Commemorative Classic honors the history of black college football

  • Posted: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 11:59 p.m.

Dr. William J. Trent, Sr. was president of Livingstone College from 1925 to 1958. His 33-year tenure as the college’s president is the longest, by far, in school history.

But Trent made history at Livingstone long before he accepted the institution’s top administrative post — sort of.

Trent, after whom Livingstone College’s gymnasium is named, scored a touchdown on Dec. 27, 1892, when Livingstone hosted Johnson C. Smith University — then named Biddle Memorial Institute — on their front lawn.

Trent scored the touchdown after recovering a fumble; however, it was snowing that winter day in Salisbury, and Biddle players argued that the fumble was recovered out of bounds. An official agreed with them and nullified Trent’s touchdown. Biddle won the contest 5-0.

To Trent, his teammates and the Biddle players, the game might have been a simple contest between rivals. But in actuality, that historic game played on Livingstone’s front lawn gave birth to black college football nationwide.

In just two days, Livingstone College and Johnson C. Smith University will compete in Memorial Stadium in Charlotte in the fifth annual Commemorative Classic. The contest between the two schools has been named The Commemorative Classic since 2009, when Livingstone President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr. and JCSU President Dr. Ronald L. Carter decided it could no longer be just another game between Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association rivals.

Historical significance

“History is vitally important, and Dr. Carter and I simply could not ignore the historical significance of the 1892 game,” Jenkins said. “He and I consider it our duty and our privilege to let people know that whenever black college football players across the country walk out onto the field to compete, they’re stepping into shoes originally worn by players from Livingstone College and Johnson C. Smith University. That’s nothing to take lightly, and so each year we try to make The Commemorative Classic a worthwhile event, not just for Smith and Livingstone fans but for football fans nationwide.”

On Dec. 27, 1892, North Carolina earned the right to claim being the state from which renowned black college football programs, like those at Grambling State University, were born. Grambling is famous for legendary Hall of Fame Coach Eddie Robinson, who coached at the school for 57 years, and for former quarterback Doug Williams, who in 1988 while playing for the NFL’s Washington Redskins became the first black man to lead his team to a Super Bowl title.

The historic 1892 game put Salisbury on the map as being the city in which the first black college football game was played, and it gave Charlotte the right to boast being the city in which the winning school from that contest is located.

Throughout the years, both schools have had some outstanding football players, most notably Ben Coates and Pettis Norman, who played for Livingstone and JCSU, respectively.

Coates, a 1998 Livingstone graduate, was on the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens team in 2000. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 1991 NFL Draft by The New England Patriots and earned first team All-Pro honors in 1994 for setting a record among tight ends with 96 receptions that year.

Norman, a 1962 Johnson C. Smith graduate, played for the Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers from 1962-1973. Norman started Super Bowl V for the Cowboys at tight end, and during his first season with the Chargers he had a career high 27 catches and 358 yards. JCSU’s annual Most Outstanding Student-Athlete Award is named after him.

When the teams meet on Saturday, Drew Powell and Keahn Wallace will likely be among the players who shine.

Powell is a sophomore and broke several Blue Bears records last year while passing for 2,322 yards and 18 touchdowns en route to earning All CIAA Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Wallace is a junior who last year set the Golden Bulls’ single-season passing record with 2,280 yards while throwing 22 touchdowns.

Livingstone hopes to win Saturday’s contest, which begins at 4 p.m. in Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, and also to significantly improve on last year’s 2-8 record.

Memphis, Tenn. native Daryl Williams is Livingstone’s interim head coach and offensive coordinator. He has been with the Blue Bears for two years and was an Ohio Valley Conference standout while playing for Tennessee State University. In 2004, the same year he earned his master’s degree in counseling from Alabama State University; he interned with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and worked with the quarterbacks, most-notably three-time Pro Bowler Steve McNair.

Success on and off the field

Williams said he expects Livingstone’s student-athletes to perform their best on and off the field.

“I expect the men playing for Livingstone College’s football team to rise to the occasion and meet the standards off the field and on the field every day,” Williams said. “Winning is important, but Livingstone players know our single biggest expectation of them is to succeed academically. I’m confident our players are ready to meet the academic and gridiron expectations facing them head on, I’m grateful for the opportunity to coach the Blue Bears and I’m excited about the 2013 football season.

Williams’ players say they’re excited about the impending season, too, and that’s a good thing. Because after attending The Commemorative Classic Hall of Fame Banquet at 6 p.m. Friday night, during which Alfred “The Great” Tyler and Tim Beamer will be inducted for Livingstone and JCSU, respectively, they’ll be just hours away from the 2013 opening kickoff.

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