Isaiah Freeman, the freshman quarterback at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania is just weeks removed from a successful season leading the HBCU program.
“I feel like I’m at home. I walk around campus and I see me,” Freeman said. “I see teammates and classmates with similar experiences and similar issues.”
Logistically, the standout from Chester, Pennsylvania may not have a great distance to travel between his college and his hometown, but when it comes to opportunities for athletes in states like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the distance isn’t always measured in miles.
There are more than 100 HBCUs in the United States, the majority of which are centered in the south. They were formed to meet the needs of Black people seeking higher education in the segregated south. Today, HBCUs are thriving hubs of creativity and culture for the next generation of Black leaders. HBCU athletics has seen a resurgence in recent years as well, but oftentimes the open arms of an athletic scholarship are closed off to players from the northeast.
Sometimes it takes a special connection to a coach to help an athlete from the northeast find his way south. That was the case for Demetrius Hudson, Reggie James and Caheim Brown. But for others, like Freeman, attending an HBCU was a decision made in search of comfort and acceptance.
“At one point in high school I played for a school that was predominantly white,” Freeman said. “It was uncomfortable and it just wasn’t the right fit for me. I knew I wanted to attend an HBCU because I wanted to feel appreciated and not just tolerated.”
Looking for opportunities to learn and compete away from home, more athletes are answering the call of the south. Still, like jumping into freezing waters, there’s an immediate culture shock that comes from being born and raised in the city, then finding yourself living in a place like Albany, Georgia.
“I remember how hot the air was as soon as I got to campus. I had to immediately take my hoodie off,” said Reggie James, a junior guard on Albany State’s basketball team. Reggie always wanted to play for an HBCU. He says he spent time in Houston and saw the successful Black people that were byproducts of Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University and knew that attending a Black college was for him. Even though the heat stifled him upon arrival, it was Albany’s southern hospitality that showed him true warmth.
“It’s the mannerisms. Everything about the south is just different,” said James. “People actually want to speak to you and get to know you in a genuine way, as opposed to up north where everyone is walking around with their heads down.”
For Caheim Brown, junior guard at Norfolk State, the pace of being in the south ended up being a benefit to his academics, a stark contrast from his hometown of Brooklyn, New York.
“New York is so fast-paced and the south is a total opposite,” said Brown. “It’s quiet, there’s a lot less to do, but that makes it easier to stay focused.”
A recurring theme from HBCU athletes is that their individual universities create a soft landing place for them to mature into adulthood, with many colleges providing the support system needed to make due on untapped potential.
“A lot of times people misidentify HBCUs and how powerful they are, and that was something I really wanted to showcase,” Brown said. “When you’re around people and coaches and teachers the same color as you, they allow you to learn, they’re teaching you properly and they want things to go well for you outside of sports, you begin to build special bonds and relationships with them.”
Jaleel Simmons came to Albany State with particular circumstances. The senior guard from Plainfield, New Jersey, recently lost his mother and his father, but on top of dealing with the void they left behind, he recently added to his family with the birth of a little baby boy. Simmons says, as he stepped up to the plate to be the best teammate, student and now father he could be, Albany State stepped up as well.
“Being at an HBCU is like gaining new family members,” said Simmons. “Everything I do, there’s always someone willing to help. I feel like the vibe here is that you have family around you no matter what. They found out I had a son and started looking for ways to help from daycare to housing.”
On the field and on the court, athletes from the northeast tell similar stories about how the game differs from region to region. The rules of the game may be the same, but the style is totally different.
“Up north it’s more about one on one,” James said. “How can I shake you out of your shoes? Down south, guys are just trying to go right through you.”
“It’s all about you up north,” said Simmons. “If you’re that guy, you’re that guy, but down here the game is much more team-oriented.”
While the consensus is that basketball players from the northeast have a unique swagger to their game that is often held in higher esteem compared to southern players, the exact opposite can be said for football players from the northeast. Demetrius Hudson said being from the northeast even gave him extra motivation while playing at Bethune.
“People like to sleep on up north athletes,” Hudson said. “Everybody thinks southern football players are bigger and faster, but I keep telling my teammates that there are some dogs at my old school who would come here and run things too. They need to stop sleeping on Jersey athletes in particular.”
One particular part of HBCU culture that can be agreed on is the quality of the food each cafeteria is serving up. Demetrius Hudson spent time at a PWI before landing at Bethune. He says choosing between the two cafes wasn’t a tough decision at all.
“The cafe was way better,” Hudson said. “We had a DJ in the cafe. It was a party in there. We didn’t have that a PWI”.
Each pathway to an HBCU is unique, especially when considering the motivation for the journey. What drives each athlete to leave home and blaze their own trail? What fuels their desire to do more, do better, for themselves, their families and their communities? Whether it’s pride for one’s state or building one’s brand, HBCU athletes have a different stimulus for success.
“At my HBCU, I know that the people I’m around are fighting for something,” said Isaiah Freeman. “Your teammate has a different intensity when he’s thinking – I have to do this for my grandma.”
Ultimately, the choice to head south or attend an HBCU isn’t one for the faint of heart. It’s a sign of character to hold up the mantle for Black college sports, but it shows even more grit when you’re doing so so far from home, but Black college campuses have been forging leaders for more than a century and these student-athletes are no different.
“It may not always seem as resourceful as a PWI, but it can be if you put yourself out there and meet the right people,” James said. “Don’t just go to an HBCU, be active around campus. Let people see you. Let people know who you are.”
“A lot of my friends say all the time – You really love your HBCU, and I can’t lie, it’s just a different feeling,” Simmons said. “Until you experience it, nobody really understands what it’s like when you have an auntie in the stands cheering for you and telling you, don’t worry about nothing off the court. I got you.”
Story courtesy Mac Johnson
Special to HBCU Gameday