by Donovan Dooley
It shouldn’t be a secret that players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been cornerstones throughout the National Football League. In the Golden Age of HBCU Football, Hall of Fame Players such as Jerry Rice, Walter Payton and Richard Dent became household names after being drafted from HBCUs.
However, after integration enticed more top-level talent to matriculate to the bigger predominantly white institutions, the level of HBCU talent and the number of HBCU draftees fell.
Yet, with the play of Former North Carolina A&T running back and Chicago Bears standout, Tarik Cohen, eyes on HBCU prospects could be starting to increase. And it might not be long until we see another Golden Age of HBCU NFL talent.
In the 2018 NFL Draft, Former South Carolina State Linebacker, Darius Leonard, was selected in the second round by the Indianapolis Colts with the number 36th pick overall. This means that Leonard, who is the two-time MEAC defensive player of the year and the Bulldog’s all-time leader in tackles, was only four picks away from being selected in the first round. He is one of the highest HBCU prospects taken in recent history.
“If you are a ball player they can find you,” said Leonard. “Just because you didn’t go to a big-time school like Clemson, Carolina or Alabama you still can get picked high in the draft if you are doing all the right things and you got that right tape you can still be a great ball player.”
Leonard believes his speed, athleticism, and intelligence about the game can help get him on the field in Indianapolis early. However, it might be his work ethic and proverbial “chip on his shoulder” that could turn Leonard into a standout performer for the Colts for years to come.
“You have to make the best of your opportunity to standout, I wanted to go to Clemson, and with them not offering I had a big chip on my shoulder,” said Leonard. “I think personally I work harder than anybody in the NFL Draft because in my head I want to be the best.”
One of his colleagues who shares that chip is North Carolina A&T offensive lineman, Brandon Parker. Parker, who was a two-time MEAC Offensive Lineman of the year award winner and a first team All-American at NCAT, was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the third round with the 65th pick overall.
“The thing that is going to really get me going is that I’ve always kind of played the underdog role, “said Parker.” And I think that the fact that a lot of people still don’t agree with myself and (Leonard’s) pick being so high .. it’s just going to be like okay now I still got more people to prove wrong, let’s go! “
Parker was selected by the Raiders to compete for a starting spot on that offensive line to protect Franchise Quarterback, Derek Carr. And Parker is confident he can bring a toughness and a will to work that can help benefit his new team.
“Toughness and a will to work goes a long way, obviously there is going to be a lot of banging around for the initial adjustment period and it’s going to be a lot to learn as far as schemes and learning the ropes as a rookie.” Said Parker. “The best thing you can do is bring a positive attitude and come to work hard every single day.”
Hard work and inspiration have been recurring themes for both of these highly selected HBCU draft picks. Whether it was Leonard being inspired by his brother, former NFL player and Clemson Tigers standout, Anthony Waters, to become the best player he could possibly be. Or Parker, who has been inspired by his father to never be discouraged and trust God’s plan, it seems evident that the future of HBCUs in the NFL are in the good hands of two of the most talented 2018 NFL Draft selections.
What Cohen as well as other HBCU players in the league helped spark could be another age of HBCU excellence in the league. And with Parker and Leonard both being selected relatively high they could pave the way for the next HBCU first round selection.
“I think myself and (Leonard) realize just how big this is from just how high we went” said Parker. “Not only does that kind of motivate us but it makes us the leaders and puts us at the forefront of what HBCU players can do.”