In a recent episode of ESPN's First Take, hosted by two HBCU graduates, one a Hall of Fame Tight End from Savannah State and the other a world-renowned commentator who graduated from Winston-Salem State, Stephen A. Smith made a thought-provoking statement. Smith highlighted that Deion Sanders' influence on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is far from over.
Deion, who both coached at HBCU Jackson State University and graduated from Talledega College, has been actively promoting HBCUs through initiatives like high school camps held at Morehouse College during the offseason. Now, Smith suggests that the success of Deion Sanders' former players from Jackson State, including Shedeur Sanders, Travis Hunter, Kicker Alejandro Mata, and Shilo Sanders, on the big stage might compel NFL scouts to reevaluate HBCU talent.
Smith stated, "As an evaluator, you’ve got to go and look at HBCUs more because normally you’re looking at HBCUs and you’re considering the level of competition they're going against, and you’re saying it’s not SEC, it’s not PAC 12, it’s not BIG 12 or anything like that. But now that Shedeur’s performing the way he’s performing, his son (Shilo) performing the way he’s performing, Hunter…you’re looking at this kind of stuff, and you’re saying, excuse me, there may be a lot of untapped talent at HBCUs."
Indeed, the NFL has a rich history of benefiting from HBCUs, with over 30 HBCU alumni in the NFL Hall of Fame, constituting nearly 10% of Hall of Fame players, according to HBCUsports.com. Surprisingly, more Hall of Famers have emerged from Jackson State than from schools like Kansas, Ole Miss, North Carolina, Texas A&M, and Auburn. However, scouting and finding talent at the HBCU level have evolved since the 70s and early 80s.
In recent years, there has been a lamentable trend of HBCU talent being overlooked in NFL drafts, with only one HBCU player drafted last season. Nonetheless, some players have successfully navigated their way to the NFL, including Decobie Durant, Markquese Bell, Javon Hargrave, James Houston, and Shaq Davis, among others. Special mention goes to Kyle Mosley at HBCU Legends for diligently tracking these players' journeys. https://www.si.com/college/hbcu/nfl/hbcu-nfl-roster-tracker-2023-complete
To bridge this gap, showcase events like the HBCU Legacy Bowl, the NFL PA Bowl, the Senior Bowl, and others have provided opportunities for talented HBCU athletes. For instance, running back Emanuel Wilson took his first NFL snaps in week 2 of the 2023 NFL season, benefitting from his participation in the HBCU Legacy Bowl. The Celebration Bowl has also become a spectacle in recent years, where stars like Shaq Davis and Decobie Durant have made their names known.
With over 20 HBCU players currently occupying NFL rosters this season, there is no denying the abundance of talent at the HBCU level. Here's to hoping for a future where even more HBCU athletes get the recognition they deserve in the NFL, thanks to advocates like Deion Sanders and voices like Stephen A. Smith's advocating for a second glance at HBCU talent.