Diversity on Their Fields

"They have a good coaching staff and their football's good, so that's all I based my decision on," says Arundel's Nick Elko, bound for Delaware State. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Matthew Stanmyre
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 4, 2008

Joey Christine spent two years waiting for a scholarship offer. An All-Met offensive lineman at Sherando High in Stephens City, Va., Christine was regarded as one of the best high school football players in Virginia. But when his senior season ended, he still had no college offers.

The problem was his height -- at 6 feet 2, he was considered short by typical standards for major college football linemen.

Then, in late December, Norfolk State University began pursuing him. Christine, who is white, had no idea Norfolk State is a historically black college or university. But after meeting the Spartans' coaching staff and spending time with the players during his official visit last month, it was clear that Christine had found a home.

"The whole black-white thing never even entered my head," said Christine, one of three white area players expected to sign with HBCUs on Wednesday. "I was just excited about the opportunity to play football in college, and to be able to play at a high level."

Christine and Osbourn lineman Blake Matthews have committed to the Spartans. Arundel quarterback Nick Elko plans to sign with Delaware State. Both schools belong to the division I-AA Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The players represent a growing pattern of some HBCUs recruiting more white athletes to play football. Although five of the nine teams (including Howard) in the historically black MEAC have two white players or fewer on their rosters, Norfolk State, Delaware State and Bethune Cookman each has 11.

"It's definitely a trend," said Florida A&M Coach Joe Taylor, who spent 16 years as head coach at fellow MEAC member Hampton before joining the Rattlers in 2007. "If you look at the sidelines and the coaching staffs, you see a trend where diversity is very prevalent."

When Matthews visited Norfolk State, he spent time with all-American offensive lineman Jason Kressen, a fifth-year senior who is white. Kressen remembered that during his sophomore season, he was the only white player on the team.

Players and coaches said there are several reasons for the increase in white players at some HBCUs: more comprehensive recruiting efforts because of an increasing pressure to win; the rising level of play in historically black college football; and a generally more diverse society.

"Athletics does more for our society in terms of transcending social ills than anything else," Taylor said. "It is about having bigger minds, broader minds, more open minds. If you love the sport, if you have a passion for it, really color tends not to be an issue."

When Taylor broke into the MEAC in 1982, he said, the only white players in the conference were punters or kickers. Today, white players are represented at nearly every position throughout the conference. Norfolk State started a white quarterback this past season -- only the third to start at that position in the MEAC.

Although the total number of white football players in the MEAC continues to increase, Hampton, Howard, Morgan State, North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State still only have white kickers or punters.

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