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What the FAMU happened? | Celebration Bowl history made as SWAC ends Championship drought

The champ is here! HC Willie Simmons holds onto the trophy. Photo: Ernest Ricks
The champ is here! HC Willie Simmons holds onto the trophy. Photo: Ernest Ricks

In a stunning turn of events at the 2023 Cricket Celebration Bowl, the Florida A&M University Rattlers emerged victorious, breaking the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s (MEAC) five-year winning streak over the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). The matchup against Howard University was far from a cakewalk for FAMU, despite initial perceptions of their superior team.

Howard’s strong start, including a 55-yard kick return and an early touchdown by RB Jarrett Hunter, put Florida A&M in a 14-0 deficit. However, FAMU’s defense gradually tightened its grip, keeping Howard scoreless for the remainder of the quarter. The back-and-forth nature of the game saw FAMU’s RB Terrell Jennings contributing a crucial three-yard rushing touchdown, keeping the Rattlers competitive in the first half.

While FAMU faced challenges in the running game, quarterback Jeremy Moussa stepped up in the fourth quarter, delivering two crucial touchdowns to wide receiver Kelvin Dean. Howard’s Carson Hinton, with a spectacular pick-6, momentarily swung the game in their favor, showcasing the intense competition between the two teams. When asked about the play, Hinton said: “Coach said the film doesn't lie…you watch the film, and you know exactly what a team’s going to do… the play before that they ran the same exact play he wanted to throw it cause he saw me kinda out leveraged, then they went back to it, and I just jumped it”.

Photos captured by Ernest Ricks and Dez Barnes during the Trophy Ceremony during the 2023 Cricket Celebration Bowl

Moussa’s resilience and leadership were evident as he orchestrated the final drive, culminating in a 38-yard touchdown pass to Jah’Marae Sheread. Moussa reflected on the comeback, emphasizing the team’s unwavering commitment and resilience in the face of adversity. Moussa talked about what it took to come back in this game: “It's how we compete every single day, it's our approach. We’re built for things like this and for adversity, and we didn't waver one bit.”

The victory for FAMU not only secured their first Cricket Celebration Bowl but also shattered the MEAC’s half-decade dominance over the SWAC. Coach Willie Simmons highlighted the team’s pride in dispelling the narrative that Northeastern institutions are superior, emphasizing the elitist mentality that they’ve encountered since transitioning from the MEAC to the SWAC. “You gotta be dumb, deaf, and blind not to hear the narrative about the SWAC and the MEAC. We were members of the MEAC for a long time… now that we are members of the SWAC, we feel that disrespect. This elitist mentality that these institutions in the Northeast are better than the Southern institutions, and we take great pride in dispelling that myth.”

Coach and his family during the Trophy Ceremony. Photo: Ernest Ricks
Coach and his family during the Trophy Ceremony. Photo: Ernest Ricks

In a game that showcased FAMU's prowess and determination, the post-game conference illuminated the team's key players and their perspectives on the monumental win against Howard University. The game's Most Valuable Player (MVP), Kelvin Dean Jr., expressed his gratitude for being a local player and highlighted the significance of choosing FAMU.

Moussa even opened up about his decision to attend FAMU, which proved pivotal in his athletic journeys. Despite initial hesitations, Moussa thanked Coach Simmons for taking a chance on him, emphasizing the importance of the team's culture in influencing his choice.

When asked about the significance of winning in Atlanta, the players emphasized their joy in delivering a victory to most of FAMU's fan base in the city. They attributed their success not only to individual efforts but to the collective support from the FAMU community.

The defensive strength of the team was a focal point during the conference. Players credited their robust defense for the victory, believing defense wins games. Isiah's exceptional defensive performance drew praise, with a challenge to anyone questioning his status as the best defensive player.

ESPN interviewing HC after the win over Howard. Photo: Ernest Ricks
ESPN interviewing HC after the win over Howard. Photo: Ernest Ricks

Representing FAMU nationally was a cherished opportunity for the players, highlighting the importance of showcasing HBCUs in the spotlight. They emphasized applying football principles to life beyond the field, stressing the value of discipline and teamwork.

As only the second SWAC team to secure a national title since Grambling, the win carried extra significance. The players honored the '78 team by donning green jerseys and white pants, symbolizing a connection to FAMU's rich history.

In the spirit of the 7 F's, Coach Simmons stated they used all of them in the game, but he further explained how fast, faith, fight, and finish were the main contributors to the win. This FAMU team celebrated the culmination of 45 years since FAMU's first national title, which made it that much more special. Head Coach Simmons' mantra, "God's Time, Not My Time," encapsulated the team's journey, underlining the importance of patience and divine timing in their success.

ESPN interviewing the Celebration Bowl MVP. Photo: Ernest Ricks
ESPN interviewing the Celebration Bowl MVP. Photo: Ernest Ricks

The 2023 Cricket Celebration Bowl showcased the thrilling competition on the field and marked a significant moment in the ongoing rivalry between the SWAC and MEAC. FAMU’s triumph underscored their determination to challenge preconceived notions and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in HBCU football. The attendance of 41,108 shows that this game is well-supported and is gaining the respect it deserves, as it is named the true HBCU football champion.

This article was a collaborative effort from Dez Barnes and Ernest Ricks.


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