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BY D'MITRI CHIN
It's the most wonderful time of the year, and I'm not referring to just Christmas.
Bowl season is upon us in college football, and many top-tier programs and athletes are preparing to play the biggest games of their lives.
Fans are pumped, too, and if you survey everybody involved with this sport of the heart throughout America, you’ll discover the following: Nothing during bowl season tops the College Football Playoff, which will begin this year on Dec. 20, with semifinal games featuring Clemson and Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl before Alabama battles Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The television ratings will soar for these battles among teams to meet in the championship game in San Francisco on Monday, January 7, and you’ll see media-generated hysteria everywhere.
That’s all good, but there's one bowl game that deserves just as much recognition in the future for several unique reasons: The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.
Never heard of it? No problem.
Listen to this.
As a young sports reporter, there aren't many bowl games I’ve had the honor of covering, but that changed last Saturday afternoon with the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This matchup between Alcorn State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and North Carolina A&T of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) was for the mythical championship among historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). The whole experience was incredible. An electric crowd and an exhilarating battle of the bands contest during halftime made for a spectacular event. Along with the pageantry that has been unique to HBCU teams for decades, North Carolina A&T’s 24-22 victory in a thriller allowed me to see the striking talent from both teams.
As for that talent, this was a rematch from the first Celebration Bowl game of three years ago in Atlanta at the old Georgia Dome, where an exceptional football player suited up that afternoon for North Carolina A&T, and he is now the starting running back for the Chicago Bears.
Tarik Cohen, ladies, and gentlemen.
With an ESPN audience watching a game that produced four touchdowns in the first eight minutes, Cohen used the moment to his advantage. He dominated the first half with 171 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. He eventually led his team to a 41-34 victory after he finished with 259 yards rushing overall and three touchdowns on just 22 carries. His stellar performance earned him Offensive MVP of the Game honors. More importantly, it enhanced his NFL draft stock.
But back to last Saturday afternoon, when North Carolina A&T coach Sam Washington talked about the importance of everything involved with the Celebration Bowl after the game. He told the media, “Whenever you win on the national stage like this, it only helps with the kids coming to your program. We are hoping this opportunity and this platform will increase our recruiting efforts.”
Washington understands the magnitude of HBCU teams playing in bowl games in general. It means exposure for his program and his athletes. Many gifted players are often overlooked because they don't play for a Power Five program such as Alabama, Georgia or Clemson.
Sam Crenshaw, a prolific television and radio sports reporter with over 30 years of experience, believes it's essential for HBCU athletes and schools to receive this kind of exposure.
"I think because of the impact that it has on the schools (it helps them prosper)," Crenshaw said. "Each school that has played in this game has seen a bump in enrollment because of the attention and the visibility that those players are getting at those schools."
Once, HBCU players were prominent in the NFL. The partial list includes all-time greats such as Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Mel Blount, Harry Carson, Lem Barney and Michael Strahan. Many of those players went to HBCU schools when segregation during the 1950s and 1960s wouldn’t allow them to attend white colleges, primarily in the South. Now HBCU players rarely crack the NFL scene. In fact, there were just three players that fulfilled their dreams of playing in the NFL last year.
Not good for the 107 black colleges that desperately need talented black recruits to don their colors on the gridiron beyond Cohen here and there.
The first Celebration Bowl drew 35,528. This year, 31,672 filled the seats, which was good for the second-highest total in the bowl's early history. In addition, each conference received $1 million for appearing in the game, and that was greatly needed for their struggling athletics departments when compared to the big boys. According to USAtoday.com calculations from 2016-2017, Alcorn State ranked 223rd in the country in NCAA finances (total revenue: $6,321,380), and North Carolina was 194th (total revenue: $13,075,494).
So it’s no denying that it truly is a "celebration" for HBCU programs (on the field, in the stands and at the bank) to play in such a bowl game.
D’Mitri Chin is a junior majoring in journalism with a minor in speech communication at Georgia State University. He is the former associate sports editor for The Signal, and he is currently a freelance sports reporter. He is also a contributor to The Douglas County Sentinel. In his spare time, D’Mitri enjoys lifting weights and playing basketball. You can follow D’Mitri on Twitter @1DMitriChin.