On a late summer day in 1996, the top-25 ranked Southern Jaguars visited Turpin Stadium to square off against Northwestern State. The atmosphere was electrifying and built feverishly until kickoff, as the discordant clashing of powder blue and yellow with purple and orange mixed on the surrounding premises. Southern, a perennial stalwart that had won multiple Heritage Bowls (the black college national championship) came in favored to win. Fans, thirsty for more success, filled our small campus to the gills, tailgating, playing great music, and sharing in that age-old Saturday afternoon tradition of spending the afternoon at the ballpark. By game time, the total attendance would set a Turpin Stadium record, and though some fans would come away from the game disappointed (namely, Southern’s, as Northwestern won the contest) anyone who saw that game got his money’s worth. The game was closely-contested, hard-hitting, and fans saw at least a dozen players on the field who would go on to play on Sundays.
And it was my first college football game.
I hope you’ll forgive me that I don’t remember the score, or how well I played in that particular game. Firstly, I don’t remember the score, and secondly, for my first college football game, I didn’t play terribly bad … of course, I didn’t play terribly well, either!
Ironically, my most memorable moment of that day happened before the opening kick.
My folks, both Gramblinites (Grambling State grads, for those not in the know), arrived an hour and a half before kickoff. Mom looked like a million dollars in a new purple pant suit and Pops, setting aside his regular natty button-down shirt/slacks/tie/jacket ensemble, had a neat purple shirt tucked into his slacks with an NSU cap. They pulled up in my Dad’s new GMC pickup, which he’d been saying he would buy for years. Mom and Dad had affixed one of those cool KAY/AEO license plates on the front, which matched the crimson paint job of the vehicle. As they pulled up, one of my teammates yelled out “Yo, Nupe!” to my Dad, they shook hands, and my Dad began playfully “charging him up.” We hugged, talked for a bit, and I had to ask them where they’d been keeping all this money that they were all of a sudden shelling out (new threads, new truck, etc.). My mom didn’t say a word, and when she patted me on my stomach, the answer to where all those dollars had gone became evident (I’d spent the summer eating up house and home trying to bulk up before reporting for two-a-days).
I’d always prided myself in making my parents happy with what I’d accomplished, but I don’t know if I ever remember them seeming happier than I did that day. In one moment, they were realizing several of their life’s goals manifest right in front of them. I, the youngest of three, was in college (my brother and sister are also college grads). I was playing college football (my father had played college b-ball at GSU). I was independent, driven, and had the entire world ahead of me in such a way that didn’t seem possible three decades before. I had the choice to attend a college of my preference, and I was not denied a choice because of my race, as my parents had been in the not-so-distant past.
The bitterness they must have felt, the resentment that being forced to endure segregation and Jim Crow, and having to choose between Southern and Grambling because those were their only choices must have subsided, if only for a moment, that day.
Which brings me to September 2008. By way of 1974.
Recently, Northwestern State lined up to face another historically black institution, Grambling State University. It was the first time the schools had faced one another in football since 1974, when the two schools broke the in-state “color barrier” and an HBCU (historically black college/university) faced off against a PWI (predominately white institution). Grambling came out on top that day, 14-13, but the memories of that game continue to figure meaningfully in the lives of all who attended and competed on that day. It was a bold and defiant statement, all at once denouncing the ignorance of racism and segregation, celebrating the excellence of Louisiana football, and synergizing the rich traditions of both institutions.
For many reasons, the primary one being a long standing Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) requirement (since discontinued) that all member institutions play each other each season, we had to wait 34 years for part two. This scheduling requirement left little room on Grambling’s schedule to play out-of-conference teams, and combined with NSU’s and GSU’s need to play “money games” in the pre-season, the stars took a few years to align. Finally, they did, and NSU and GSU alums all over the Ark-La-Tex are energized about it.
I don’t know a whole lot of folks who were happier than I am about the development, but the reason has very little to do with football. It has much more to do with knowing that a new generation of GSU and NSU parents would share the same experience as mine did.
With a two-year contract in tow, we can look forward to another contest in 2009 and perhaps, together, we can look toward a time when my generation watches the next one play ball and struggles to remember the unnecessary pain and suffering our parents endured, replacing their pain and sacrifice with joy and fulfillment.
nota bene: in the September 10, 2008 issue of the Alexandria Town Talk, Grambling Head Coach Rod Broadway stated, with reference to the recent GSU v. NSU matchup: "I didn't have much to do with the planning of this one […] I'd rather play Hampton, South Carolina State or someone like that […] somebody in black college football.” Such a regrettable comment perhaps might have been the fashion in the 1970’s, but should certainly not pass as acceptable in the 21st century. Such a call for resegregation is not only unnecessarily insular and pernicious as a comment, but contemptuous if realized, particularly if a critical mass of white head football coaches (who run the show at all but five of the non-HBCU Division I football programs) follow suit. The great tradition of black college football is a paragon of black culture and should be shared with the world at every opportunity.