New Legacy Bowl improving HBCU star exhibit
By BRETT MARTEL
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — South Carolina State defensive back Zafir Kelly spent this week at a downtown high-rise hotel that hosted Super Bowl and NBA All-Star Game-related events, mingling with NFL scouts at night and preparing to play a nationally televised game alongside NFL draft-eligible players who, like him, chose to attend a historically black college.
The inaugural Legacy Bowl, which kicks off Saturday afternoon on NFL Network, “will level the playing field for us,” Kelly said. “We get the short end of the stick because of where we play. It’s definitely a great opportunity. You see scouts around, TV, so more exposure.”
Exposure is something HBCUs have aggressively pursued lately – successfully, and not just in football.
In the hours before the Legacy Bowl kicks off in New Orleans, basketball teams Morgan State and Howard will face off in the nationally televised NBA HBCU Classic, to be held this year. in Cleveland in conjunction with NBA All-Star Weekend.
Meanwhile, former NFL star Deion Sanders has done a lot to raise the profile of HBCU football since taking over as Jackson State’s head coach, landing a major national deal with Afflac Insurance, which features Sanders alongside Alabama coach Nick Saban in television commercials.
And earlier this month, the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama hosted an HBCU promotional tent village and first-of-its-kind combine specifically for HBCU players.
Prominent black professional athletes jumped on board to help promote Saturday’s Legacy Bowl. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is expected to participate in the pre-game draw.
The Legacy Bowl is the brainchild of former NFL quarterbacks Doug Williams and James “Shack” Harris, who both played at Grambling. There was a time when Grambling produced many NFL prospects who honed their skills in college under legendary coach Eddie Robinson.
But last year, not a single HBCU player was drafted. This bothered Williams and Harris.
“There’s no way in the world that out of all the black college footballers there isn’t a player good enough to make the practice squad or someone’s 53-man roster. ‘a,” Williams said.
Harris added: “This game is about opportunity. Scouts sometimes rate the school and not the player. This is another opportunity for them to rate the player.”
While the larger HBCU programs play at the football championship subdivision level, others, such as Bowie State, play in Division II. Some of the best players at this level have also been invited to play in the Legacy Bowl.
Bowie State coach Damon Wilson works alongside South Carolina State coach Oliver Pough on Team Gaither, named after former Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither. Team Robinson is coached by current Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons and Gabe Giordina of Division II Albany State.
The game will take place at Tulane’s Yulman Stadium, which also hosted practices. The New Orleans Saints have offered to use their indoor court during rainy and windy weather on the weekend.
Saints assistant general manager and director of college scouting Jeff Ireland said the Legacy Bowl is “crucial and essential and absolutely something that’s been needed for some time.”
“I don’t think we’ve had enough exposure to these HBCU players, especially in the last two years because of COVID,” Ireland said. “There are always great players in HBCUs – hidden gems, you just have to find them.”
That’s exactly what the Saints did when they drafted Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff multiple times in 2013.
While scouts regularly deploy to individual HBCUs and bring reports back to NFL offices, the Legacy Bowl gives key decision-makers a chance to see players play in person — and meet them, Ireland noted.
“You see them as athletes, what their body type is – length, volume, how developed they are,” Ireland said. “We spoke to a few kids after training, we were lucky to hear their story.”
The Legacy Bowl has also drawn representatives from the temporarily inactive CFL and XFL, which plans to resume play in February 2023.
Doug Whaley, senior vice president of player personnel for the XFL, watched the practice and mingled with the players’ agents “to let them know that we will be an option for them in their footballing future.”
Whaley said he was impressed with the resources devoted to the event.
“They were ready to make sure those players were shaken up fairly and the scouts could do their job,” Whaley said. “It was a good way to put them in competition against each other and show what they can do in a professional setting.”
Kelly said the Legacy Bowl will “definitely change the game” in terms of raising the profile of the HBCU football brand.
“I feel like there are some great players coming out of HBCUs,” Kelly said. “And further into the future, when they have an opportunity here, they won’t be overlooked.”