• Pitting teams from the MEAC and the SWAC—two most prominent conferences made up of Historically Black Colleges and Universities—the Celebration Bowl represents tradition that celebrates much more than just winning football games.
By Charles P. Pierce
December 16, 2018

ATLANTA — The Alcorn State University Band is called the Sounds of Dyn-O-Mite.

The North Carolina A&T University Band is called the Blue And Gold Marching Sound Machine.

At halftime, A&T went first and threw down a mighty gauntlet, firing up a version of the O’Jay’s “Back Stabbers.” When the Sounds of Dyn-O-Mite followed them, complete with five (!) drum majors, they were more than up to the challenge, even summoning the season with an old Jackson 5 Christmas tune. Make no mistake. This was as much of a contest as the football game surrounding it was. This was where the celebrating in the Celebration Bowl came to play.

I am firmly on the record as being a non-combatant in all the slanging about a college football playoff and, more recently, in all the slanging about how many teams should be in it. Anything the sport’s oligarchs decide, unless it involves paying the people who do the actual work of entertaining the nation, doesn’t move me to rage or joy. I also am firmly on the record as being an enthusiastic supporter of having as many bowl games as possible. Let a thousand camellias bloom on a thousand lapels, even in the Camellia Bowl, which was played on Saturday. I even have made partial peace with the fact that so many bowl games have hung upon them now the names of various American corporations, largely because some of them are damned funny. For example, there is the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, to be contested this year on December 21 between those longtime traditional rivals, the Brigham Young Cougars and the Western Michigan Broncos. I am most intrigued by the question raised by the corporate moniker the game wears. I will stipulate that Idaho Potatoes are indeed Famous. But are there others? Are there Obscure Idaho Potatoes or, worse, Infamous Idaho Potatoes? These are the things that keep me up at night, watching Mountain West teams beat on each other.

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The argument against bowl games is that they are essentially meaningless exhibitions designed to raise money for the participating schools and local chambers of commerce in places like Montgomery and Shreveport. This argument, undeniably true on its merits, has been sharpened to lethality by the rise of the playoff and, if that playoff really does expand, that argument is going to be able to cut diamonds in half. This also has begun to dawn on the labor force, too; Will Grier, the star quarterback for West Virginia, is only the latest player unwilling to risk an NFL payday for one more trip around in the old black and gold. So he has announced that he will be absenting himself from the Mountaineers date with Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl. And a thousand Coleman lanterns dim in sorrow.

But there is one bowl game that matters more deeply than many of them do. They played it in Atlanta on Saturday. In a thrilling game illuminated by big-play lightning, North Carolina A&T defeated Alcorn State, 24–22, in the Celebration Bowl, matching the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwest Athletic Contest. The MEAC and the SWAC are the two most prominent conferences made up of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. (In 2015, the Celebration Bowl replaced the old Pelican and Heritage bowls, which also matched the MEAC and SWAC champions.) This was the fourth Celebration Bowl, which can now legitimately be called the National Championship of Black College Football. A&T has won three of them. “We knew Alcorn was going to be tough,” said Zach Leslie, an A&T wide receiver who will be playing his football on Sundays soon. “We had to show them what the NC A&T football legacy was.”

The game quickly turned on its head. The Alcorn defense proved to be stout, while its offense began slowly, but proceeded to chew up an A&T defense that had limited its 11 opponents to only 799 yards rushing this year. Alcorn put up 328 yards on the ground by itself on Saturday, with junior running back De’Shawn Waller rushing for 167 of them on his own.

But the most crucial rushing yards came in the fourth quarter with A&T having been staked to a 24–16 when Malik Wilson returned the kickoff following an Alcorn touchdown 79 yards to score. With 11:55 left in the game, Alcorn quarterback Noah Johnson saw a lane break open at the line of scrimmage and flashed 59 yards for a touchdown. Alcorn coach Fred McNair opted to tie the game with a two-point conversion; his defense was looking a bit gassed, so it was probably the smart play. Johnson rolled to his right and spotted Chris Blair slightly ahead of his defender just past the end-zone pylon. Johnson got Blair the ball, and it looked in the moment that Blair had secured the catch with one foot down in the end zone. But, as he was being tumbled out of bounds, Blair bobbled the ball and the pass was ruled incomplete and the call was upheld after a lengthy video review. A&T, behind game MVP quarterback Lamar Raynard managed to convert enough first downs the rest of the way to make the two-point margin stand up.

After the game, McNair said that he never did get an explanation for the call and the review. “I told my seniors that you’ve got to get ready for the real world,” the coach said. “You’re going to face adversity, and you’ve got to get ready for that.” And his words echoed down through history and he’d said more than the rest of them knew.

It can be argued that one of the founding fathers of college football was a blacksmith’s kid from Vermont named Justin Smith Morrill. In 1862, while representing Vermont in the secession-thinned United States Senate, Morrill shepherded to the desk of Abraham Lincoln the Land-Grant College Act, an arrangement whereby states would be aided by the federal government in establishing what Morrill described as “colleges…accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil…where all of needful science for the practical avocations of life shall be taught.” Just about every school in the country that bears either the word “state” or initials like “A&M” or “A&T” in its name owes its existence to Justin Smith Morrill.

(Here’s a helpful map. Imagine college sports without any of these institutions.)

Like so many other things, of course, in practice, these new opportunities were closed to African Americans, especially in the South. In. 1890, a second Morrill Act was passed in order to open the states of the former Confederacy to the land-grant system, but this second Morrill Act came with a kicker. To qualify for federal help, the states in question also had to commit to operating a land-grant school open to their black populations. Both Alcorn State and North Carolina A&T are land-grant schools born from Justin Smith Morrill’s original idea.

As such, both schools have long histories as intellectual taproots in the struggle for racial equality. The first president of Alcorn was Hiram Revels, the Reconstruction politician who was first African American ever elected to the Senate, and to fill the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, no less. Revels gave up that job to take over the presidency of what was then Alcorn University, named after James Alcorn, the white Mississippi governor who would replace Revels in the Senate in the kind of logrolling fandango common to the times. In 1948, an Army veteran named Medgar Evers graduated from Alcorn and, 15 years later, while organized for the NAACP, Evers was shot from ambush by a man it took the state of Mississippi nearly 30 years to convict. Medgar Evers played football for the Braves. He was a halfback.

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In 1960, in Greensboro, N.C., four African-American freshmen from A&T went downtown and sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in Woolworth’s. This singular act of courage kicked off a campaign of similar direct actions in Greensboro and, eventually, all over the country. (One of the on-campus leaders of the campaign to support the sit-ins was an A&T scholarship athlete named Jesse Jackson.) The sit-ins were the spur behind the 1960 Civil Rights Act and behind a ruling from the Interstate Commerce Commission that forbade segregation in interstate bus terminals and other transportation hubs. There is a statue to those four students on the A&T campus today, just as there is a statue of Medgar Evers at Alcorn. This is as it should be.

This is history. This is tradition. This all the best of both of them, history made of bone and sinew and tradition born in blood and courage, the sources of the visible pride of the two fan bases that came together in Atlanta to…yes…celebrate the Celebration Bowl, and the institutions that, against all possible historical odds, remain alive as living witnesses to the indomitability of the people who attend them.

Raynard was playing his last game at quarterback for A&T, and he played a good one, throwing for two touchdowns and 292 yards. He made three vital throws late in the game that kept Alcorn’s offense off the field. After the game, older fans came to shake his hand outside the locker room. Alums, some of whom were there when their four classmates sat down at a lunch counter one day and helped change the world. Raynard realized that, for all the talk about “tradition” that we’re going to hear over the next month regarding football programs more prominent than his own, that he is heir to a tradition deeper and stronger than the simple winning of football games. A tradition of opportunity, extended to the “sons of toil,” and thereafter, to the African-American sons of toil, who went out into the world and became doctors and mechanics and scientists—and, to be fair, members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, too—opportunity spread across the country like wheat, just the way Justin Smith Morrill had wanted it.

“The schools,” Raynard said, “these institutions, they’re so important and so legendary. You know, at North Carolina A&T, we put in a lot of work in the classroom, too. A lot of people come back, you know, to talk to us as a team and as a university, to share their memories. You can’t let those people down, you know? I have to keep what I’ve learned and make my future.”

And the bands, man. Talk about your celebration.

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