MikeCheck: Lessons from lifelong HBCU football connections at heart of GCM new 'Power Poll'
MEMPHIS – For me, Black College football is where it all started.
Now 30 years later, it feels only right, only natural, only complete that we circle back to the foundation on which my sports media career, social mindset and love of culture and history were nurtured. Today, as part of our continuing expansion into college football coverage, Grind City Media has given me the opportunity to launch the MikeCheck HBCU Football Power Poll.
In addition to our Memphis Tigers and SEC football coverage, we’re sharing the unique stories, scenes and sounds that make HBCU football special. The Power Poll will be my weekly ranking of the top five teams as we wind toward the Dec. 15 Celebration Bowl in Atlanta to crown a HBCU national champion.
My introduction to Black College football came in 1988, during a meeting with Doug Williams. I was in junior high school and Williams was making his post-Super Bowl rounds in my Washington, D.C. hometown as the first real sports hero I idolized and simultaneously met. A few months earlier, Williams led my hometown Redskins to a 42-10 throttling of John Elway’s Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII.
Williams set a record at the time by passing for 340 yards and four touchdowns to become the first black quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP. That ascension secured his spot in my late-1980s sports Mount Rushmore: Mike Tyson. Michael Jordan. Darryl Strawberry. And Doug Williams.
What most people forget is Williams started that 1987 season as a backup and went 0-2 after taking over as the starter. And also often overlooked is that Williams suffered a bad knee injury early in the Super Bowl before limping to his prolific finish. Basically, what Aaron Rodgers did in a thrilling comeback on one functional leg in last Sunday’s season opener, Williams did 30 years ago on the biggest stage in pro sports. But there are two things that resonate to this day from Williams’ performance.
First, one of the biggest questions Williams was asked during the press conferences surrounding that Super Bowl victory was, “How long have you been a black quarterback?” Williams would later tackle the audacity of that inquiry in his 1990 autobiography, QuarterBlack: Shattering the NFL Myth.
Secondly, I’ll always remember seeing Williams during his round of sponsorship appearances and camps throughout the city in the aftermath of the Super Bowl. With his Southern drawl and measured tones, Williams spoke about this seemingly mythical man and magical place that were the source of his inspiration.
That man was legendary coach Eddie Robinson, who retired as the winningest coach in NCAA history. A man who, in the face of vicious civil rights oppression, shared the courage and fortitude of Martin Luther King Jr., the heart of Mother Teresa, the coaching mind of Bear Bryant and the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong – all wrapped into someone whose playbook was full of life lessons between all those Xs and Os.
That place was Grambling State University in tiny Grambling, Louisiana.
Coach Robinson knew more about football than all those dadgum big shots conducting the clinics at those conventions... But he’d be the first one in the room, sitting in the front row every time with those pencils and notebooks, soaking in everything like a sponge.-- Bobby Bowden
I had never heard of Robinson. And I never imagined a place called Grambling existed on the map. All I knew was that at that moment, I made up my mind I would go there, too. Five years later, my family made the 1,134-mile drive from D.C. down I-95 and I-85, then across I-20 to drop me off at Grambling for my freshman year. Soon, a journalism scholarship and job with the school newspaper were my credentials to chronicle Robinson’s teams around the country.
Years later, when I covered Florida State football, Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden once told me he learned so much from Robinson by simply being in his presence during offseason coaching conventions.
“Coach Robinson knew more about football than all those dadgum big shots conducting the clinics at those conventions,” Bowden said. “But he’d be the first one in the room, sitting in the front row every time with those pencils and notebooks, soaking in everything like a sponge.”
There was also the story former Alabama player and coach Mike DuBose shared with me about recalling only two occasions Bear Bryant ever stopped practice when a visitor arrived.
“One was for President Lyndon Johnson,” DuBose said. “The other was when Coach Robinson came by.”
As Robinson marched toward his 400th career victory after more than 50 years at Grambling, I doubled as a correspondent for some of the nation’s biggest newspapers and radio stations. I wrote about the coach who won on the football field and often wept in press conferences while drifting into stories about his life’s journey. I was fortunate to be among a swarm of reporters at Robinson's side inside Robinson Stadium as he was handed a telephone. On the other end of the line was President Bill Clinton calling moments after Robinson's 400th victory.
Grambling State University Legends Doug Williams and Eddie Robinson after a Super Bowl XXXII press conference at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California. Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
But I was most lucky to always be one of the last reporters out of the press box after tough losses, only to walk by the locker room many late Saturday nights to find Robinson. He was well into his 70s, alone and putting away rows of folding chairs after sending the janitors home. I’d always find another question or two to ask because I knew his answer would evolve into some larger lesson on life or embracing adversity or being a proud American. No matter what, Coach Rob loved being an American.
On nights like this, it all made sense. It all came together. I was experiencing firsthand what Williams had described about Robinson and Grambling to us kids years earlier in the weeks after that 1988 Super Bowl triumph. Symbolically, one of my first assignments in my first job after leaving Grambling was to return and cover Robinson's 1997 retirement press conference. That's the day Robinson also handed the head coach’s keys to Williams.
A photo captured of Robinson and me together that day now sits in my office at FedExForum. A cropped version of that shot is my Twitter avatar. My story is 30 years in the making, and just one of many that highlight the impact HBCU football has on those it molds.
These programs often get overlooked or under-covered in mainstream media. Our goal is to shine a bit of spotlight on some of the best and brightest HBCU football teams each week, right here.
MikeCheck HBCU Power Poll
1. North Carolina A&T (3-0):
The defending Black College national champions carry the nation’s longest winning streak (FCS or FBS) at 15 games into their bye week. N.C. A&T jumped up to No. 4 in this week's national FCS STATS poll, the highest ranking in school history. The Aggies are also 3-1 against their last four FBS foes.
Up Next: Idle Saturday
2. Prairie View (1-2):
How are the Panthers ranked this high? They nearly upset FBS foe Rice, then smacked N.C. Central in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge on national TV and lost a close game to top-5 ranked FCS power Sam Houston State. Tailback Dawonya Tucker has run for an FCS-leading 542 yards.
Up Next: Saturday at UNLV (1-1)
3. Tennessee State (1-0):
First, the Tigers game against Jackson State in last weekend’s Southern Heritage Classic was washed out by lightning and rain. Now, coach Rod Reed’s team is in a holding pattern yet again after the threat of Hurricane Florence forced Saturday’s game against Hampton to be postponed.
Up Next: Saturday at Hampton (1-1), postponed
4. Morehouse (2-0):
The unbeaten Maroon Tigers from the NCAA Division II’s SIAC picked up two big wins over Grind City Media regional teams, first upsetting FCS-level Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the season opener and routing Lane College last week to put two standouts on the SIAC players of the week honor roll.
Up Next: Saturday vs Central State (1-1)
5. Grambling State (0-2):
The two-time defending SWAC champs get a week off to heal after being outscored 83-24 in road losses to FBS Louisiana-Lafayette and a Northwestern State team that tested Texas A&M in the opener. The Tigers always find a way to regroup for SWAC play, where they've won 26 in a row in conference.
Up Next: Idle Saturday
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