Imagine for a moment that your day started at sunrise. Shadows cast by the constantly moving bodies of your brothers in arms sprawl upon dewy morning grass. Before you lie on nothing more than a wide-open field of endless green turf, you watch as rays of gold light slowly creep from behind the rooftops of some of America’s most historic buildings. The Mecca stands before you. And just when you allow yourself to drift off into the sea of pink and orange skies, you’re jolted back to reality. Your day has only begun.
Daily workouts, team meetings, afternoon practices, and at least six credit hours per semester barely scratches the surface of what a player must take on when filling one of the coveted spots on Howard University’s D1 football team. In the past, the Howard Bison have been known more for the University that they play for, more so than their performance on the football field. A series of disappointing seasons have led to a substantial drop in school spirit as it relates to the football team and has caused diehard fans to question their loyalty.
Over the last year, however, the Howard Bison have observed a turnaround so swift that it was evident something had changed about the team and its dynamic. While interning with Howard University’s athletic department last season, I would often watch from the sidelines as coaches and players stormed the field of William H. Greene Stadium during home games. They had a grit about them that made it clear they would take no prisoners, and they maintained a level of intensity that would remain with them from quarter 1 to quarter 4, even in the wake of apparent adversity. And by the end of the college football season, the Howard Bison had earned an impressive 7-4 record, a performance that the team hadn’t observed since 2012.
I became curious as to what had changed within the confines of the Howard Bison football team, and on their final Saturday activity of the 2017-2018 school year, I made it a point to find out. I arrived at 9 am and was surprised to see that some players were already on the sidelines stretching independently, headphones in ear, completely in the zone. The day got started promptly at 10:30 am and from the moment the first whistle blew, I knew that I was going to get a glimpse of something special.
The charge of the Howard Bison football team was comparable to that of a minor earthquake as players made their way from the tunnel to the field with a level of intensity I’d instantly recognized from prior games. It was that intensity that garnered them a 3-game winning streak against South Carolina State, Florida A&M, and Norfolk State respectively. Players spread out across the field and immediately broke out into a series of stretches; the team remained so in sync you may have thought they rehearsed each sequence beforehand.
The Saturday morning sun beat down on the Howard Bison as they fought through round after round of conditioning exercises and drills, each one was a bit more intense than the one prior. The whistle blew again, and from there the team broke out into their respective positions, all the while maintaining a quiet fervor that was as palpable as the heat they emitted from their sweat-soaked Under Armour gear. The voices of the Howard Bison coaching staff boomed throughout the stadium, at times overpowering the heavy sounds of Drake’s catchy new single, “Nice for What”.
Head Coach Mike London, a new face amongst Howard University’s athletic department staff, made his rounds from one end of the 10,000-seat stadium to the other. In the short time that London has held the reigns of Howard University’s football team, he’s managed to incite a revolution amongst the players that far surpasses points on a scoreboard. London has galvanized his team in a way that shows itself in the meticulous detail each player places on their delivery of a drill or exercise, the steadily rising GPA’s of his players, and the team’s regular community service initiatives.
I had the opportunity to catch up with a few of the players at the end of their day, and I was taken aback by their intent focus on each question, as well as their professional delivery. Junior Sports Management major, Dominique Smith, a 6’1 inside linebacker from Cincinnati Ohio appeared reserved as he took a seat on a sideline bench to speak with me. I wanted to know what his experience had been like playing football for Howard University, especially given the teams newly garnered success during the 2017-2018 season.
“My Howard experience playing football has been a rollercoaster,” Smith said. “This new coaching staff came in and its like I found myself again with football.”
Smith’s eyes seem to come alive as he recounted his experience with the team over the past year. His voice remained cool, calm, and collected as he explained how he rediscovered his love for the game of football, however, it was impossible not to become overwhelmed with inspiration as I listened to his story.
“I kinda lost my love for the game,” Smith stated. “[The] new coaching staff came in and made me find myself and what it means to be on a football team, and what it means to be a man in my community.”
Smith’s sentiments seemed to ring true for several players on the team, including Senior Sports Medicine major, Chris Aikins.
“With the new coaching staff, I have a new passion for football,”Aikins said. “I feel like we’re at a new standard that will last long for the team.”
It was clear that Coach London had successfully instilled a new sense of pride into the hearts of his players. He required excellence from these young men on the football field, as well as in the classroom, and in the community. On the field, Coach London was a force to be reckoned with, but when I had the opportunity to sit down with the former Dallas Cowboy and fellow brother of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., he was all smiles.
“I’m very pleased about the direction of the 2018 football team,” London said. “[I] just finished up the Spring semester, the guys have gotten bigger, faster, stronger, their improving their GPA’s and grades. There’s an excitement coming out of Spring going into the Summer months”.
London knew there was something special that had happened this season, and he also knew the young men representing the Howard Bison had reached a point of no return. His players were hungry for the chance to prove those who doubted them wrong. But there was also something that it seemed London was clear about, and that was that his players had talents, which far surpassed their abilities on the football field.
I spoke to several players who aspired to put up their cleats and take on roles as attorneys, community activists, on-air personalities, and more upon graduating from Howard University. Many student-athletes are often met with the harsh reality that they will not go pro after graduation. The NCAA reports that only 1.5% of the 73,660 participating college football players will make it to the NFL.
With the odds stacked against college football players, coaches like London are the driving force as to why many student-athletes go on to have amazing careers outside of sports after college.
By the time I left the football field, it was evident that my suspicions were correct. There is, in fact, something different about the Howard Bison football team. There is something magical happening in William H. Greene Stadium, and I only hope that the world of college sports is ready for what the Howard Bison have in store for next season.
Kadeem Pilgrim is currently an MBA student at Howard University and received his undergraduate degree in Marketing from Hampton University.