The Celebration Bowl really does live up to its billing. It truly is a celebration of HBCU football in all its glory.
This year’s game was truly thrilling, as I was able to view it from the mid-deck of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, as a part of a sell-out crowd of 49,670, a record high. It was a true back-and-forth in every sense of the word, with the North Carolina Central Eagles winning 41-34 in overtime over the Jackson State Tigers after a thrilling end to regulation.
In that ending, with the Eagles trailing 27-26, running back Latrell Collier scored on a 7-yard touchdown run. The Eagles used some trickery to allow quarterback Davius Richard to convert on a two-point catch to put North Carolina Central up 34-27 with 4:31 to go. The section that I was in was very pro-Eagles, so they went crazy and were making a lot of noise.
After that, Tigers quarterback Shedeur Sanders marched his team down to the Eagles’ 19-yard line with seven seconds left. Sanders hit Travis Hunter for a game-tying touchdown with no time left on the clock to send the game to overtime. After that, the other half of the stadium filled with Jackson State fans, and many in my section, were cheering like mad.
Once we got to overtime, North Carolina Central struck first with a touchdown by Richard on a quarterback sneak. Then, on Jackson State’s drive, two different events happened in the red zone, drawing different crowd reactions.
First, on a third-and-1 at the 1-yard line, Sanders threw a wide-open pass to tight end Hayden Hagler, who dropped the pass, drawing an audible gasp in the stadium and then just dead silence. Finally, on fourth-and-1, Sanders felt the rush and eventually ended up throwing the ball incomplete, resulting in the pro-Eagles crowd erupting in a victory celebration.
Atlanta is the perfect place for HBCU bowl game
Honestly, as an Atlanta native and a huge college football fan, this was truly an amazing experience. It really was everything people said it was: a celebration of HBCUs and black culture, the HBCU football national championship, and overall just a really good time.
Atlanta really is the perfect place for this game. Not only because my hometown is a big college football town, but because it’s a hot spot for African-American success. The stadium where the Celebration Bowl is held is not just where the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS’ Atlanta United play, but it is also home to the annual Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, SEC Championship game, and Peach Bowl. And it is also just less than a mile away from the College Football Hall of Fame.
Even the tradition of Black college football is very strong in Atlanta as it was once home to the Atlanta Football Classic from 1989 to 2014 and the Heritage Bowl from 1994 to 1999, the former of which featured many appearances by Tennessee State University, a school that many of my family members attended. The Celebration Bowl has only been around since 2015 and gets bigger and bigger every single year.
Of course, Atlanta was the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, home to figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Joseph Lowery, CT Vivian, and Julian Bond. This is a city with a 48.2% Black population with lots of Black leaders, Black politicians, Black businessmen, and overall just Black people in positions of power.
It was only fitting that the location of Mercedes-Benz Stadium is less than a mile from Morris Brown College and a mile from the Atlanta University Center, which features Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse University and Spelman College. I got to witness a true celebration of HBCU sports culture, in particular, schools from the two Division 1 HBCU conferences: SWAC and MEAC.
When I got there, I immediately gained even more of an appreciation for where I am from, reflecting on what this game means to me and others who are from Atlanta. On my way to the stadium, I came across an Atlanta native named Larry, selling Jackson State merchandise, including shirts, hats, and jackets, and I ended up buying a hat from him. “I’m glad for the kids that are able to come out to Atlanta,” he said.
I continued my trek to the stadium and found myself walking behind the Jackson State Sonic Boom marching band as it made its way into the International Plaza for a Battle of the Bands with the North Carolina Central Sound Machine marching band. It was just a preview of what we got to see at halftime, as there really are few things as enjoyable as an HBCU football halftime show where the marching bands play.
Honestly, witnessing that, along with the performance of the Westlake High School marching band in the plaza, took me back to when I was in middle school and wanting to be in a marching band, having been inspired by my older sister, who was in the marching band in high school and later was in the marching band at Tennessee State University. It didn’t work out for me, but I was reminded today of how much I enjoyed watching HBCU marching bands perform.
Celebration Bowl show the continued growth of HBCU football
While in the plaza, I came across a booth for Disney on the Yard, which helps to support HBCU alumni that work for Disney and find opportunities for HBCU students, where I spoke to a young man who was working there named Jermaine, who thought the event was “pretty cool.”
I then went to two more booths that were in the area that were next to each other. One was a vaccine-related booth where I got to play a game of culture tag. The man who administered the game to me, Jeremy, told me that this bowl game “brings the city a lot of money” and “puts the biggest spotlight on HBCUs.” “It allows athletes to see what we are really working with,” he added.
The other booth was connected to the Morehouse School of Medicine, where I was asked about my booster status and won a free small and clear bag as a result. One of the women, Rita, saw the large crowd as an indicator “that people love our city” and referred back to what Andrew Young said about Atlanta being international. In a way, she is right, as the success of the Celebration Bowl is a perfect metaphor for how Atlanta had grown as a city since the 1996 Summer Olympics were held here two years before I was even born.
After hanging out for a bit, I went to an area next to the plaza where all kinds of small businesses were set up selling items such as HBCU school merchandise, shirts, sorority and fraternity gear, and purses.
The last time I was in a place like this was when I went to Tennessee State’s bicentennial homecoming in 2012 with my family. I was able to speak to people from different parts of the country, such as Texas, Indiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina.
It was then that I realized the power of the Celebration Bowl to bring so many Black people from all over the nation to celebrate HBCUs. “It’s good for the culture, man,” was the point made to me by a man I spoke to named Xavier.
As I began to head toward the gate to get inside, there was a group of NC Central alumni that saw me taking pictures and asked me to take a picture of them. One of them, Hope, from Atlanta, said that the Celebration Bowl is “an opportunity to spend time with family and friends.”
I got that vibe as I entered the stadium. It was a family-like atmosphere in the section I was in, with mostly Eagles fans and a few Tigers fans all screaming and, of course, talking smack throughout the game as well.
If there was one moment that summed up the day for me, it was definitely when saxophonist Mike Phillips performed The Star-Spangled Banner and then performed the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” For the latter, it felt like everyone in the building was singing along. It was our day to celebrate how far we’ve come as a people and culture.
While on the MARTA train heading home after the game, I reflected on the importance of this game and how HBCU football will continue to grow even without Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders, himself an Atlanta sports legend, having played for the Falcons and the Atlanta Braves. Some on the train spoke about how Sanders elevated Jackson State, and someone else will continue his work. Others spoke about how HBCU football fans must continue to rally around their players.
Atlanta will no doubt play a big role in providing a huge platform for the best that HBCU football has to offer, not just with the Celebration Bowl but also with the MEAC/SWAC Challenge Kickoff that takes place annually at Center Parc Stadium, the home of the Georgia State football team. Given that we’re used to Black excellence, we will continue to be where this kind of culture will always thrive for generations to come.