Nation’s Football Classic is more than just a game

WASHINGTON — College football is driven by its longstanding rivalries. Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, Army-Navy, even Harvard-Yale. The games are known by name alone: The Red River Rivalry, The Civil War, The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

But some rivalries run deeper, and go beyond just a competitive game or regional pride. One of those games is the Nation’s Football Classic, which will see Howard University and Morehouse College square off at RFK Stadium on Saturday.

Both Howard and Morehouse were founded in 1867, and the rivalry first came to life with a 10-0 Howard victory in 1923. The matchup went on hiatus from 1930 until it was revived in 1955, and again was dormant from 1971-84. Most recently, the rivalry dissolved after 1997, only to be revived once again in 2011.

Now, the game returns to D.C. for the fourth year since its resurrection. That’s music to Jay Walker’s ears.

Known at the time as “Sky Walker” for his prolific passing, the former Howard quarterback set the single-game school record for most pass completions with 38 and was All-MEAC in both 1992 and 1993. He went on to be drafted by the New England Patriots and played four years in the NFL.

“I didn’t realize the magnitude of the game until I stepped on the field for the first time and Spike Lee was there for the coin toss,” recalls Walker.

That memory quickly turned sour for Walker and the Bison, who lost a rain- soaked game in Atlanta, 7-0.

“My worst college memory was against Morehouse — I had never had played a game in the rain before, being from California,” says the Los Angeles native. “It was completely my fault.”

But Walker and the Bison found redemption the next year.

In his final season, he led Howard to an undefeated regular season mark of 11- 0, including classic wins over both Steve McNair’s Alcorn State as well as nationally-ranked Towson.

And, yes, Walker’s Bison also defeated Morehouse handily, 34-9. The difference in the talent levels between the programs at the time was one of the reasons the rivalry was discontinued. In 1996, Howard drubbed the Maroon Tigers, 49-0, then followed that up with a 52-0 blanking the next year. Those victories were led by another star Howard quarterback, Ted White.

White set the all-time school and MEAC conference career passing mark with 9,908 yards, records which still hold today, as Howard’s quarterback between 1996-98.

“Howard has cultivated something of a tradition of great quarterbacks,” says Walker. “I take pride in being part of that tradition. Part of my job was nurturing Ted White.”

Now it’s White’s turn. As offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach for the Bison, he is in charge of the attack, and particularly, the development of the current quarterback, Greg McGhee. The senior from Pittsburgh has thrown for nearly 5,500 career yards, with more than half of those coming in a breakout junior season. He’s beaten Morehouse all three years, and is looking to complete a perfect career sweep.

“Greg McGhee is a special talent,” says Walker. He’s more athletic than Ted White or Jay Walker on any given day.”

White agrees.

“I probably couldn’t ever do what he does right now,” says the coach about his mentee. “I would be lying to you saying it hasn’t been a pleasure coaching him. Watching the maturation process, from him as a freshman to senior. He’s almost like my hero.”

Despite three straight Howard victories, the contests have been much closer than in Walker or White’s eras, the Bison’s three wins coming by just a combined 15 points. This year, the Maroon Tigers come in at 1-0 following a 31-16 victory over Edward Waters College in their opener, while Howard is 0-2 following losses against tougher competition at Akron (41-0) and at Rutgers (38-25).

That should lend some intrigue to the game on the field. But the rivalry has always stretched far outside the lines.

“It’s more than just a game,” says White. “I didn’t realize it while I was playing here. As a coach, I’m able to look at it from afar, able to see the greater significance of everything. We used to play them at Homecoming, and you’d have Bill Cosby and others on the sideline.

Walker echoes his sentiments.

“It’s a unique tradition among the HBCU landscape,” he says. “There’s more than just what happens on the field. It’s

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