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Commemorative Classic: Livingstone to play Johnson C. Smith

By Laurie Willis

Livingstone College News Service

On Saturday, Livingstone College and Johnson C. Smith University will compete in the Seventh Annual Commemorative Classic, which pays homage to the first organized Black College Football Game.

That historic contest was played in the snow on Livingstone’s front lawn on Dec. 27, 1892. Johnson C. Smith, then named Biddle Memorial Institute, won 5-0.

Heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. gridiron clash inside Alumni Memorial Stadium, the Blue Bears are 4-3 overall and 3-3 in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Livingstone won two additional games this year against Virginia University of Lynchburg and Central International University, but the NCAA recognizes those schools and 32 others as non-countable for the 2015 season. Johnson C. Smith enters the contest 3-3 in conference play and 4-5 overall.

Livingstone hasn’t defeated Johnson C. Smith on the gridiron since 2008, so naturally Blue Bears players, alumni and fans want a victory on Saturday.

So does Livingstone President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr., because a win would give him a chance to gloat to Smith President Dr. Ronald L. Carter, Sr. To be sure, the two are friends. But since the Classic started, Livingstone has yet to take home the trophy. So year in and year out at the Commemorative Classic Team Banquet, always the night before the big game, Jenkins has to listen to Carter brag.

“Every year since we started The Classic I’ve stood at the team banquet and predicted victory,” Jenkins said. “And each year President Carter has gotten up and done the same. I’ve had to listen to him boast for the past six years about how they’ve beaten us and how they have The Commemorative Classic trophy in their possession, but this year I’m very confident we’re going to win the game and keep the trophy in Salisbury where it belongs.”

Jenkins’ confidence isn’t unfounded. Led by Head Coach Daryl Williams, the Blue Bears are having their best season in ages. Despite the NCAA ruling, Livingstone has won six games this year, and beating Smith on Saturday would be a perfect way to round out a good season.

Not to mention, it’ll give them a chance to finally display The Commemorative Classic hardware in their trophy case.

The Classic was Jenkins’ brainchild and was created to ensure the history of Black College Football isn’t forgotten. Annually, tens of thousands of people flock to The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans to attend The Bayou Classic, the annual clash between in-state rivals Grambling State University and Southern University. The game is always played the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it’s always televised.

Each year throughout the country, there are other notable football classics played among historically black colleges and universities. Jenkins hopes The Commemorative Classic will eventually rival some of the larger events

“Livingstone College and Johnson C. Smith University are certainly not the largest HBCUs in the country, but with respect to football there are some facts that simply cannot be refuted,” Jenkins said. “Both schools have had student-athletes to go on to compete in the National Football league, and both schools are the birth of Black College Football. It is my sincere hope that eventually The Commemorative Classic will become a destination event like The Bayou Classic and some of the others. The history behind this classic should never been overlooked or taken for granted.”

To ensure this year’s Commemorative Classic is a success, Livingstone College and Johnson C. Smith are partnering with The Salisbury-Rowan County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Downtown Salisbury, Inc. and WSAT 1280.

People who book lodging for this year’s Classic will be eligible to receive a complimentary pair of game tickets and $25 in Downtown Dollars – provided they book their room at a Rowan County hotel or bed & breakfast by 4 p.m. today and call Tanya Turner at Livingstone College at 704-216-6151 by 4 p.m. to add their names to a list. Game tickets and Downtown Dollars can be picked up at hotel check-in by the person whose name is on the reservation, and no exceptions will be made.

Also as part of the partnerships that have been created for this year’s Classic, a pep rally will be held at 4 p.m. Friday in the parking lot beside K-Dee Jeweler’s on Innes Street. It will be followed by The Commemorative Classic Team Banquet, which begins at 6 p.m. at Livingstone’s hotel on Jake Alexander Boulevard. During the banquet, a former player from Livingstone and a former player from JCSU will be inducted into The Commemorative Classic Hall of Fame. CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams is expected to attend The Classic.

The partnerships with the city of Salisbury, Salisbury-Rowan Convention & Visitors Bureau and Downtown Salisbury, Inc. are significant because it’s the first time they’ve participated in The Commemorative Classic at such a high level – and because of the potential to draw thousands of people to the game.

“I would love nothing more than to have to turn away people at the gate on Saturday,” Jenkins said. “There’s no valid reason why The Commemorative Classic isn’t sold out every year, particularly given the history is represents. It took JCSU’s players and coaches two days to arrive in Salisbury by horse and buggy for that fateful game. Men who later became college presidents, heads of companies or who accomplished other momentous feats played in that inaugural game. I think people from throughout North Carolina – and from around the United States for that matter – should want to attend The Commemorative Classic. And I hope they will.”

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