Antoine Bethea’s Super Bowl ring looks pretty good to Geoff Pope. And not just because they’re close friends.
Bethea is an inspirational story for any NFL prospect at a historically Black school. Chosen late in the sixth round last year by the Indianapolis Colts, the safety from Howard University became a starter as a rookie, had two interceptions in the playoffs and provided one of the biggest plays in the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI victory.
Now Pope has a chance to be the next Howard player headed for the pros. His speed alone — 4.29 in the 40-yard dash — has him projected as a late-round pick at this weekend’s draft.
“Seeing Bethea go through that, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Pope says. “He had a lot of people saying he couldn’t play at that level, and to go on and star like that throughout the playoffs and the Super Bowl and get raves, that’s huge not only for me, but for anybody else at a small school that’s trying to make it big.”
Howard also had safety Ron Bartell selected by the St. Louis Rams in the second round in 2005, and tackle Marques Ogden went to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the sixth round in 2003. Not bad for a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school that isn’t exactly piling up the trophies. Howard head coach Ray Petty’s contract wasn’t renewed at the end of last season after a 25-30 record over five years.
But Howard’s modest draft success doesn’t even touch what’s happening this year at Hampton University, a MEAC school in Virginia and one of the country’s better-known HBCUs. The Pirates had five players invited to the NFL combine, a record for a Division I-AA school and one more than the number invited from the University of Southern California, a perennial football powerhouse.
“I think it’s probably a testament to what you are seeing in HBCUs, the staffs are a lot more organized,” says Hampton head coach Joe Taylor, whose team has won three straight MEAC titles. “They go out and do a great job of recruiting and then, of course, the actual development, the teaching, the film study. You put that with a real good strength and conditioning program, it shows that we are developing young men and if they have aspirations for going on, then that opportunity can come at the HBCU.”
Yet, while improved off-season regimens are helping the development of players at Black colleges, it’s hard to say the schools are enjoying a renaissance when it comes to supplying the NFL with talent. They routinely have a smattering a players chosen in the later rounds, but, as NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt points out, there hasn’t been a first-round pick from an HBCU since Sylvester Morris (Kansas City Chiefs) and Rashard Anderson (Carolina Panthers) were both taken from Jackson State University in 2000.
“It’s always good to see those schools get players,” Brandt says, “but the odds are dwindling.”
The heyday for Black schools in the draft came in mid-1970s. Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Waymond Bryant, both from Tennessee State University, were the first and fourth overall picks in 1974, and Walter Payton (Jackson State), Robert Brazile (Jackson State), Gary Johnson (Grambling State University) and Thomas Henderson (Langston University) were in the top 20 in 1975.
But that was at the tail end of a different social era. The gradual end of segregation slowly eroded the top talent from the Black schools.
“These guys that used to go to those type of schools are now all at the LSUs and Texases and so forth,” Brandt says. “Walter Payton wouldn’t be at Jackson State today.”
Now the best players on Black college teams are more or less in the same boat as those at the other small schools, hoping to get noticed by scouts who have been more and more thorough with their research. Some weren’t good enough to be recruited by a bigger school, while others have come from those bigger schools in search of more playing time. Two of Hampton’s prospects transferred from the University of Miami (Fla.), while Pope transferred to Howard from Eastern Michigan University.
But there is still plenty of pride among the NFL players who hail from HBCUs. Bethea is quick to point out that the Colts’ Super Bowl roster also included cornerback Nick Harper (Fort Valley State University) and defensive end Robert Mathis (Alabama A&M University).
“There’s a lot of players in the league that come from small Black schools,” he says. “And for us to be successful it’s going to help the people who come behind us. It’s a big deal to come from a Black college and a small school.”
— Associated Press
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