By East Dockery - Rhoden Fellow
East is a sophomore multimedia journalism major from North Carolina (“the 336” to be specific). She is the creator and host of East&Market, a campus-based YouTube show, and also serves as a videographer for the Aggies football team.
“Some folks have said this is the best-kept secret that the whole world has never seen,” said Lynn Thompson, VP of Athletics for Bethune-Cookman University. However, with events like the MEAC/SWAC Challenge, they may not be a secret for much longer.
The MEAC/SWAC Challenge is the annual kickoff to the HBCU football season. Two HBCUs, one from the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and another from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) compete during the first weekend of September. This challenge is an opportunity for two HBCUs to present their talents on a national platform: ESPN2. This year, fans watched Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) square off against Jackson State University (JSU). The game took place at the Georgia State University stadium in Atlanta, where over 23,000 fans were in attendance.
“Oh, man, it’s a tremendous platform for our institutions and our student-athletes to play on national TV to showcase the band, the university, and their personal brands. It couldn’t be a bigger stage for them. This is our fourth opportunity to do it and we’re excited about doing it on ESPN2. It just doesn’t get any better than this,” said Lynn Thompson, VP of Athletics for Bethune-Cookman University.
“I think it’s significant to showcase the type of football that we play here in the FCS Black College Football. The SWAC signs a record number of three-star recruits among our 10 member institutions and it’s directly related to this game and the celebration Bowl,” said SWAC Commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland.
This event was conceived and implemented by MEAC Commissioner, Dr. Dennis E. Thomas, Pete Derzis, the Senior Vice President and General Manager at ESPN, and ESPN.
“Pete is the guiding light. Pete is the reason why we have a MEAC/SWAC game and the reason why we have a Celebration Bowl,” said Thomas. “Obviously, I was the person who actually asked ESPN about having a postseason bowl game for the SWAC champion and the MEAC champion to play each other and meeting with Pete and ESPN, we’re just so excited that we have two tremendous events: the MEAC/SWAC Challenge and then to close the year with Celebration Bowl.”
ESPN agreed to highlight HBCU football and feature aspects of the HBCU experience such as the Royal Court and the presentation of the bands at halftime.
“ESPN has been a very progressive, innovative company and they believe in storytelling and they do a fantastic job of that. As a matter of fact, they’re the best in the world at telling stories and they saw value in the HBCU community. They saw value in the SWAC and saw value in the MEAC so that’s why they invested in us. We feel as though they have received a good return on their investment,” said Thomas.
Aside from giving viewers a great preseason game to watch and a glimpse of the HBCU experience, the MEAC/SWAC Challenge provides an opportunity to acknowledge student-athletes for their academic achievements and share career opportunities within the NFL. Activities commenced with was a high school seminar hosted by reporters and executives within the sports media industry.
“To me, that’s why I got in this business,” said Thomas, to help young people to get educated, young people to get their degrees, young people to be productive citizens in our society. That’s why I’m in the business and we try to design programming around student-athletes getting their degrees. The students were excited to have had this experience."
The NFL also collaborated with the MEAC and SWAC to provide an NFL Legend to speak to each team during the weekend of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. The message from the Legends is to help players and coaches on and off the field. A financial literacy seminar was provided to both teams during the Labor Day football game. BCU Quarterbacks Coach Allen Suber attended the NFL’s Quarterback Coaching Summit this past June, and was able to carry knowledge from the summit into the football season.
“The Quarterback Coaching Summit has single-handedly been the best thing that I have done in my 10-year college collegiate coaching career. The people I was able to meet, the information that I was able to gather, and from whom and the experiences that they got their information from was just phenomenal. I was able to bring it back, implement it, and make it a part of what we’re doing here to really make our coaching better," Suber said.
"The Quarterback Coaching Summit has single-handedly been the best thing that I have done in my 10-year college collegiate coaching career."
- Allen Suber, BCU quarterbacks coach
The weekend featured NFL Legend Stevie Baggs Jr., who shared career advice with an audience full of B-CU student-athletes and coaches.
“So many people in this world are looking for a revolution, but I want to be able to look for an evolution. If you go in a revolution, you’re going in a circle, but when you’re going in evolution, you’re going up. I want to keep evolving,” said Baggs. His message was centered around encouraging players to think beyond football and be "greater than the game." He also reminded players to stay humble. “Everybody wants to be on the mountaintop. But you have to remember, the bigger your audience, the bigger your audit, because nobody saw you in the valley when you were training.”
For many speakers and attendees, part of staying humble and remembering where you came from means thinking about the future and impact of HBCUs — the schools that contributed to their personal and professional growth. Suber said his time at B-CU is priceless.
“This January, I’ll be a two-time graduate; I’ll have my master's in transformative organizational leadership. I started there in 1999 as a 17-year-old freshman and literally grew up on that campus, so from ‘99 to this year, that's 20 years that I’ve been a part of this university program. The growth that I’ve had, and gained in my 20 years of being affiliated, is just priceless and I’ll forever be thankful.”
Mister and Miss Bethune-Cookman University were also grateful for their experience at the school.
“There is no HBCU without “B-CU,” said Blake Minter, the 66th Miss Bethune-Cookman University as she elaborated as to why her HBCU was important.
“The fans, our culture, our band. This (our HBCU) is why we’re here (at the MEAC/SWAC Challenge), this is why we get to represent the greatest HBCU in the land,” said Earl Robinson Jr., Mister Bethune-Cookman University.
The Vice President of JSU Athletics, Ashley Robinson, said his work means more to him than a source of income.
“It’s impacted me a lot. My family went to Jackson State, my father, uncles, a host of cousins. It’s more than just a job for me, it’s about bringing that tradition back. My theme as I am at Jackson State is building on tradition and blazing new trails,” he said.
By gameday, players and fans were excited.
“Just to go out and do their best. We ask our players to go out and play hard and play the game the right way at all times and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” said B-CU Head Coach, Terry Sims when he asked what he expected from his players that afternoon.
The tide of the game changed towards the end of the third quarter when B-CU cornerback, Trevor Merritt, caught a pick on the 50-yard line and ran it into the end zone. This put the score at 7-9, with a successful field goal made by Xavier McDonald.
JSU’s starting quarterback, Jalon Jones responded with a 33-yard pass to wide receiver, Warren Newman, putting the score to 7-15. The excitement was so great, that even the mascot ran out onto the field, resulting in a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
However, the energy from Tiger fans died down when B-CU quarterback, Akevious Williams made a 20-yard run, and narrowing JSU’s lead to 1 point.
At halftime, the crowd was treated to the talents of two of the top ranked bands in the nation. A sea of B-CU fans in maroon and gold cheered on one side of the field, while JSU supporters in navy and white held it down for the Tigers. The bands played old school and new school hits like DeBarge’s “I Like It” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” where B-CU assembled into the shape of a horse to add visual effects.
The final play of the game ended when second string quarterback, Derrick Ponder tried to run the ball, got tackled, and fumbled. The ball was recovered by B-CU cornerback, Sam Marc, running it all the way back to the other end zone for 96 yards with nothing but fire on his heels. B-CU took over the game with less than 10 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, the final score was 36-15 and B-CU were the winners of the 2019 MEAC/SWAC Challenge.
At the end of the game, Dr. Thomas reflected on his accomplishments as MEAC commissioner.
“I didn’t know if I was going to graduate from high school,” he laughed. “So, you never know what the future holds. All that I am trying to do was make the MEAC better, make our institutions better and that’s what I continue to do every day. I try to wake up every morning and make a commitment to find a way to make student-athletes better, to assist student-athletes to obtain their degrees. To ensure that our student athletes can leave our outstanding academic institutions and be productive citizens for our society.”
As the tents were folded, the smell of barbecue lingered in the air from tailgate, and the sounds of Bethune-Cookman students, faculty, and alumni echoed throughout the stadium, there was a sense of love and accomplishment that washed over the crowd.
It was an experience like no other that could only be provided by an HBCU, a best kept secret, but a secret worth sharing with the nation.
To find updates and highlights from the challenge, check out www.meacswacchallenge.com.