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By Mark F. Gray

As fate would have it the day before national signing day for high school football players was media day for Super Bowl XLVI. It has become lucrative business for draft services to project how good 17 year old athletes will be by the time they reach 21. At best those recruiting geeks are good at making alumni feel proud and putting additional pressure on coaches who land these so called “blue chip, can’t miss” prospects.

Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea and kick returner Chad Simpson are two players the recruiting experts missed on going into college and many pro scouts missed coming out. Watching them start and play big roles on the floor of Sun Life Stadium should have Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference football fans on either side of the parkway sticking their chests out this Sunday.

If Howard and Morgan State had been MEAC championship contenders or better than just .500 teams Bethea and Simpson would have been household names. However, with these two starters playing prominent roles this year for the Super Bowl favorites it’s a marketing tool for the two programs. These local rivals are examples of how making in the NFL is less about where you play college football but how you perform once you get your chance.

In his fourth season with the Colts Bethea is making his second Super Bowl start. There was never any doubt that the former Howard all pro safety was a special talent but size and his level of competition were all questions that most of the brilliant NFL scouting services used to justify not drafting him. The Bison only won 12 games in his three years which speaks more to Howard’s athletic infrastructure than it does to the team and the coaches who groomed him. In fact two of his teammates – Ron Bartel of the St. Louis Rams and Tracy White of the Philadelphia Eagles – made vital contributions to those teams this year as well.

Simpson’s road to the Super Bowl is much different than Bethea’s though. It began at South Florida where the recently deposed Jim Leavitt branded him a “trouble maker”. Ironically, it was Leavitt who was fired last month for yoking a player as Simpson is set to become the first player with any ties to the USF program to play in the NFL’s biggest show. Had it not been for a high ankle sprain during his senior year in Baltimore Simpson would have set the all time single season rushing mark at Morgan. Remember, hall of fame running back Leroy Kelly played there.

HBCU’s have made their mark by giving opportunities to students and athletes who may not have otherwise been given a chance to play sports or to gain an education. As the NFL’s season long 50th anniversary tribute to the AFL ends Bethea and Simpson represent the foresight of the old league. As teammates they follow in the footsteps of HBCU duos like Buck Buchanon (Grambling) and Willie Lanier (Morgan) who helped the Kansas City Chiefs matriculate their way to victory in Super Bowl IV. Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley St.) and John Taylor (Delaware St.) were the stars of the final drive that won Super Bowl XXIII for the San Francisco 49’ers.

By the way there was a quartet of HBCU alumni – one for each championship they won – who anchored the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s. Hall of Famer Mel Blount (Southern), L.C. Greenwood (Arkansas AM&N now Pine Bluff), and Donnie Shell (S.C. State) were major players on the Steel Curtain defense. John Stallworth (Alabama A&M), another hall of famer, burned the Rams for the game winning touchdown to seal Super Bowl XIV.

Before HBCU sports were hijacked and banished to television’s version of the back of the bus by ESPN, it was my privilege to broadcast games featuring Bethea, Simpson, and Robert Mathis who played at Alabama A&M. Who knew then that less than 10 years later these three would be lining up in the Super Bowl keeping the HBCU football legacy alive on pro football’s biggest stage.