The event served as a showcase for what makes Canton such a special place.
By Joe Scalzo | Canton Repository | September 2, 2019
CANTON If you live in St. Louis, the arch can start to blend in with the skyline. If you live in Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can become a cool building you pass on the way to a Browns game. And if you live in Canton, the Pro Football Hall of Fame can lose its magic.
That’s what made the inaugural Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic so much fun.
It was new, it was different and the guests loved it.
“It was a spectacular (event), from start to finish,” Morehouse College coach Rich Freeman said after his team lost 35-30 to Alabama A&M on Sunday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. “This is a first-class event put on by the Classic committee. … To experience the Hall of Fame, it was great for our kids, great for our program and great for Morehouse College.”
Added Morehouse running back Santo Dunn, whose eyes lit up when he recalled seeing Barry Sanders’ bronze bust for the first time, “I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Sunday’s game served as a showcase for Historically Black Colleges and Universities — both for the quality of their football, past and present, and of their marching bands — but it also was a showcase for everything that makes Canton so special: the beautiful venues, the friendly volunteers and the passion for football of any level.
“I’m real proud of our board of trustees for doing this,” Hall of Fame president David Baker said. “I’m proud of our volunteers doing this. Our guys (Hall of Famers from HBCUs) have been so appreciative. For them, coming to Canton is something special and we want to keep building on that.”
But Baker wants to build on another form of momentum from this weekend, one he didn’t anticipate when this event was in the planning stages, one that hit much closer to home.
“I understood what this would do for the HBCUs; I understood their portion of the NFL story,” Baker said. “I was surprised to see what it does for our community in Canton. For a lot of northeast Ohio, a lot of the African-American community felt marginalized or disenfranchised or let’s just say disconnected. That’s probably the best way to put it. And I think they’ve been energized by this.
“They want to be involved in this event. They want to do more. There’s a lot of good in this and it’s been a lot of fun for me.”
For Baker, this weekend wasn’t just another event at the Hall of Fame. He and retired Hall of Fame historian Joe Horrigan have spent years taking it from the idea stage and turning it into a first-class event. After both teams toured the Hall on Friday, Baker spoke to the players for more than 20 minutes and made sure the players also heard speeches from the Black College Football Hall of Famers in town.
“They gave our guys great knowledge,” said Alabama A&M coach Connell Maynor, whose team heard from former Steelers Donnie Shell and Mel Blount. “For some of our guys, it was their first time flying. And for all of our guys, it was their first time in the Hall of Fame. That’s what the game afforded us. These guys got the chance to see their heroes and their role models growing up. They got to play on the field.
“It was a great opportunity, a great experience. You can’t beat it.”
Maybe not, but Baker is going to try. As he sat in the press box during Sunday’s game, he looked down on the thousands of fans in the stands and smiled.
He was enjoying what it was, but also picturing what it could be.
“We think we’re off to a good start,” he said, “but we want to keep making it better every year.”
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On Twitter: @jscalzoREP
Morehouse College Marching Band performs at halftime of the inaugural Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton (Sept. 1, 2019)
Alabama A&M Marching Band performs at halftime of the inaugural Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton on Sept. 1, 2019.