Homecoming season highlights some of the best traditions at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The pageantry of homecoming week has many components including fashion shows, marching band showcases, the crowning of the school's homecoming king and queen, step shows, and the return to campus of recent and distant graduates. At the center of this activity are the student-athletes. 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have, and continue to provide opportunities for upward mobility through higher education and sports. The first HBCUs were created in the North before the Civil War. However, after the Civil War most of the institutions were built in the South to give African Americans higher educational opportunities. As an outgrowth of those opportunities, African American scholar-athletes excelled in football to demonstrate that they could compete at the highest levels of the game.

In recognition of the storied HBCU homecoming season, we’ve highlighted five African American scholar-athletes who carried on the tradition of Tank Younger, the first player to get drafted in the NFL from an HBCU. These five scholar-athletes broke barriers, set records, and changed the game.

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice (80) lines up during a 20-13 victory over the Detroit Lions on October 2, 1988, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California,

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice, 1988

Dan Honda/Getty Images

Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State University

At Mississippi Valley State, Jerry Rice drew national attention to the school when he set an NCAA record for most receiving touchdowns in a season. In the NFL, he played for several franchises but most notably San Francisco (1985-2000) and Oakland (2001-2004). Rice is one of the few players in the conversation to be considered the "Greatest Ever." He was named to the NFL's 75th and 100th Anniversary Teams. He holds the records for most touchdowns, (208), receiving yards (22,895), and most receptions (1,549). Rice was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. 

Deacon Jones, defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, 1968

Deacon Jones, defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, 1968

Getty Images

Deacon Jones, South Carolina State University and Mississippi Valley State University

At Mississippi Vocational College, now known as Mississippi Valley State University, Jones had to overcome numerous obstacles. When the team traveled, they often had to sleep on cots in their opponents' gym because local motels would not serve African Americans. Deacon Jones played for Los Angeles (1961-71), San Diego (1972-73), and Washington (1974). He a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, eight-time Pro Bowler, and named to the NFL's 100th Anniversary Team. Jones was given credit for inventing the term "sacking” the quarterback even though sacks weren't as official statistic during his NFL career. Jones' unofficial sack total of 173.5 is only surpassed by Reggie White and Bruce Smith. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980. 

 Offensive lineman Art Shell #78 of the Oakland Raiders blocks against defensive lineman Mike St. Clair #74 of the Cleveland Browns during a game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on October 9, 1977 in Cleveland, Ohio.

 Offensive lineman Art Shell of the Oakland Raiders, 1977

Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Art Shell, Maryland State College, now known as University of Maryland Eastern Shore

At Maryland State, Art Shell was a four-year starter on the football and basketball teams. Shell played for Oakland/Los Angeles from 1968-82. He was an eight-time Pro Bowl selectee and started on two Super Bowl-winning teams. He was named to the NFL's 100th Anniversary Team. Off the field, Shell made history when he became the head coach of the Raiders in 1989, making him only the second Black head coach in NFL history. Shell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.

Walter Payton Wearing a Chicago Bears Jersey

Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears, 1977

Getty Images

Walter Payton, Jackson State University

At Jackson State, Walter “Sweetness” Payton was named Black College Player of the Year twice in 1973 and 1974. Payton played for Chicago (1975-1987). He rushed for 1,200 yards in ten of his thirteen seasons. His 16,726 rushing yards ranks second in NFL history. He was voted NFL MVP in 1977 and lead the Bears to a Super Bowl win in 1986. He was selected to the NFL's 100 Anniversary Team. Payton’s reputation as a philanthropist off the field inspired the NFL to rename their Man of the Year award after him. Payton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.

 Doug Williams #17 of the Washington Redskins scrambles with the ball during a 1987 NFL season game.

 Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins,1987 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Doug Williams, Grambling State University

At Grambling State University, Doug Williams finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1977. Williams played for Tampa Bay (1978-1982) and Washington (1986-1989). Williams was named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player after he led Washington to a Super Bowl win in 1988. This victory made Williams the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Williams returned to HBCU football as the head coach of Morehouse College in 1997, before returning to his alma mater, Grambling State University, to succeed the legendary coach, Eddie Robinson. 


Football Team at Claflin University, 1899.

Football Team at Claflin University, 1899. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

A crowd - including Maxim Fields, a 23-year-old Howard University senior, gathers to cheer on the musical performers at International Yardfest, the centerpiece of Howard University's Homecoming festivities, on Friday, October 25, 2013, in Washington, DC.

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post

Share this page