Harold Carmichael was a wiry teenager hanging out at a teammate’s house when he decided he wanted to play football at Southern University.
Recruiters from the university had been to Carmichael’s Jacksonville, Fla.,high school, but his interest wasn’t solidified until he found yearbooks for two historically Black colleges and universities while at teammate Blyden Geiger’s house.
Carmichael and Geiger looked at both yearbooks, the pictures of the campuses, the students there, the sports teams, and decided right there.
Just one hang-up. Southern’s recruiter showed interest in Geiger, a fullback and a punter, and told Carmichael that he’d be in touch, but...
“The call never came,” Carmichael said. “He said he’d get in contact with us and all that. My friend started getting letters and I said, ‘Maybe mine is displaced somewhere. Maybe they made a mistake.’”
Carmichael showed up for football tryouts anyway, made the team, and went on to become one of the greatest wide receivers of his era. The Pro Football Hall of Famer and the Eagles’ all-time leading receiver also became a representation of the pipeline HBCUs had into the NFL, something that has greatly diminished over time.
Last year, no players from HBCUs were drafted. Tennessee State guard Lachavious Simmons was the lone HBCU player taken the year before, and four players were taken in 2019.
South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough is one of the most successful HBCU coaches when it comes to getting his players noticed by the league. He has six players in the NFL, including Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and Indianapolis Colts All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard.
But even he has struggled in the last few years to get his players shots at landing on an NFL team either as a draft pick or an undrafted free agent.
“[HBCUs] have gotten to a point now that we’re kind of non-existent,” Pough said. “It’s hard to find some space, to find your place in the whole scheme of things, to be able to get more guys playing.”
The NFL draft cycle has featured two new events this year, the HBCU combine and the HBCU Legacy Bowl, added in an effort to give these players, who are almost exclusively Black, a greater opportunity to break into the league.
Most HBCUs are in the Football Championship Subdivision and don’t have the resources to compete with Power 5 schools in terms of recruiting, but the players who make it to the league often have a common thread: resiliency.
“These guys have overcome a ton of adversity during their four or five years here,” said Willie Simmons, the coach at Florida A&M University. “They’ve gone without major resources, they’ve had to take long bus rides, and maybe didn’t have the summer training programs to get the conditioning, nutrition, and strength that athletes at other programs get. So hearing their story, how resilient they are … I think that will give people a greater understanding of why these young men will be successful at the next level.”
It’s that ability to overcome adversity, one of the foundational ideas from these college and universities designed to enrich and advance the Black community, that some believe will help HBCU players capitalize on the newfound opportunities to perform in front of a bigger group of scouts.
‘Cream of the crop’
During Carmichael’s college career, he often found himself lined up against Mel Blount in practice. Blount was destined to be an All-Pro cornerback and a four-time Super Bowl champion, but back then, to Carmichael, he was just the mean cornerback who seemed to have a problem with him.
“A guy would run a pass pattern against Mel and when Mel got to him, he’d two-hand touch him,” Carmichael recalled. “But when I got up to run a route against Mel and caught it, Mel would clothesline me.”
Carmichael credits constantly working against Blount for playing a role in his development. Both went on to be Pro Football Hall of Famers, and they’re far from alone. From Michael Strahan to Jerry Rice to Walter Payton, a number of NFL legends went to HBCU schools, but that has dried up in recent years.
For Pough, the biggest cause is the change in the recruiting landscape with Power 5 schools taking most of the top-tier recruits and Group of Five schools taking those who are left.
“It’s not nearly what it used to be back when we had all the guys down south,” he said. “Now, everybody is recruiting that pool of talent. We had it to ourselves for a long, long time. Once upon a time, the Power 5 schools only took the cream of the crop. Then we had the rest of the schools in D-I ball that really didn’t get in here and develop guys. The undersized guys who grew up to be the Darius Leonards of the world. He was 6-foot, 180 pounds. Those guys now are being taken up.”
The dip in talent across the leagues has led most of the coaches at these schools to continue targeting diamonds in the rough. Pough said he looks for players such as Leonard, undersize guys who need time to develop but have flashed potential to make serious improvement once they do.
The risk of those players’ never making meaningful improvements is there, but there’s still evidence that players from the two primary HBCU leagues (the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference) are good enough to compete in the NFL if given the chance.
Mac McCain III, an undrafted prospect out of North Carolina A&T, was signed to the Eagles’ practice squad multiple times last season and is with the team on a reserve/futures contract through the offseason.
“There are good players in the HBCUs, they can play in the NFL,” Carmichael said. “The games that I see, there’s talent there. I have friends that live in Baton Rouge and friends that live down in Florida that talk about some of the players that could make it, but the guys don’t get a good look. You don’t see the games on TV.”
If there is talent in the two main HBCU football conferences, why has representation gone down in recent years?
“I think it’s a little bit easier to give the benefit of the doubt to a prospect coming from a Power 5 school,” Simmons explained. “You’ve seen them play against other Power 5 competition or they were graded highly coming out of high school. It’s easier than it is for a guy who played FCS football and came into school with no scholarship offers. I think it’s just the human element. It’s a safer bet to stand on the table for someone coming from Alabama, Ohio State, or USC as opposed to a Florida A&M, Grambling, or Southern.”
All eyes on them
With a dozen scouts watching closely, Will Adams trudged to the line for what must have been the fourth or fifth time.
The Virginia State defensive back’s last run through the three-cone drill elicited the biggest reaction from the cluster of scouts who’d made it to the HBCU combine. After he’d crossed the finishing line, the group stirred, comparing stopwatch times and smiling at one another.
There was just one problem. Adams had stepped over one of the final cones instead of staying on the outside of it.
“Cutting the cone,” a Los Angeles Rams scout put it.
After taking a few minutes to catch his breath, Adams came back for a final try at the scouts’ request.
He managed not to cut the cone this time, changing directions seamlessly and accelerating quickly from point to point. Just as Adams cleared the second-to-last cone and prepared to barrel toward the finishing line, he kicked the cone out of place.
A collective groan came from the cluster of scouts, but they’d seen what they needed. Adams’ best attempt of the day was still an impressive 6.88 seconds. Even if his last attempt was moot, he’d gotten the attention of every NFL team for a few minutes.
Moments like the one Adams had was the goal when Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy organized the combine. The exposure for the schools’ best athletes could make a difference in April.
“Some of these guys won’t have a pro day,” Nagy said. “If you think about it logistically from a scout’s perspective, if you’re the Southeast area scout, you have a million FBS schools you have to get to in about a 30-day period of time. ... You can’t hit every FCS or even Division II school”
Both the HBCU combine and the HBCU Legacy Bowl gave these players interview time with interested NFL teams as well, which Nagy suggested may be more important than the actual workouts.
There are recent examples of HBCU prospects going early in the draft — Hargrave was a third-round pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Alabama State guard Tytus Howard went in the first round to the Houston Texans in 2019 — but most of this year’s crop are projected to be late-round picks or undrafted free agents like McCain was last year.
If they’re going to catch on with a team, they’ll need a scout to go to bat for them, something that is easier to do if those scouts have interacted with them.
“If you’re going to be a late-round guy or a free agent, which is the level these guys are, you’ve got to be built different, man,” Nagy said. “Teams want to hold onto those higher draft picks, so you really, as a scout, have to know if these guys are wired right. That football makeup, that competitive nature, that resiliency, overcoming stuff, you won’t know that, there’s no way to know that unless you sit across from a guy, hear his story, and know where he came from. To me, that’s as beneficial as the workout stuff.”
‘The Deion effect’
When Deion Sanders was hired as Jackson State’s head coach, his assistants got to work trying to retain the incoming recruiting class.
Keith Corbin was one of the players who’d committed before the coaching change. He’d pledged to the Tigers because of familiarity with the previous staff, but was open to playing for Sanders.
When Corbin got the call from JSU, though, it wasn’t Sanders on the other end.
“I can’t really say I’ve got Coach Prime’s number,” Corbin said last month, laughing. “He don’t really give his number out like that. But just getting that call from a Jackson State [assistant coach], they told me I could be a part of history.”
Corbin, an NFL draft prospect this year after five years at JSU, said the promise of being a part of the revival of HBCUs was at the forefront of the new staff’s messaging, and that’s what won him over.
“I was like, ‘Let’s do it, I want to be a part of the change,” he said. “I want to help the culture get back and bring HBCUs back to where it was.”
Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, has brought a significant amount of buzz back to HBCU football in the last few years both in media coverage and funding. He has gone 15-5 in two seasons at JSU and made waves when ESPN’s No. 2-ranked high school recruit, Travis Hunter, committed in December to play for the school. A month later, four-star wide receiver Kevin Coleman committed to Jackson State as well.
“I appreciate them going to Jackson State,” Corbin said. “I want them to change the culture, man.”
Sanders originally called for an HBCU combine and even announced he’d be a part of the first event in 2020 before it was canceled because of the pandemic. By 2021, he said publicly that he disagreed with the notion that players from schools like his should need their own event and instead said the NFL scouting combine should add more slots. Four HBCU players would be invited to the upcoming NFL combine — among them is Bridgeton native Markquese Bell, a defensive back out of Florida A&M — while 40 were expected to have attended the HBCU combine.
Sanders wasn’t at the HBCU combine, but Corbin said his influence was still apparent at the event.
“I think Coach Prime, talking more about HBCUs, this is a part of it,” Corbin said. “This is why they had the HBCU combine, because Prime was telling you guys that HBCU is where it is. It ain’t Power 5, but I think HBCUs can get back on the map. That’s what he’s doing.”
Sanders is now one of a few prominent Black coaches in the HBCU head coaching ranks. Former Tennessee Titans star Eddie George took the Tennessee State job last year, and longtime NFL coach Hue Jackson took over at Grambling last December.
For an old-school coach like Pough, who beat Sanders’ Tigers in the Celebration Bowl in December, the way Sanders and other high-profile coaches have approached recruiting isn’t something every HBCU program can mimic.
“You’re talking about the Deion effect,” Pough said. “I don’t know if we can replicate what Deion’s doing. He’s such a well-known commodity. Everybody knows the guy. Heck, I’m his fan. I was in awe, standing on the opposite sideline looking over there trying to see what Deion’s doing.
“I can tell you we’d like to do some of that kind of stuff, but I don’t see us having enough of a success rate to get into those squabbles with the dadgum Power 5 guys. It’s like, you don’t pull on Superman’s cape. I don’t know if I can survive digging in those doggone areas.”
For the culture
As video of George Floyd’s murder gained national attention, Willie Simmons took a moment to reflect on his own life and the impact he has on young Black men.
The Florida A&M coach and former player didn’t always recognize the influence his voice could have on future generations, but 2020 served as a reality check for him and the Black community as a whole while multiple high-profile cases with Black Americans killed by law enforcement sparked a conversation about systemic racism in the country.
The renewed conversation and the sobering effect that came with it has played a role in the apparent revival of HBCUs in the last year or so, Simmons said.
“The climate that we’re facing right now has a lot to do with it,” he said. “The George Floyd case really, really brought a lot of the things that we, as African Americans in this country, have been facing. It kind of made everybody do a reset, to say, ‘Yes, we’ve come a long way, but we see we haven’t come far enough.’
“When you’re at a place where you’re cared about and celebrated and not just tolerated, where you have people who are going to push you to be your best every single day, you know it brings the best out of you,” he added. “You can have that anywhere, it doesn’t have to be at a Power 5 school.”
Born out of necessity when colleges were still segregated, HBCUs have always been considered a “safe haven” for Black culture. They each have their own sets of traditions, but Black fraternities and sororities, marching bands, and step lines are prominent at most of the schools.
Acceptance is as well.
“You didn’t have to worry about what people were saying about you or if you were getting everything that everyone else was getting,” Carmichael said of the experience. “We looked like each other, we were all there together. It was a great experience for me. When I came to the Eagles, it was the first time I had been around a lot of white players and coaches.
“It was a culture shock, pretty much, when I came in there. I joke about it a lot, the first meeting we had in Philadelphia I don’t remember what the coach was saying because I was in awe looking around the room saying, ‘Boy, it’s only about 10 or 12 of us in here. Not a whole lot of Black folks in here.’”
Simmons and Carmichael are hopeful the recent string of highly touted Black recruits choosing HBCUs will continue on. Pough is a bit more skeptical.
“I think it’s kind of a fad here and now for the next short period of time,” he said. “I think it’s always going to be about apples to apples comparisons. Guys want the best deal. They don’t have much of an allegiance to HBCUs. These kids’ parents now have mostly gone to predominantly white institutions. Most of the guys, when I was coming out, if you were college-educated, your parents went to an HBCU. I can tell you, that day’s gone now.”
Either way, both Simmons and Pough say, the goal remains the same. They want their players to have equal opportunities to pave a way into the NFL, and the 2021 draft cycle was a step in the right direction.
Simmons was one of the head coaches at the Legacy Bowl earlier this month and said the event has “staying power” because it pairs football exposure with volunteer work and real-world benefits like a career fair and Microsoft training session.
“Hopefully in five years we’re not having to have this conversation any more,” Simmons said. “My hope is just that at some point [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] ‘Dream’ becomes a reality. That you’re judged on who you are and what you do and not what color your skin is. That’s what we all kind of in the back of our minds pray for. We want our best and brightest to have the same opportunities as everybody else. ... I’m not asking for any favors, we just want those guys to get their opportunity. Just like if there’s an African-American coach who has the ability and the intangibles to be a head coach or a general manager to get that opportunity.
“That’s all we’re asking.”