Game unites Durham
By Joedy McCreary
DURHAM ó The two universities in this Tobacco Road town don’t seem to have much in common except for geography.
One is predominantly white, the other mostly black. One is elite and expensive, the other egalitarian and economical.
But both Duke and Division I newcomer North Carolina Central hope their first meeting in football this weekend will mark the next step toward bridging the gap that for years stretched well beyond the 5 miles that separate the campuses.
“I don’t know about the past. I do know about the present,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday. “I see a celebration going on at Central about who they are. There’s a celebration going on at Duke about who we are. You put the two together. … It’s a celebration of two programs headed in the right direction.”
On the field, the wise guys might crack that the perennially downtrodden Blue Devils (1-2) merely looked across town to find a team they’d have a chance to beat. After a quick rise to prominence in the Division II CIAA, the Eagles are in the third year of their move into the Football Championship Subdivision.
But the significance of this game extends well beyond Xs and Os. For both Duke and N.C. Central (0-3), it marks an attempt to bring harmony to a college-centric region where school ties run deep.
Barbershops and bars have been buzzing for months about whether the Eagles can keep things competitive against a Blue Devils team that already has lost to an FCS school this season.
“I’ve gone to church, I’ve gone to grocery stores, I’ve been out in the town,” Central coach Mose Rison said. “Everybody that lives around here has said they’re really looking forward to playing this football game and what it’s going to do for this city. … It is a big football game, and for our city, for the people of the city of Durham, it’s obviously something to look forward to.”
On the surface, Duke might not seem to share much more than a ZIP code with N.C. Central, where yearly tuition for an out-of-state student is roughly half what it costs to attend the private school across town.
But a closer look reveals a significant tie: Well before Kevin White took over as Duke’s athletic director, he was coaching track at Central Michigan when Rison played football there. White later was hired as the AD at the same Michigan high school that Rison’s wife attended and brought in Rison as an assistant football coach.
“I was an optimist, and a lot of people have been pessimistic about this ever happening,” Rison said. “I don’t know enough history, but I do know this: People are very excited about this, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we’ve had success here in football, and people have always wondered how good we can be. Are we good enough to play with a school like Duke in the ACC? Wondering minds have always wondered if indeed that could ever happened, because we were just good enough at the Division II level.”
That the teams are playing ó and have a celebratory atmosphere planned to surround the game ó represents a significant measure of progress because 31/2 years ago the headlines were dominated by the now-debunked Duke lacrosse sexual assault case. It heightened long-standing racial tensions in the city and ignited a debate of race, sex and class at Duke. The accuser, who is black, was a student at N.C. Central.
City officials have dubbed the event the “Bull City Gridiron Classic.” Groups from both schools have planned community service projects before the game. That mirrors service projects performed by players from both programs, who also spent time a few summers ago participating in seven-on-seven passing drills against each other.
“I wouldn’t say (those drills) were a win-lose thing ó it was just two programs trying to get better,” said Duke linebacker Abraham Kromah, a New York native. “I know for some of those guys, it’s a backyard feel. Even for me. I’m part of Durham now.”