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HBCU football greats speak of grit and relationships

The Black College Football Hall of Fame induction was a celebration of past and present HBCU football greatness.

ATLANTA, GA — The spirit of HBCU football was on display Saturday night at The Black College Football Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. 

Decades of black college excellence filled the room at the College Football Hall of Fame in Downtown Atlanta to Salute the eight individuals — seven players and coach Pete Richardson — who were inducted into the prestigious group. But it was as much about honoring the present and looking toward the future as marveling at the past.

North Carolina Central head coach Trei Oliver was back in Atlanta, not far from where his team shocked the world and beat Deion Sanders and Jackson State in the Celebration Bowl half a year later. He was there to receive the organization’s Coach of The Year award, but he took the time to soak in the atmosphere 

“When I grew up, these were the guys that I admired,” Oliver said, pointing at the images of the Hall of Famers behind him. “And this is what it’s all about. I tell my young men that this right here is so much bigger than what you’re doing. If you want to be the best, if you want to be considered the greatest of all-time, you’ve got to do your research and understand this right here. This is what it’s all about.”

Former Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders flew in for the event to accept the Deacon Jones Trophy, given to the top offensive player in black college football. He’s taken his talents to Colorado, but he was happy to pick up the award and spoke glowingly of his time at JSU.

“It’s very exciting. I couldn’t do it by myself, I did it with the team. So it’s an award for the team.”

One current NFL player from an HBCU was on hand as former Alabama State star and Houston Texans offensive tackle Tytus Howard was in the building to receive the Hall’s NFL player of the year award. He came to ASU as a tight end and left as a first-round draft pick in 2019. He credited his coaches for helping prepare him for the next level. 

“When you think about HBCUs, you think about the grit. The hard grind. Nothing is given to you. And to have coaches that came from the same background as me, to inspire me each and every day, I think that pushed me, motivated me and made me the person I am today.”

The second half of the ceremony was dedicated to the 2023 class, reflecting on how their experience at HBCUs prepared them for success beyond it. 

Florida A&M’s Henry “Killer” Lawrence serenaded the crowd with a robust rendition of Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes “Wake Up Everybody,” Pete Richardson reminisced on building champions at Winston-Salem State and Southern University and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Johnny Walton of Elizabeth City State told stories and gave an impromptu sermon that helped push the ceremony well into the evening. 

Several of the honorees were represented by their children. Ron Pitts, a former NFL player and broadcaster in his own right, was there representing his father, former Philander-Smith star and Green Bay Packers running back Elijah Pitts. Fred McGriff Jr. did the same for his father, who helped Florida A&M become the first school to win an FCS title. Former UNLV women’s basketball player Dakota Gonzalez represented her father, Albert Lewis. All three children said their father’s memories of their HBCU experience went deeper than football and spoke to the power of relationships and bonds.

And when it was all over, the Hall of Famers hung around taking photos, trading stories and giving autographs until the staff dimmed the lights down. It was truly a night to remember and an atmosphere to soak up.

HBCU football greats speak of grit and relationships
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