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Fans of college athletics have probably have heard at least some of the narrative.
In the past two years, former NFL stars Deion Sanders at Jackson State and Eddie George at Tennessee State became first-time coaches and have helped shine a light on HBCUs. At least five other former pro athletes, including Alabama State basketball coach Mo Williams, have been hired to coach football or men's basketball at an HBCU since 2019. Top recruits are becoming more likely to consider HBCUs as possible destinations.
Alabama State football added its own renowned alum, Eddie Robinson Jr., as its head football coach Friday. Robinson played in the Super Bowl with the Tennessee Titans and had a standout career as a linebacker at ASU and in the NFL.
On Thursday, for the first time since 2012, the Turkey Day Classic once again featured Alabama State and Tuskegee. It's only fitting that the 97-year-old rivalry resumed at a time when HBCUs are receiving national prominence they don't often enjoy.
"There is a lot of talent in SWAC football and HBCUs," said ASU defensive back Irshaad Davis. "I love the spotlight that we're getting. We're able to showcase our talent and not just be overlooked, but at least have a chance to show other people that we can play as well."
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Travis Pearson remembers walking down the tunnel and onto the field on Thanksgiving Day in 1989 and 1990, preparing to take on Tuskegee as a member of the ASU football team. Thursday, more than 30 years later, Pearson made that same walk, this time as the Hornets interim head coach, a walk he called "surreal."
The change in venue, from Montgomery's Cramton Bowl to the new ASU Stadium, is only one of the changes in the meantime.
"A lot more exposure," said Pearson, who played on the 1991 Black national champion team. "I don't think I can recall many times from '89 to '92 where I played on TV. These guys, you got the internet now, you got TV now and you got ESPN channels, so it's been huge."
Anyone with a subscription to ESPN's online streaming service could have watched Alabama State's 43-9 rout of Tuskegee. The game was almost never in doubt for the Hornets (5-6), a dominant performance which Pearson credited in large part to his team's mindset.
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"They did a great job understanding what the Turkey Day Classic means and what it means to this university, what it means to me," he said.
Exposure online and on television is only one thing. Those who watch the game and are interested enough to do more digging might discover that to those in the know, the Turkey Day Classic is far more than a game.
Non-Black college football fans might not be as familiar with the concept of a "classic" as opposed to a conventional rivalry game. The games are often the culmination of a week of events throughout the community. This year, the lead-up to Turkey Day Classic included a block party, alumni brunch, pep rally, concert and a parade through downtown.
As for the game itself, Pearson thinks Montgomery is split down the middle between Alabama State and Tuskegee fans, adding to its intensity.
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"The energy says it all," Davis said. "If you're a football player you look forward to these games. Doesn't matter where you're from. Connecticut, South Florida, Montgomery, you just gotta adapt to it. You can go to a local store and there's people talking to you about it and when you see that, you know that it's real."
ASU quarterback Joe Owens, who's from South Carolina, didn't experience the rivalry growing up. But the Hornets have plenty of Montgomery natives on their roster, giving players like Owens a window into the game's importance.
"I know a lot of players who came out here when they were little kids all the time and say it was a great atmosphere," Owens said. "... It just gives us more of a drive to play in it."
Thursday's meeting was the final game of a four-year contract between Alabama State and Tuskegee. But Pearson was adamant that the Turkey Day Classic "needs" to be played — for the schools, universities and communities involved, it's an institution.
Jacob Shames covers high school and Alabama State athletics for the Montgomery Advertiser and the USA Today Network. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: As HBCUs gain prominence, ASU, Tuskegee meet on Thanksgiving again