’s Eddie Robinson and James Harris helped change the trajectory and perception of Black athletes. The game was an epic with the Bayou Bengals prevailing 28–25 The Grambling squad was one for the ages, they outscored opponents by a total of 318 to 145 For over 30-years, the Orange Blossom Classic, in Miami was the top annual sporting event and the largest annual gathering of any kind for Black Americans. For 13 years, the game was shifted between the Florida cities of Orlando, Jacksonville, and Tampa before becoming an annual event in Miami in 1947. During the first Classic game in Miami, a racial milestone was met. For the first time, Black fans were permitted in the main stands of the Orange Bowl.
Thirty-three members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame are from an HBCU, which is more nearly 10% of the 346 players enshrined in Canton. Of that total, all but two (Len Ford and Marion Motley who briefly attended an HBCU before transferring) are also members of the Black College Football Hall of Fame. The elephant that I felt in the room was as we watched Ken Riley reminisce about playing QB for coach Gaither and after a senior in which he completed 90% of his passes he was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 6th round. Despite his having excelled as a QB in both high school and college at quarterback, he was never given the chance to compete at the position. It’s a testament to Riley’s greatness and football IQ that he would end his 13 year NFL career with 65 interceptions, one 1st team, and a 2nd team All-Pro selection, and frankly I have no idea why he’s not in the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.
The BCFHOF, housed in Canton, Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as part of the partnership has created and curated the Black College Football Hall of Fame Gallery. In 2019 at the first inaugural BCFHOF Classic, Alabama A&M President Andrew Hugine Jr., Morehouse College President David Thomas, BCFHOF Co-Founder James Harris and long-time Hall of Fame Executive Joe Horrigan officially opened it with the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The PFHOF and BCFHOF plan to grow the gallery as the partnership grows. The partnership also includes the BCFHOF Classic held at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium and a major exhibition inside the PFHOF.
The two organizations announced this partnership in 2016 and are working on programs and events including hosting future annual BCFHOF induction ceremonies at Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village; expanded educational programming and special events at the PFHOF during Black History Month; a traveling exhibition; and increased post-graduate internship opportunities for graduates of HBCUs.
The 2021 Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic Weekend returns to the Pro Football Hall of Fame next fall. The capstone event is Sunday, Sept. 5 when the Grambling State University Tigers meet the Tennessee State University Tigers at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium for the Classic Game. The NFL, has additionally, joined ESPN’s The Undefeated in connecting with The Rhoden Fellows Initiative, which is a training program for the next generation of sports journalists. Also, the NFL launched the Careers in Football Forum in 2016 in partnership with the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and has since expanded to also include the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), The goal is to create a more level playing field for HBCU applicants seeking to have a career in the NFL.
For the selected undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in sports management to explore careers and network with industry leaders. As of now Andrew Berry and Chris Grier are the only Black General Managers out of the 32 NFL franchises. The historical record was seven at the end of 2016. It is encouraging that this is finally receiving attention. On a final note, I hope that HBCU greats: Roger Brown, Harold Jackson, Jethro Pugh, and Everson Walls will receive more serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.