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Howard-Morehouse will be a celebration to which everyone is invited

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Everyone is welcome to join a family reunion Saturday at RFK Stadium. Old friendships will be rekindled, and new ones formed, as Howard University and Morehouse College resume their rivalry in the first Nation’s Football Classic.

Just one thing: Be in the mood for fun.

Attend only if you’re interested in great music and stylish performances. Do something else if a celebration of culture and tradition isn’t appealing. Crowd participation is expected throughout an event that’s about more than football for historically black colleges and universities.

Among the leading HBCUs, Howard and Morehouse are meeting for the first time in 14 years. Through their involvement in this game, the schools will receive a financial boost from sponsors. They’ll attract attention that could help in fundraising efforts vital to HBCUs.

And if Howard and Morehouse get it started right, all HBCUs “up and down the East Coast will” benefit, Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl defensive back Antoine Bethea, a former Howard standout, said in a phone interview this week. “Obviously, it’s a good thing for Howard, to have this kind of an HBCU game in D.C.

“It will bring a lot more attention to Howard athletics, and the Howard football team, but it could also show more people in the area, Northern Virginia and Maryland, how much fun HBCU games are. Anybody from any walk of life can go there and have a good time and a great experience. These are the type of games that can show that.”

That’s why they’re especially important for HBCUs.

Major Division I universities benefit from lucrative television contracts. Bowl Championship Series conferences receive millions in revenue for the television rights to the premier bowl games. Weekly national media attention is simply part of the deal.

“Classic” games provide a rare spotlight experience for HBCUs.

The dotting of the “i” at Ohio State is a great college football tradition. I’m partial to a guy on a white horse wielding a sword at Southern California games.

There’s no greater spectacle, however, than the battle of the bands at HBCU games. At halftime and after games are finished, bands compete with unique flair, stirring a celebratory environment as crowds linger.

I still remember my amazement, as an 8-year-old, on seeing bands battle while attending a game with my dad, a Howard alum. It’s something you don’t forget because “it’s an experience,” Bethea said. “When you’re in the stands, and the bands get to rocking and you see the bands and the cheerleaders out there battling, it’s something that will put a smile on your face.

“I talk with some of the guys I play with now, who went to the big colleges, and I say, ‘Yeah, you had a hundred thousand at your games, but I’ll take our 10 thousand and our band every time.’ My mother and father love coming to see the Colts. But they always tell me there’s nothing like going to a black college game, hearing that band playing instruments like that, the way they march and the way they dance.  And then there’s everything else with this game.”

The educational aspect of the HBCU experience is a big part of it.

At a time many doors were shut to minorities, HBCUs opened theirs, creating a sense of  kinship and camaraderie that continues. On Howard’s campus this week, there were activities focusing on issues affecting African Americans (I participated in one of the panel discussions).

Many HBCU graduates are making positive contributions to the District and region, “so it’s important to show that to everyone,” Bethea said. “It’s not just about people making a difference in the black community.

“You’ve got HBCU people doing great things in the courtroom, business, medicine . . . a lot of different fields. You’re proud that you share something with these people, and the people who came before you, because you all did this. Hopefully, this game, and everything about it, will help enlighten a lot of people.”

Scholarly discussions are important. Musical entertainment has its place.

But the teams have to perform as well, Morehouse Coach Rich Freeman said. “Part of our job, a big part of it, is we have to create an environment that is intriguing,” he said. “We have to go out there and put on a show that will be outstanding. We have to put on a show that’ll make them want to come back.

“We’ve got to do our jobs so that others can benefit. That’s what we’re laying on the line to our kids. We’re telling them it’s much bigger than one game. It’s much bigger than a win. It’s much bigger than a loss. It’s the experience. We have to make an impact.”

© The Washington Post Company