Mike Little stepped onto FedEx Field yesterday afternoon and surveyed the crowd in the stands.
There were fewer people than he had hoped but more than he had expected considering that the Washington area had been drenched by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.
Although torrential rain held down attendance, it didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people who turned out for the inaugural Prince George's Classic, as Howard University beat Mississippi's Alcorn State University 17-10 in a football game organizers hope will be the first in a long and successful tradition to promote the county regionally and nationally as a prime location for business and industry.
"This is a great event," U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) said. "The Classic will be an opportunity to do in Prince George's County what we in public relations call branding, to establish a name recognition for Prince George's County as a destination for economic development and exciting cultural and social events. This is not a D.C. event. It is a Prince George's County event. This will help us establish our own identity. We are the mecca."
Yesterday's game was the culmination of a dream by businessmen Little and Hubert "Petey" Green, president of the Prince George's Black Chamber of Commerce, who two years ago decided to hold an event to spotlight the nation's wealthiest majority-black county. It was modeled after other such events, such as the Circle City Classic of Indianapolis and New Orleans's Bayou Classic -- weeklong events featuring such activities as gospel concerts, step shows, art exhibits, lectures, job fairs and football games involving teams from traditionally black colleges.
In 2002, Little and Green were discussing what kind of event would draw attention to the county when they seized on the idea for the Prince George's Classic, which could tap into the education and affluence of the county's black middle class as a patron base while producing an event to promote the county.
"We wanted to create an opportunity not only for the community to be able to take pride and ownership of an event, but also . . . an economic initiative that would empower small local and minority-owned businesses," Green said.
Prince George's Classic week events kicked off Sept. 11 with a fashion show at the La Fontaine Bleu banquet facility in Lanham. A reception Thursday night at the Greenbelt Marriott drew more than 600 county movers and shakers, including Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), County Council Chairman Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) and many of the area's General Assembly members. A Black College Expo, featuring recruiters from many of the nation's top historically black colleges and universities, drew hundreds of students and their parents yesterday to the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Center in Landover.
On Friday, the weather kept attendance low at a golf tournament at the Lake Arbor Golf Club. But a battle of the bands at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland in College Park -- featuring bands from Howard and Alcorn State and from Oxon Hill, Largo and Ballou high schools, among others -- drew more than 3,000, despite the bad weather, Little said.
"We were pleasantly surprised by the number of people who came out despite the tornado warning," Little said.
By the time Howard and Alcorn State prepared to take to the field about 4 p.m. yesterday, the crowd was revved up. A moving rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Howard University choir director Daniel Austin drew thunderous applause. A decision not to let the bands perform on the field at halftime for fear it would damage the soggy grass drew jeers, but the crowd roared as the bands performed in the stands.
Little, owner of Oxon Hill's B&W Solutions, where the game's operations were based, credited the event's success to the community, political leaders and corporate sponsors.
"Certainly, we are learning a lot as we go along -- we tested what worked and what didn't and where adjustments will be needed," he said. "The support we have seen from the community and the politicians has been tremendous. We know from what we see that this will be a huge event for Prince George's County and the Washington area."
Steele, a Prince George's resident who attended the game with some staff members, said yesterday's event is the beginning of a tradition that will "set the standard for other classics."
"This is the base line, and we will build from here," he said. "My goal, working with Mike and Petey, is to make this the best classic in the country. You don't come to the wealthiest black county in the United States and not make what you have the best."
Alcorn State University fans Jeffrey Knight, left, of Ocean Springs, Miss., James Smith of Jacksonville, Fla., Sam Washington of Silver Spring and Percy Magee of Grand Blanc, Mich., tailgate before the game with Howard.