Black Colleges and the Hall of Fame (Part One)

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: January 16, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — You don’t have to look very hard to compile the contributions of those players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to the game of football.

In the annals of countless records, representatives of HBCUs have stood at the top of nearly every statistical category the National Football League can offer.

And when those numbers leave no doubt as to the attributes a player has brought to the game, the final destination for him should be Canton , Ohio — and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF).

The impact of HBCU alums resounds among the 126 colleges and seven junior colleges, representing 264 HOF members. Of these schools, 10 of them are HBCUs.

Out of these, four — Grambling University , Morgan State University , Jackson State University and South Carolina State University are the homes of 14 HOF members.

Among them a former all-time rushing leader (Walter Payton) technical elegance (Charlie Joiner, Ken Houston) defensive innovators (David ‘Deacon’ Jones, Mel Blount, Willie Brown) immovable forces (Art Shell, Roosevelt Brown, Jackie Slater) and undeniable prospects (Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan, Elvin Bethea).

The individual HOF representation by these fantastic four schools is greater than traditional Division I football factories like Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Mississippi , Oklahoma State , Tennessee and Texas A&M.

There are presently 20 players from HBCUs in the HOF, with another 13 eligible for consideration. In the near future, schools like Mississippi Valley State , Alcorn State , Livingstone College , Savannah State , Texas Southern and Florida A&M University will add to the Hall of Fame’s HBCU Honor Roll.

In spite of little or no considerations tossed their way, these men shook off the shroud of racism and ‘place-ism’ — as many of them were forced to accept the premise of playing at positions other than the one they played in college — or not play at all in the NFL.

While this has been done throughout time immemorial in the NFL, it has been a constant vehicle for white owners of teams to steer Black players; lest fear of a Black excelling in a leadership capacity — real or imagined — would elevate them beyond being just a player.

In some cases, size mattered as well. To some football general managers it did, using that as the primary excuse to avoid the color issue. Former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram, however, was a true innovator whose only concern was who could play and who couldn’t.

Stram used size (or lack of it) to his advantage, using smaller backs (like Grambling’s Warren McVea) as stealth weapons on offense and special teams, hiding them behind a massive offensive line.

Tennessee State’s Noland “Super Gnat” Smith ducked his 5-foot-6 frame behind the behemoths on kickoffs and punts before disappearing into the wild green yonder of the opponent’s end zone.

Even for those who didn’t get to the NFL, the HBCU presence abounds in other leagues. Grambling University linebacker Elfrid Payton, too small for the NFL, went north of the border to begin a reign of terror in the Canadian Football League (CFL).

Payton is the all-time sack leader and a sure first ballot CFL Hall of Famer.
The introduction of the Arena Football League in the 1980s allowed football journeymen to become ‘iron men’ again, playing offense and defense on a smaller field.

Arkansas A&M alum Barry Wagner took to the format like sauce to ribs, and is arguably the greatest player in the league’s history, winning six championships with various Arena League teams.
NEXT: “Deacon”, the “Bullet”, and the AFL influence.