HBCU stars reflect on past of few options: ‘I don’t know that too many SEC teams would’ve beat us’

Ten miles northeast of Jackson, Tenn., is an unincorporated city known as Tri-Community. It’s where, for much of the 20th century, farmers sustained both their families and their livelihoods by being one with the earth. It’s also understood that, due to the active natural springs in the area and the overabundance of sugar cane, some of the best moonshine whiskey in the world is produced where Ed “Too Tall” Jones was born and raised.

“That’s one of my claims to fame,” the former Dallas Cowboys star defensive end said.

Jones was raised on his family’s farm, one of eight children, and long before he became “Too Tall” to the sporting world, he was still a very large teenager who stood 6 feet 5 and would mash home runs and dominate the paint on the hardwood. One sport Merry High School in Jackson did not have until Jones’ last year as a high schooler was football. In all, I have played just three games in his final year at Merry. But as his athletic prowess grew and his ability to rake at the plate and run the floor as a big man, his recruitment as a small-town superstar was only in baseball and basketball. Life working on the farm was what you’d expect, he said. Unforgiving. Hot.

And it wasn’t what he wanted for himself.

When universities and colleges came calling, he was enamored by the prestige of it all. A ticket out to some new adventure. This was still 1968. Then, there were options for Jones, but they were severely limited. He was a young Black man in the South where segregation was still instituted, and he couldn’t just go anywhere. Some pockets of the country were still integrating their athletic departments and football programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“It didn’t face me at all. That’s the way it was. I accepted the way it was,” Jones said.

Several high-profile schools refused to integrate their teams on the gridiron. Storied programs such as Alabama, Texas, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss wouldn’t accept a Black player on the roster until 1970 or 1971.

“We just had to make do with what we had at HBCUs,” former Grambling State star quarterback Doug Williams said.

Jones had several offers from various historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to play baseball and basketball in the region. And he had the option to go play at Arizona State, where Reggie Jackson had just burst onto the scene in the desert. Jones’ father died his senior year of high school, altering the landscape of where he should go. He needed to stay close to his mother, his siblings told him. One day his brother-in-law advised him to stay in-state and go to nearby Tennessee State University, an HBCU about two hours from home in Nashville. He went there to be a baseball and basketball player, but after further advice from his older brother and his brother-in-law, he tried out for the TSU football program, one of the premier in the country.

In his time at TSU, Jones and the Tigers kept the rich tradition of success on the field rolling. He went on to be the first HBCU player ever selected No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft in 1974. He won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys in January 1978. Jones is 71 now and reflects on a time when HBCU football was as talented as any powerhouse program in America.

“Just because I went to Tennessee State, a Division II HBCU, I didn’t fear nobody when I would watch Notre Dame play USC,” he said. “When I watched those games, I sized those players up and I said, ‘I can compete with any of them.’ That was my attitude. I was brought up that way.”

Jones and other Black athletes were also raised in a time that didn’t allow them the same opportunities as White athletes. In some instances during the 1960s and 1970s, integrated schools still had to ask permission from the home team to play their Black players on the road. That was commonplace even though the first integrated college football game in the South between Harvard and Virginia took place in 1947. Yet several decades on, Black players still couldn’t go to any school, let alone receive recruiting interest from programs that hadn’t accepted integration.

“It took a while for people to adjust to the reality of these athletes can play anywhere no matter what,” said legendary broadcaster Charlie Neal, who was the voice of HBCU football on BET for 23 years.

The historic collision between the Civil Rights Movement and college football took place on a muggy and memorable night at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., in September 1970. Just a sliver over two miles away from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “ Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963, USC, spearheaded by several star Black players, including Sam Cunningham, visited the all-White Alabama Crimson Tide and changed the sport forever. The Trojans had 559 yards of total offense and stomped Bear Bryant’s Alabama, 42-21. Jones was a 19-year-old TSU defensive lineman then, still learning the tricks of the trade that would eventually land him as the No. 1 overall pick a few years later.

Jones and his teammates huddled together inside a living room, elated by the scene on the grainy black-and-white TV. The next day, Bryant told the Alabama School Board of Trustees that the program should be able to recruit any player on the merit of talent, not of skin color. The country and college football needed a galvanizing moment like that to expose the obvious inequities, Jones explained. From then on, successful Division I programs that previously did not or could not recruit Black players on the basis of race were changing their once narrow-minded tune.

“What we gathered from that game was, ‘Oh boy, we’re going to see some changes now,’” Jones recalled. “That was our bottom line. Several of us, we didn’t know what to expect, but we knew there would be some changes. But I’m going to tell you something: It’s hard to believe it’s only been 50 years. I guess I can say that because I lived it.”

In the community of Zachary in the East Baton Rouge Parish, Williams, a 15-year-old ninth-grader, looked on as USC trounced the Crimson Tide. He was a quarterback then. The same who would go on to break records in college and break barriers in the NFL. Williams became the first Black starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl with Washington in January 1988.

“It stays in my mind that Sam ‘The Bam’ Cunningham did more for integration and football in the South than Bear Bryant did,” Williams said from his office, his patented No. 17 hanging up on the wall behind him.

Growing up as a quarterback in the South, Williams was not under any illusions that he could go anywhere he wanted. Being a quarterback put that into perspective early on, he said. He was a Black kid from East Baton Rouge who could spin it. So his dream schools of him from the outset were not Alabama or Texas but rather Grambling State, Jackson State, Tennessee State or the long shot of trying to get to Southern California to play for USC.

Williams, who ended up staying in Louisiana at Grambling State, grew up 25 minutes from LSU and remembers how fellow local star high school quarterback Terry Robiskie, a year older than him, was eventually converted to running back with the Tigers. Outside of Condredge Holloway at Tennessee (1972-1974), Black quarterbacks looked to HBCUs in the South in order to remain at the position. Williams graduated from Grambling in 1978, led the program to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and won Black College Player of the Year twice. In his final year on the field, he led the country in total yards, passing yards and passing touchdowns and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

But by then, Williams noticed that the HBCU talent pool had begun to diminish as integration nationwide had taken hold. Integration was necessary to alter the American consciousness but, simultaneously, it left HBCUs that were filled with NFL-caliber talent with less of a prominent future. During Jones’ last year at TSU in 1973, the Tigers had the No. 1 overall pick in Jones, the No. 4 overall pick (linebacker Waymond Bryant) and three second-round picks. In the 1975 NFL Draft, Jackson State’s Walter Payton (No. 4 overall) and Robert Brazile (No. 6 overall) headlined five players drafted from the program that year.

“When you talk about the talent and richness of the players that were at these other HBCU schools, that’s where we were,” Williams said. “Once integration came in, everything got watered down.”

As integration spread and more Black players were given the chance to play at any school, the HBCU alums had to balance this odd middle ground: knowing that options for those who were coming after them would be plentiful but also realizing that the leagues and conferences they dominated would never be the same.

“I don’t think at the beginning that was a thought. I think it was more applause,” Neal said. “They opened the doors and allowed us to be apart of what was happening. I think sometimes when opportunity presents itself, you don’t look at it as if it’s going to damage something else because of an opportunity here.”

As Jones’ profile rose with the Cowboys, he continued to spread the word for TSU football even to high school recruits in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But by then, he said, parents were asking why HBCU schools weren’t on TV, and they equated TV time to a higher chance of their kid going pro. That’s when, Jones said, he knew the HBCU system was never going to be as dominant as it once was. More televisions in homes and more televised games meant perceptions were changing more rapidly than ever. Williams, now 66, believes the foundation of the sport left HBCUs at a disadvantage from the outset. Many HBCUs not only were not broadcast in the South, but some stations refused to air their games.

“I think what hurt the HBCUs was the landscape and infrastructure that we weren’t able to build upon that they were, because the Power 5 schools and other institutions had direct contact with television, money and everything,” he said. “We just had to go on with what we had left.”

College Football Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson, who led Grambling’s football program from 1941 through 1997, used to tell his players: “We have done so much with so little at Grambling, we could almost do anything without nothing.” That mantra needed to spread among all HBCUs in order to best thrive in the post-integration existence.

Most college football fans today could never imagine a reality in which Black players were not allowed to play at some schools because of the color of their skin. Those still around to tell their stories hold dear the belief that they were on the same level as the big dogs.

“It wasn’t a Black and White thing,” Jones said. “We used to go to bed and dream of it and wake up and, guess what, they’re on our schedule? We felt like we could compete. We were that good, and we knew we were.”

Williams arrived in Tampa Bay in 1978 after the Buccaneers made him the first Black quarterback to be drafted in the first round. Within weeks, he began wrestling internally with himself. Most of his Grambling teammates of him were good enough to be at that pro level. Why was he the lucky one? Williams goes down the list of former teammates who had the chops but were never given the chance to shine.

“Let me say this and I’ll say this until the day I die: During that time, I don’t know that too many SEC teams would have beat us. I don’t,” he said. “They wouldn’t have played us, anyway.”

College football is in a state of fluidity, whipped by the rise of NIL and the dizzying amount of transfer portal movement, and that has former HBCU stars hopeful for the future. Deion Sanders leading the charge at Jackson State has been a massive victory for the group of schools as a whole as he’s been able to land blue-chip recruits and bring a national spotlight to a no longer dormant HBCU power. Player empowerment, Jones and Williams say, will potentially lead to more players understanding that HBCU football is just as worthy as a splashy FBS program.

Is it coming back? I think what has happened is now NCAA free agency, you give a guy a chance to go somewhere, they choose to go to an HBCU, that’s great,” Williams said. “But it’s one of those things where you probably should have been there from the start.”

(Illustration: John Bradford/ TheAthletic; photos courtesy of Tennessee State and Grambling State)

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