By Erick Johnson
In the fourth quarter of the Chicago Football Classic last year, fans and players of Miles College were celebrating with two minutes left. They led the Morehouse Maroon Tigers most of the game. With time running out, many spectators had left the stadium. On the final play of the game, Morehouse sophomore quarterback Michael Sims connected with senior wide receiver Tremell Gooden. Morehouse won the game, leaving their opponent stunned and in disbelief.
This year’s showdown between Hampton University and Howard University will be part of a festive weekend with a touch of sweetness.
Last week, two Chicago Bears legends were honored with a statue on the grounds of Soldier Field. One of them was George Halas, the founder and illustrious coach of the Chicago Bears. Halas, who attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, picked the colors of his alma mater for the Bears’ navy blue and orange uniforms.
The other statue honors Bears legendary running back Walter Payton, who ran for nearly 16,726 yards during his illustrious career. At 45, “Sweetness” died in 1998, but he remains an enduring icon whose speed and grit won the hearts of millions of fans. Engraved on the statue’s marble base is Payton’s name and simply, “Sweetness” below it. Too bad the statue doesn’t include a fact about Payton that many don’t know about.
In addition to being a Chicago Bear, Payton was also an alumnus of historically Black Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Most news outlets rarely mention his alma mater.
Many athletes-Black or white- shun HBCUs to attend predominately white schools for national exposure and a shot at big time professional football. Payton took a different road, one that is often overlooked by so many talented Black athletes. Payton showed that HBCUs are capable of producing big success stories too. While many Chicagoans are proud of Payton being a Bear, many Blacks should be proud that he is also a product of an HBCU school.
In 2006, Jackson State honored its most famous alumnus when the $12.3 million Walter Payton Recreation and Wellness Center opened on its campus. Many attendees wore Payton’s number 34 Chicago Bears jerseys and marveled at the gold bust of Payton at the entrance of the facility. Over 741 miles away, Payton will sweeten the atmosphere of this year’s classic, and those in the years to come. In 2000 and 2001, Jackson State won back-to-back Chicago Football Classic championships by twice defeating one of this year’s teams, Howard University.
How coincidental, but fitting, it was for the Bears franchise to unveil Payton’s statue two weeks before the Chicago Football Classic is set to hold its 22nd edition featuring Hampton University and Howard University.
Thirteen high school bands from Chicago will once again vie for bragging rights in the annual Battle of the Bands (Will Rich Central in south suburban Olympia Fields reclaim the crown after being upset last year by west suburban Hillside’s Proviso West?).
As the pageantry of the marching bands and an HBCU college fair swing into high gear, many will marvel and snap selfies of themselves in front of Payton’s new statue. It will boost what organizers of this Black tradition have been instilling in young Black athletes and students for decades: pride. It’s what the Chicago Football Classic is all about, on the field and off.