By Carl Lut Williams
A host of HBCU football standouts from the CIAA, MEAC, SIAC, SWAC and non-HBCU conferences have descended on Salem, Va. this week for the second HBCU Spirit of America All-Star contest.
Members of both the 46-man Pride and Brave teams participated in a Combine-like workout Wednesday and practiced Thursday and will continue on-field workouts thru Sunday’s game. A banquet is set for Friday night and Family Night on Saturday.
The game will be played at Salem Stadium, the site of the last two CIAA championship games, at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Cutting Edge Sports Management presented the inaugural HBCU Spirit of America Bowl last year at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex. The event is geared to celebrate the tradition, heritage, and community of HBCU football with its athletes, fans, students, and alumni, by capturing the spirit found on the HBCU campuses around the nation.
The game will bring together 92 black college seniors, many who have had outstanding careers, who get to crown those achievements in an all-star game atmosphere before NFL and CFL scouts and other football decision makers. Over 30 NFL scouts and representatives from all CFL teams were on hand this week.
“We have 92 of the best HBCU players from around the country,” said Neil Mazone, CEO of Cutting Edge Sports Friday. “There’s a lot going on and so far the players are having a great time.
“First, we want these players to get an opportunity to play and practice in front of pro scouts and give them a chance to get the exposure they need and deserve,” he said while noting that Jylan Ware of Alabama State and Chester Rogers of Grambling State, both now in the NFL, played in games put on by his company.
“The second piece of the mission is about family, it’s about celebration. It’s about if this is going to be their last competitive football game, then we want these guys to go out in style. We want to have a sendoff they’re never going to forget.”
He noted that at the banquet Friday, families are invited and players are presented with a personalized jersey they will wear in the game.
“So we go a little beyond the typical all-star game. The family piece for us is almost as important as the football piece,” said Malzone.
The Pride team features quarterbacks Larry Brhim Jr. of Bethune-Cookman and Kivon Taylor of Morehouse, wide receiving talents Frank Brown of Bethune-Cookman and Lavon Meeks of Central State.
Anthony Smith, a prolific tackling linebacker out of Norfolk State, ball-hawking safety Carlo Thomas of Johnson C. Smith and run-stuffer Rodriguez Jones of Kentucky State are key players on the Pride defense.
Among the Brave team quarterbacks are Austin Howard, who set career passing marks at Southern, and prolific passer Johnathon McCrary of Clark Atlanta.
SWAC rushing leader DeLance Turner of Alcorn State) West Virginia State wide receiver Quinton Gray, the black college receiving and receptions yardage leader and first-team all-SWAC tight end Dillon Beard of Southern are among the other offensive standouts.
On defense, the Brave squad features safety Jeremy Taylor of HBCU national champion North Carolina A&T, all-CIAA linebacker Karl Calhoun of Virginia Union and all-SWAC linebacker Jalyn Williams of Prairie View A&M.
Brihm was a third team all-MEAC selection after throwing for 2,210 yards and 12 TDs while completing 62.2% of his passes. Brown caught 38 passes, primarily from Brihm, for four TDs. Meeks had 37 receptions for the Marauders averaging 13.3 yards per catch. Taylor threw for 1,545 yards and 13 TDs for the Maroon Tigers.
Smith was second in the MEAC with 124 total tackles.
Thomas, who led Div. II with 12 and 7 picks in 2015 and 2016, had three interceptions this season to finish his career for the Golden Bulls with 22 career interceptions. Jones posted 5.5 sacks, 57 total tackles and blocked two kicks for the Thorobreds.
Howard passed for over 2,000 yards in each of his four years leading Southern’s offense and set school records for passing yards (9,268) and passing TDs (80) in his career. McCrary passed for an SIAC-best 2,445 yards and 19 TDs this season.
Turner paced the SWAC and was only runner in the league to top 1,000 yards as he ran for 1,355 yards and 10 TDs to pace the Braves. Gray hauled in 89 passes for 982 yards to lead all HBCU receivers. Beard topped all black college tight ends with 35 receptions and five TDs.
Malzones’ company also puts on the Dream Bowl which is running concurrently with the HBCU Spirit of American Bowl in Salem. This is the sixth year of the Dream Bowl featuring players from non-HBCU programs.The over 200 players in the Roanoke Valley for both games are sharing the same hotel and meals.
The Dream Bowl will be played Monday at noon.
Ware, an offensive lineman, was drafted in the 7th round of the 2017 Draft by the Oakland Raiders after playing in last year’s SOA Bowl.
Rogers, a wide receiver and kick returner, was signed as a free agent by Indianapolis in 2016 and completed his second season with the Colts. Rogers was a late addition to the Dream Bowl two years ago.