“GameDay” in Jackson was a Blessing of HBCU Football
I will admit to a special affinity for Jackson State University. After all, as a young sportswriter for the old Jackson Daily News, I covered Walter Payton, who in my mind became the greatest running back in football, college or professional.
That was heady stuff for someone just breaking into the newspaper business, although my actual entrance began as a 10-year-old “paper boy” in McComb and later as a kid reporter for that city’s Enterprise-Journal.
In 1971-72, I interviewed Payton and wrote several stories about him. I watched him in practice drills and probably saw him on the wrong end of a paddle, which JSU coaches used on players who failed to carry out an assignment in practice. They did that almost every snap of the ball to the one who fouled up during those scrimmage sessions. “Sweetness,” Walter Payton, didn’t often foul up.
All of this came to mind on Oct. 29 when the ESPN sports network arrived in Jackson for “GameDay,” its signature pre-game show on college football Saturdays.
This was showcase day for Jackson State University, its terrific football team and its highly-visible head coach, Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders, an epic two-sport athlete before becoming a coach. His son, Tiger quarterback Shedeur Sanders, a Heisman Trophy candidate, didn’t harm those chances with a dandy performance before a nationwide audience and a large Memorial Stadium crowd in a 35-0 victory.
When such nationally celebrated events occur in a locale, groups like the Chamber of Commerce try to estimate the financial worth to the host community. It’d be hard to put a precise figure on it, but it had to be worth many millions to Jackson State, the city of Jackson and the state of Mississippi, plus all the “HBCUs,” Historically Black Universities and Colleges. No amount of money could buy such a huge amount of positivity.
The Southwest-ern Athletic Conference, the league in which JSU and its opponent, Southern University of Baton Rouge, compete, also got a large share of the publicity and national recognition pie.
“GameDay” in Jackson was a celebration, a blessing of HBCU football, a deserved tour de force that rarely comes along for the smaller schools of college football like Jackson State.
While giving Mississippi’s capital city university untold recognition, the program was also used to inform the nation that Jackson is on the rebound from the disastrous and preposterous dirty water/no water quagmire that has embarrassingly plagued the municipality for many months.
“Game Day” proved that Jackson can still dress up for a magical occasion. This had the atmosphere of a jubilee, complete with requisite music by JSU’s “Sonic Boom of the South” marching band and Southern’s “Human Jukebox” band in what’s been called the “BoomBox Classic.”
But, this was no coming-out debut for Jackson State’s storied football program. Dozens of Tigers have left John R. Lynch Street for the NFL. Several achieved NFL Hall of Fame status. This is a program of excellence and legend.
The exuberant crowd welcoming the GameDay crew sported signs touting superlatives from JSU, HBCUs and Jackson. One sign featured caricatures of a quartet of iconic Mississippians: Civil Rights warrior Medgar Evers, who played football at JSU rival Alcorn State; Payton; longtime JSU professor and writer Margaret Walker; and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Eudora Welty, who lived in a nearby Jackson neighborhood.
It also brought renewed attention to JSU’s quest for an on-campus football stadium, which it deserves as much as any university anywhere.
Mississippi Memorial Stadium is no longer adequate for a program of Jackson State’s stature. It is time to make that move.