MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Fans at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium had much to celebrate Saturday night at the first Southern Heritage Classic in two years.
It’s always a party at the HBCU showcase. The two-year gap between games made fans anxious while the matchup of Tennessee State’s Eddie George and Deion Sanders of Jackson State had them saying why not us.
Buses, RVs, tents, big TVs and smokers — lots of smokers — packed the parking lots closest to the stadium. Fans literally danced and stepped whiling away the time before kickoff. A few tents had disc jockeys as music blared from speakers, mixing with the smell of ribs, barbecue and burgers.
This one had a big-time feel, think tailgates outside Tennessee's Neyland Stadium; Bryant-Denny Stadium, home of the Crimson Tide; the Shoe at Ohio State; or a major bowl game.
Jackson State fan Ezra Baker of Columbus, Mississippi, believes it is a renaissance for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“This has been a big game all the time,” Baker said. “It's never been below 35,000, 45,000. But we have two competing ... Hall of Famers that's coming from Tennessee (State) and Jackson State University, and they come to put on a show. Win, lose or draw. They want to make sure that the fans enjoy this cultural revolution.”
That's the impact of hiring Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Fame player, nearly a year ago at Jackson State, and George at Tennessee State in mid-April.
While the crowd was about the same, Baker, who has attended all 32 Southern Heritage Classics, said it felt there was more enthusiasm at this game than in recent years.
“That's why we have a renaissance, new birth, because HBCUs have been on the backburner for years and years," Baker said. “Now we see that a cultural movement can bring forth those things that's important to all of us."
George stood at midfield linked arm in arm with his Tigers for the national anthem, while Sanders made a late entrance as his Tigers ran onto the field after the singer finished.
Kellie Grizzell, 30, and Andrea Jossell of Memphis, graduated from Jackson State in 2012, both saw more people tailgating before kickoff than in years past. Jossell said it felt like the verge of a new birth.
“It’s bigger,” Jossell said. “It’s a family atmosphere. I feel the rivalry but I also feel like it’s just two schools being excited to be here and see the history" being made.
Jackson State led 10-7 at halftime, setting up the other big show of the night: the battle of the bands. Neither group of musicians disappointed. TSU's Aristocrat of Bands took the field first and had fans taking part using the lights on their phones. The Sonic Boom of the South went second.
It's a regular part of the festivities. Though everything about this matchup seemed to have a little something extra about it.
“It was what? Fifty thousand fans?” George said after Jackson State's 38-16 win in front of an announced crowd of 46,171. “That was pretty awesome. I thought the atmosphere was great. ...The pageantry. The history of both schools. It was great. I just wish I could walk away with a" win.
D.J. Jones of Memphis arrived at noon, six hours before kickoff to enjoy the scene. With so many people spending Friday night outside the Liberty Bowl, Jones said he’ll arrive the night before next year. Someone who’s attended this game for years, Jones noticed many more Jackson State fans.
He credits the coaches for increasing the competition between the schools.
“There’s no limit what they could do because there’s been years since we were completely sold out,” Jones said. “But you see everybody at the tailgate here having a good time. Right now you can’t even get a parking spot in this area because of the hype.”
Kerry Thomas, a 1989 graduate of Tennessee State, didn't feel a difference in the mood of those tailgating from past years. But like Jones, he took notice of the increased number of Jackson State fans — a reflection of the momentum HBCUs are experiencing.
“Jackson State people hadn't generally shown up like this in the past,” Thomas explained. "Jackson State people are front runners ... They're losing, they're not going to show up. They're mediocre, they're not going to show up. Even in Jackson they don't show up."
That's not Thomas being a Tennessee State graduate besmirching the JSU faithful. He's a high school football coach in Memphis and routinely takes players to HBCU games, especially Southwestern Athletic Conference games, around the South.
“There's a big difference seeing the Jackson State people show up tonight,” Thomas said.
This game was canceled due to lightning and weather in 2018. A total of 48,347 showed up to watch Jackson State edge TSU in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 edition with the SWAC and Ohio Valley Conference choosing to postpone the season until last spring.
“It was wonderful,” Sanders said, noting he brought his Jackson State team to Memphis a day early to enjoy the festivities. “The hospitality was exceptional. ...This was just another level of commitment of excellence. We had a wonderful time.”
Donald Minter, TSU class of 1991, said it was good to experience the game in person.
“It feels like your favorite food that you haven’t been able to get for a while,” Minter said. “There’s no taste like it. You just miss it.”
Associated Press Writer Clay Bailey contributed to this report.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker
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