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HBCU Classics Have Produced Some of the NFL Greats. Here Are a Few Names

Robert Mathis, a linebacker, played for AAMU and would go on to help Indianapolis win Super Bowl XLI.

By Donald Hunt

For The Birmingham Times

If you follow Black college football, then you have certainly seen some of the greatest players to ever play the game. Many of these players who hail from some of the nation’s top historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have showcased their talents on the big stage.

The big stage for a lot of HBCU standouts is playing front of huge crowds at some of the traditionally Black college football classic games. These classic games are played in various cities throughout the country.

They are legendary games between longtime rival schools that feature marching bands, fraternities, sororities and alumni from different HBCUs. There are more than 20 HBCU classics including the Magic City Classic in Birmingham, Bayou Classic in New Orleans, Florida Classic played next month in Orlando, Fla.; Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis, Tenn. and the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The Magic City Classic includes Alabama A&M and Alabama State from the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). It’s the largest HBCU classic averaging more than 60,000 fans each year. This is the 81st annual classic will take place at Legion Field on Saturday, Oct. 29. The kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m.

NFL Legends

Both schools have been very prolific in sending players to the NFL. Alabama A&M has produced some NFL legends with John Stallworth, Robert Mathis and Howard Ballard.

Stallworth, a brilliant wide receiver, was a two-time All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) selection in 1972 and ’73. In 1974, he was a fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He won four Super Bowls (IX, X, XXII, XIV) with the Steelers. In 2002, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mathis, a linebacker, played from 1999-2002 for the Bulldogs. As a senior, he put together a NCAA FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, Divisions I-AA) record with 20 sacks. The All-SWAC performer was a fifth-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts. He was a five-time Pro Bowler with the Colts. He also helped Indianapolis win Super Bowl XLI.

Ballard, an offensive tackle, was a terrific blocker during his college career from 1982-86. He was a two-time All-SIAC star. Ballard was an 11th round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1987. He played in four Super Bowls during his playing days with the Bills. He played in Buffalo from 1987-1993. Ballard, a two-time Pro Bowler, also played for the Seattle Seahawks from 1994-98.

Alabama State had some well know players who shined in the classic. The Hornets’ head coach Eddie Robinson, Jr. along with Tarvaris Jackson and Tytus Howard were all great college players who went onto the NFL.

Robinson, a linebacker, was named the SWAC Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991. He was a second-round pick of the Houston Oilers in 1992. Robinson played 11 years in the NFL. He played for the Oilers (1992-95), Jacksonville Jaguars (1996-97), Tennessee Titans (1998-2001) and Buffalo Bills (2002). In addition, he played on the Titans 2000 Super Bowl team.

Jackson was the top quarterback in the SWAC from 2003-05. He threw for 7,397 yards and 64 touchdowns in his college career. In 2006, Jackson was a second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, He played with the Vikings from 2006-10. Jackson played for the Buffalo Bills in 2012 and had two stints with the Seattle Seahawks (2011, 2013—15). He was a member of the Seahawks Super Bowls (XLVIII) championship team. Jackson died in a car crash in Alabama in 2020.

Howard, an offensive tackle, played with the Hornets from 2014-18. He was a first-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2019 NFL draft. This is his fourth season with the Texans.

Bayou Classic

The Bayou Classic is a great rivalry between Grambling State and Southern University. The classic started in 1974 where New Orleans has been the city which entertains these two HBCUs other than one-year (2006) in Houston due to Hurricane Katrina and one season in Shreveport in 2020. The 49th annual classic will be held in the Caesars Superdome on Saturday, Nov. 26 at 1 p.m.

Grambling State has a host of players such as Doug Williams, Albert Lewis and Jake Reed who played in this classic. They all played for legendary head coach Eddie Robinson.

Williams, an All-American quarterback, had a 35-5 career record during his years (1974-77) with the Tigers. In 1978, he was a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played for Tampa Bay from 1978-82. His big moment came in 1987 with the Washington Redskins (now Commanders). Williams led Washington to a 42-10 victor over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. As a result, he became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

Lewis, a defensive back, played for Grambling State from 1979-1982. He was a third-round pick in 1983 of the Kansas City Chiefs. The four-time Pro Bowler played for the Chiefs (1983-1993) and the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders (1994-98).

Reed, a wide receiver, played for the Tigers from1987-1990. He was a third-round selection of the Minnesota Vikings in 1991. Reed played 12 NFL seasons with the Vikings (1991-99, 2001) and the New Orleans Saints (2000, 2002).

Southern defensive back Aeneas Williams didn’t play football until his junior, but finished with a great career in the SWAC. He had 20 career interceptions with the Jaguars. In 1991, Williams was a third-round pick of the Phoenix Cardinals. The eight-time Pro Bowler played for the Cardinals from 1991-2000. He also played for the St. Louis Rams from 2001-04. In 2014, Williams was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Florida Classic

The Florida Classic started in 1978 between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman. These two HBCUs have been playing each other since 1925. The classic will be played at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 3:30 p.m.

FAMU and B-CU have seen a number of NFL greats in this game like Bethune-Cookman’s Nick Collins and Rashean Mathis and Florida A&M’s Quinn Gray and Marquese Bell.

Collins, a free safety, played for the Wildcats from 2002-04. In his senior year, he was chosen third-team Division I-AA All-American. He had a big game against FAMU that year. Collins had a key interception in the closing moments to take the game into overtime where Bethune-Cookman came away with an exciting 58-52 win in the Florida Classic.

In 2005, Collins was a second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers. The three-time Pro Bowler helped the Packer win the 2010 Super Bowl championship. He played for Green Bay from 2005-11.

Mathis, a defensive back, was named the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and won the Buck Buchanan Award in 2002. He was drafted in the second-round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003. He played for Jacksonville from 2003-12. After that, Mathis finished pro career with the Detroit Lions in 2015.

Gray set a lot of passing records as FAMU’s quarterback from 1998-2001. He is the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (7,578), pass attempts (1,130), pass completions (562) and touchdown passes (57). He guided the Rattlers to back-to-back MEAC crowns in 2000 and 2001.

In 2002, Gray signed as an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars.  He played with Jacksonville as a backup quarterback from 2002-07. He also in NFL Europe taking the Frankfort (Germany) Galaxy to the league title.

Bell, a safety, played two seasons for the Rattlers. He received All-SWAC honors in 2021. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys. This is his rookie years with the Cowboys.

The Circle City Classic

The Circle City Classic has provided the fans with some thrilling HBCU football in Indianapolis, Indiana over the years. The classic started in 1984 with Mississippi Valley State defeating Grambling State, 48-36, in a high scoring affair. Wide receiver Jerry Rice had eight catches for 174 yards and two TDs. Rice was MVP of the inaugural classic.

In 1985, Rice was a first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. He played on three Super Bowl teams with the 49ers. Rice was named MVP of Super Bowl XXII. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Steve McNair, former Alcorn State star quarterback, is another magnificent player who displayed his talents in the classic. In 1991, McNair led Alcorn State to a 46-27 win over Howard University. The game was played in front of 60.161 fans in the Hoosier Dome. He completed 26-of-33 passes for 433 yards and three TD passes in that game.

McNair was one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football from 1991-94. He threw for 16,823 yards in total offense in his career. In 1995, McNair was the No. 3 pick in the first round of the NFL draft by the Houston Oilers. He played with the Oilers/Tennessee Titans for 11 years. The three-time Pro Bowler and MVP led the Titans to the 1999 Super Bowl. McNair finished his NFL career playing two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.

McNair and Rice are two of the biggest stars to play in the classic, which has been around for 36 years.

Southern Heritage Classic

The Southern Heritage Classic has a strong history in HBCU football. The game features a long time classic between Jackson State and Tennessee State. This rivalry started in 1990 and the game each year is played at Liberty Stadium in Memphis, Tenn. With the exception of 1991 where Mississippi Valley State played in the classic and 1993 where Grambling State participated in the game, Jackson State and Tennessee State have given the fans some exciting football.

Two prominent players who played in this classic are Tennessee State’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Jackson State’s Lester Holmes. Rodgers-Cromartie, a defensive back, played for the Tigers from 2004-07. The former Ohio Valley Conference star was a 2007 FCS All-American. He was a first-round pick in 2008 by the Arizona Cardinals. The two-time Pro Bowler played 12 NFL seasons for the Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, New York Giants, Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins (now Commanders). He also played in two Super Bowls.

Holmes, an offensive guard, was a 1993 pick of the Philadelphia Eagles. He played four years with the Eagles before spending a year with the Oakland Raiders and finished his NFL career playing three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

State Fair Classic

The State Fair Classic held each year at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas features Grambling State and Prairie View A&M. These two HBCUs are both members of the SWAC. They play each other annually in this classic.

The Tigers and the panthers have clashed in this legendary game since 1985. Former Grambling State stars Andrew Glover and Jason Hatcher played in this matchup. Prairie View A&M has turned out some terrific players like Quinton Bell and KhaDarel Hodge from this contest. All these players have gone onto play in the NFL.

Glover, a tight end, was a 10th round selection of the Los Angeles Raiders. He played six years for the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders. After that, he played three years for the Minnesota Vikings and one season with the New Orleans Saints. He finished his career with 208 catches for 2,476 yards and 24 TDs.

Hatcher, a defensive end, was a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2006. He played eight seasons in Dallas. Hatcher played his final two seasons with the Washington Redskins (now Commanders).

Bell, an outside linebacker, was a seventh-round pick in 2019 of the Oakland Raiders. After spending a part of one season with the Raiders, he was released and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He currently plays for the Atlanta Falcons.

Hodge, a wide receiver, played three seasons for the Panthers. He had 48 catches for 844 yards and 12 TDs his senior season.

Hodge signed with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He played one season for the Rams. Then, he went onto play two years for the Cleveland Browns. A year ago, he played with the Detroit Lions. He now plays for the Falcons.


More on the 81st Annual Magic City Classic on Oct. 29 at Birmingham’s Legion Field.

ASU Stingettes: “Expect The Unexpected” | The Birmingham Times

AAMU Dancin’ Divas: “Prepare to Get Your Socks Knocked Off” | The Birmingham Times

ASU Honey Beez: “Always Imitated, Never Duplicated” | The Birmingham Times