Inside Jackson State football's 'historic moment' on College GameDay's national stage
Andre Armstrong's grill awoke before the sun.
The Jackson native chose to keep it simple. Chicken wings and sausages would provide the morning's nourishment for a group of roughly 40 friends and family gathered outside Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium to watch ESPN's iconic "College GameDay" pregame show broadcast live from Jackson State University.
The occasion marked the show's fourth trip to a game involving Historically Black Colleges and Universities but only its second broadcast from an HBCU program's home stadium.
"This is a historic moment," said Latoshia Goodrich, a two-time JSU alumna and Jackson native who arrived early for a front-row space behind the GameDay set.
Goodrich was among hundreds of enthusiastic fans who came to start the party well before the GameDay crew took the stage.
By the time 8 a.m. CT arrived, signaling the start of the show, the crowd presented a healthy smattering of Jackson State navy blue, breast cancer awareness pink and Southern University gold.
"Since we've touched down in this city, you guys have rolled out the red carpet for us," GameDay host Rece Davis told the crowd before the cameras began to roll. "We thank you for it."
Historic 'College GameDay' visit in Jackson
The show's trip to Jackson was its first, but the traditions that define the program remained despite the unfamiliar locale. Chris "The Bear" Fallica dished out his picks against the spread. The Washington State flag — as always — flew high on both sides of the primary fan area. Then, of course, there were the signs.
Hundreds of fans in the crowd of thousands waved pieces of colorful cardboard before the ESPN cameras, hoping their message or joke might catch on. Young children clutched signs while sitting on the shoulders of their family members — anything for a better angle. Longtime JSU alumni enthusiastically displayed their pro-Tigers creations, eager for the chance to show their pride on national television.
Several signs backed JSU coach Deion Sanders, who had his SWACness questioned by Alabama State coach Eddie Robinson Jr. after a game earlier this month. Others poked fun at Southern ahead of Saturday afternoon's "BoomBox Classic" rivalry game. A few made jokes at the expense of Brett Favre, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Mississippi native caught up in the largest welfare scandal in the state's history.
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Southern fans, though much fewer in number, had their say, too. Danny Hardy and Johnathan Shelbia left their homes in Baton Rouge, La., around 5 a.m. Saturday morning to arrive in time to hold a large Jaguars flag in front of the GameDay cameras.
"That blue will rub off on you!" Hardy warned a Jackson State fan who ventured in front of the flag to block it out.
Other HBCUs were represented, too. Fans sporting Alcorn State, Albany State and Texas Southern gear all made the trip to Jackson.
"Jackson State new to it, Southern true to it," said Shelbia, alluding to Southern's previous GameDay appearance in 2005. "It's an eye-opener since Deion got here, bringing attention back to the HBCUs. It's an uplifting thing. We need it. I'm happy."
Deion Sanders arrives in style
As the show wore on, fans began to realize the real attraction was about to arrive.
They stood three and four rows deep on both sides of a path cleared for Sanders, the legendary defensive back-turned-coach who won the Tigers their first SWAC title since 2007 a year ago. Never one to decline the opportunity to make a big entrance, Sanders cruised to the stage on a motorcycle to wild applause. Once there, he was asked to address his future beyond this season, with his name a frequent subject in coaching rumors.
"I'd be a fool and a liar to tell you I'm not going to entertain those things, because I am," Sanders said. "But I have made no plans to move or go anywhere."
The aroma of southern soul food hung heavy Saturday morning, with fans housing grills and smokers under a perimeter of tailgate tents surrounding the GameDay fan area. The ESPN personalities on stage got a taste, too, via a plate of chicken wings from a local Jackson restaurant. Pat McAfee went back for seconds during a commercial break, chowing down while dancing along to Wacka Flocka Flame's "Grove St. Party."
The show closed as it always does: with predictions. All four ESPN panelists — including guest picker Stephen A. Smith, the famous ESPN personality — picked the Tigers to win, garnering a big roar from the JSU faithful who remained around the set for the moment of truth.
When the network stars left, the party moved into Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. Midway through the first quarter, the skies finally opened up to deliver the forecasted rain and the ponchos came out to turn a split navy and gold crowd into a picture of multicolor ambiguity.
Would the weather ruin the Boombox Classic's big day in the sun?
"No," Raymond resident and JSU alumna Coralisa Williams said simply.
"It never rains on a Jaguar," Hardy added.
David Eckert covers Southern Miss for The Hattiesburg American. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @davideckert98.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: 'Historic moment' for Deion Sanders' Jackson State on College GameDay