One April day during my senior year in college, I was lying in bed watching television when someone knocked on the door and said a scout from the San Francisco 49ers was at the football field and wanted to see me. I was surprised because, though I had played high school football, I was a college basketball player and hadn't played football in four years. Unless you count touch football on the lawn in front of Cravath Hall, where I was a star.
I put on some sneakers and jogged over to the football field, which was the equivalent of three long city blocks away. When I got there, I found that a scout was working out some Fisk football players. Somehow, my name came up, and the scout wanted to see me. I had the size to play football, being 6'6" and about 225. I had played wide receiver in high school, but the scout considered me a tight end. The scout asked me a few questions, including whether I thought I could gain weight. I was confident that wouldn't be a problem.
Fisk University is an HBCU with a student population of about 2,000. Fisk was known as an academic school and considered a part of the unofficial Black Ivy League. The ratio of women to men was about 8:1, and of the men, about 10 percent were athletes. The football and basketball players knew each other, and the football players were very helpful in preparing me for the workout the scout wanted to put me through. I can imagine a scenario where some football players could be jealous about me getting this attention, but I sensed none of that.
They helped me find some spikes and a helmet that fit. I was asked to run some routes and catch some passes. (I always had good hands and caught everything). I was timed in the 40-yard dash. My time could have been better, and I explained I hadn't run across the street in two months and could undoubtedly do better.
The scout didn't seem deterred. He asked if the Dallas Cowboys had contacted me (they hadn't). He gave me his card and told me to expect to hear from him after the upcoming draft. School got out, and I returned to my home in Atlanta (my family moved there from Minnesota during my freshman year). I ran every day in the heat to stay in shape. When draft day came, I hoped to be called, but none came. I tried calling the scout a week later but didn't hear back. It was a long shot, but it didn't pan out.
There was a time when the NFL scoured the ranks of HBCUs for talent. In my first year at Fisk, I saw several players who eventually went to the NFL Hall of Fame. Ed "Too Tall" Jones was a defensive end at Tennessee State (TSU), a mile from Fisk, and was the #1 draft pick that year. I watched TSU play Grambling with Doug Williams at quarterback and Sammy White at wide receiver. Sammy is in the SWAC Hall of Fame and Black College Hall of Fame and has yet to make it into the NFL Hall. Fisk hosted Alabama A&M, who had John Stallworth. Fisk won the game (we were undefeated that year, 8–0), but Stallworth had more than 200 receiving yards.
Fisk's quarterback, J. J. Jones, played for the New York Jets, starting some games. We had a running back, Andrew Bolton, who played for the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. These weren't people I'd heard about; they were players I'd seen repping their HBCUs and later taking their talents to the league.
HBCUs had the amount of talent they did due to segregation. They once couldn't play for (or attend) the primary white institutions (PWIs) with the big football programs. Players excelled playing for Black colleges and universities, competing for the Jet Magazine National Black College Championship. The NFL had a few Black players in 1920 but entered into a "gentlemen's agreement" excluding Black players until 1946. The University of Alabama wouldn't have its first Black scholarship player until 1969. But by the 1970s, the NFL was searching high and low through the HBCU ranks for players based on their success in the NFL.
Once the University of Alabama removed its barriers to Black players, the floodgates opened, and Black players were recruited throughout the South. However, schools in other parts of the country had seen the light sooner. Bear Bryant at Alabama is given great credit for bringing the first Black players to the school. It was only after they took a beatdown at the hands of USC and its Black stars that he saw the light.
The PWIs have better facilities, and more exposure, and—with the new NIL money—can offer the best athletes millions of dollars to attend their schools. Several HBCUs, including Fisk University, have dropped their football programs, unable to fund competitive teams. The HBCUs that are state schools (as opposed to the smaller private institutions like Fisk) still have strong programs.
Grambling, Tennessee State, Florida A&M, North Carolina Central, and others still do well, but none had a player drafted this year. Jackson State garnered a lot of publicity last season, primarily due to their head coach, Deion Sanders. They finished their regular season undefeated, won the SWAC Championship, and were bested in an overtime loss to North Carolina Central in the Celebration Bowl. The lone HBCU player drafted this year was Jackson State's defensive back, Isaiah Bolden. In nine separate NFL drafts since the year 2000, no HBCU players were selected at all.
Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons tweeted, "Truly a head-scratcher at this point" after the seventh round of the draft. Deion Sanders had more to say in his tweet.
"So proud is you @isaiahbolden23 You deserved to be drafted much higher, but I'm truly proud of u. I know how much u want this. I'm ashamed of the 31 other @nfl teams that couldn't find draft value in ALL of the talented HBCU players & we had 3 more draft-worthy players at JSU."
The NFL helped set up an HBCU combine to evaluate players, and all 32 teams sent a representative, though only the Pittsburgh Steelers sent their general manager. The HBCU Legacy Bowl is an all-star Game created to showcase HBCU players. Were those activities more about the appearance of inclusion rather than inclusion itself?
I can personally identify with waiting by the phone for a call that never came, though I was less deserving than many of the eligible HBCU players who actually played college football. One wonders if another gentleman's agreement is in place among NFL teams.