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Jerry Rice, Shannon Sharpe & More: The Legacy of HBCUs in the NFL

While it took an extra couple of decades before there was HBCU participation in the NFL, it’s clear the league wouldn’t be where it is today without such athletes.

The NFL drafted its first class of players 94 years ago in 1930. For players attending HBCUs looking to play professional football, they really wouldn’t have that opportunity until 1950.

As was with most cases during that period, Black people were prohibited from participating in events run by their White counterparts. More specifically, select execs across the league weren’t keen on providing athletes from historically Black institutions a chance to play elite football.

The first team to bet on a player from an HBCU was the Los Angeles Rams when they signed Paul “Tank” Younger after he went undrafted in 1949. Younger would go on to win a Super Bowl and earn four Pro Bowl nods in his career while he currently sits as the Rams’ sixth-leading rusher of all-time.

His signing led to the first HBCU player being drafted the following season in 1950 when the New York Giants selected Bob “Stonewall” Jackson out of North Carolina A&M (now North Carolina A&T State University). Taken in the 16th round (202nd overall), the Virginia native played both fullback and linebacker for two seasons before graduating with a master’s degree from Springfield College. Jackson went on to have a successful coaching career, spending most of his tenure at North Carolina Central in addition to other stints at Johnson C. Smith University, St. Augustine’s University, Shaw University, and Texas Southern University.

Simply put: Younger and Jackson were pivotal game-changers when it comes to the HBCU representation in professional football.

In 1951 and 1952, the NFL added another seven players from HBCUs, and in 1954, fullback Maurice Bassett from Langston made history as the highest-drafted player from an HBCU when Cleveland and the team’s first head coach, Paul Brown, took him in the third round of that year’s draft. One year later and five years since Jackson’s selection, a quarterback from an HBCU would finally taste NFL promotion. With the 185th pick in the 16th round, the Green Bay Packers selected Prairie View A&M alum Charlie Brackins.

Another one wouldn’t be chosen for 13 years, but it’s clear the league wouldn’t be where it is today without HBCU athletes.

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Carrying the Torch

According to the NFL, players hailing from an HBCU make up nearly 10% of all players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (35 out of 371 honorees). Some of your favorite players didn’t excel at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), which makes the necessity of recruitment from HBCUs all that more important.

Some of the league’s most popular figures who happen to be HBCU alums include:

  • Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State: Three-time Super Bowl champion and NFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards and most career touchdowns
  • Michael Strahan, Texas Southern: Super Bowl champion and New York Giants Ring of Honor member
  • Bob Hayes, Florida A&M: Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor member and the only player to win both a Super Bowl ring and an Olympic gold medal
  • Doug Williams, Grambling State: The first Black quarterback to both start and win a Super Bowl
  • Shannon Sharpe, Savannah State: Three-time Super Bowl champion and Denver Broncos Ring of Fame
  • Larry Little, Bethune-Cookman: Two-time Super Bowl champion and Miami Dolphins Walk of Fame

Perhaps the most fitting example of HBCU’s permanent impact in the NFL is the namesake for the league’s most illustrious award. A Jackson State alum, Walter Payton was selected fourth overall in the 1975 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. The Mississippi native played 12 years professionally before retiring at the end of the 1987 season with a Super Bowl trophy, MVP honors, and more accolades to his resume. Having received the award himself in 1977 when it was called NFL Man of the Year, the distinction was renamed following Payton’s death in 1999 to commemorate his work as a humanitarian.

Continuing its responsibility of recognizing HBCU players off the field as well, RISE, a non-profit that empowers athletes and sports leaders to become effective advocates for change, recognized a host of athletes past and present during last month’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas at the HBCU Legacy Commemoration Reception, sponsored in part by Amazon Music, NFL Votes, and NFL Network. The ceremony was attended by the likes of Amazon Music’s Phylicia Fant and Deputy Director of White House HBCU initiatives Naeem Jenkins Nixon, while NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche (a Howard alum) led a fireside discussion with James “Shack” Harris. The former QB from Grambling State was Director of Pro Personnel from 1997 to 2003, when he won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens.

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities are the cradle of excellence, nurturing talent and resilience. Celebrating their profound impact, RISE sports recognized the pivotal role of HBCU football players, whose indomitable spirit not only transformed the game on the field but paved the way for diversity, unity, and inspiration in the NFL and beyond,” said Alan Williams, Senior Advisor for External Engagement in the office of Vice President Kamala Harris.

“But for RISE sports and HBCU Endzone, this vital conversation would have been absent from the Super Bowl week of festivities, it was truly impactful to witness and hear the stories that are at the bedrock of the NFL as we know it today and those stories remind all is that representation matters, and RISE embodies that idea.”

Joe Briggs, the Global Head of Equity Initiatives at Amazon, says participating in the HBCU Legacy reception allowed him to marry two of his favorite things in football and his HBCU, Florida A&M University.

“Sharing information about how my HBCU enhanced my journey to a sports career and beyond reminded me just how important these institutions are to both future students and our community,” Briggs said. “Showcasing executives across many fields who had their start at an HBCU should remind everyone else just how powerful investments in HBCUs can be when you lean in with them.

“Thank you, RISE, for allowing space for me to attend and share that part of my story. My hope is this will open up other opportunities for students, families, and companies to learn about the talent and opportunities available through HBCUs.”

Keep Building

Football started during the Reconstruction era, a particularly precarious time for Black Americans. There were several Black players when the NFL was formed in 1920. However, bigoted personalities and other factors prevented these athletes from being recognized as true assets to the game. Those notions have thankfully changed, and now benefits are set up to ensure HBCU players are receiving much overdue attention so they follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned Hall of Famers.

For those with a longstanding desire to toss that yellow penalty flag, every year, NFL Officiating awards scholarships for its Officiating Development Training sessions that include clinics, game evaluations, and continued education. They communicate with HBCU conferences like the SIAC, SWAC, CIAA, and the MEAC to promote the next generation of game day officials.

The league also just held its HBCU Legacy Bowl over the weekend, an HBCU football All-Star game that puts the top draft-eligible prospects in front of top recruiters across all 32 franchises. In partnership with the Black College Football Hall of Fame, the NFL has also instilled a two-day quarterback coaching summit that works to find and strengthen the coaching and personnel development pipeline for offensive coaches of color.

All of the progress made over the years can be circled back to the pioneering playing of Younger and Jackson, paving the way for generations moving forward. Seventy-five years later, there’s still work left to be done, but the safe space created by former HBCU athletes for all men of color to achieve a lifelong dream continues to grow.

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Vinciane Ngomsi

Vinciane Ngomsi is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. She began her career in sports journalism with bylines at SB Nation, USA Today, and most recently Yahoo. She received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Truman State University, and when she's not watching old clips of Serena Williams' best matches, she is likely perfecting her signature chocolate chip cookie recipe or preparing a traditional Cameroonian meal.

About The Author
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. She began her career in sports journalism with bylines at SB Nation, USA Today, and most recently Yahoo. She received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Truman State University, and when she's not watching old clips of Serena Williams' best matches, she is likely perfecting her signature chocolate chip cookie recipe or preparing a traditional Cameroonian meal.