It was a decision made on the steps of a church in March 1984 that began a Florida connection that is still paying off for Howard University.

Howard usually makes a Sunday trip to church part of the visiting weekend for any football recruit. On that 1984 weekend, Howard had in town its potential future -- a group of highly touted players from Miami's Southridge High -- and even late into the recruiting season, all were undecided.

"When we came out of church, we asked each other where we would be going," said senior tailback Harvey Reed. "Everyone thought I was going to the University of Florida, but I decided there that I wanted to go to Howard. When they heard that, I guess some of the others thought it might not be a bad place to go also."

When the Bison put their 10-game winning streak on the line Saturday night at Towson State, they will have a roster of 102 players that includes 24 from Florida.

Reed, who leads NCAA Division I-AA with 185.3 yards rushing and 14.7 points per game, made the decision that started the trend. Swayed by his declaration that day were linebacker Marvin Jackson, wide receiver Curtis Chappell and quarterback Leon Brown.

The decision of those four, who were all stars on the state high school runner-up, brought statewide attention to Howard, which had rarely recruited in Florida in previous years.

Since then, players from the Miami area who have come to Howard include center Todd Meiklejohn, tailback Fred Killings, linebacker Michael Clarington and redshirt freshman defensive tackle David Westbrook, who will be making his first start Saturday.

The first Florida wave also washed up from the state's northern shore. Fullback Ronnie Epps and linebacker Darryon Robinson came from Gainesville in 1984, which led to quarterback Lee DeBose and defensive tackle John Thomas coming one year later. All are now starters.

"I had never heard of Howard, but I had heard about Harvey, Curtis and Leon going there," said sophomore Killings, a graduate of Miami Edison High who is averaging 70 yards rushing per game as Reed's backup. "I knew they were good, but I wondered why they would go to a place like Howard. This was the only recruiting trip I made, but once I got here, I decided I wanted to go here, too."

DeBose, a junior whose adeptness at handling the option has keyed Howard's offensive progress, had never heard of the school either -- until Epps went there.

Much of the credit for Howard's Florida recruiting success goes to assistant coach Earl Humes. Originally from the Miami area, Humes came to Howard one year before Coach Willie Jeffries. He was recruiting in that area when coach Joe Taylor was fired after a 1-9 season.

"When I first spoke to Leon, Harvey, Marvin and Curtis, they must have thought I was crazy," said Humes. "Their coach {Don Soldinger} told me to forget about those kids because they were all going to big schools. What I really think he intended to do was take them to the University of Miami with him because that's where he went {as an assistant}."

Humes said he realized he could not match the athletic facilities flaunted by the bigger universities recruiting those players. He elected to gamble by making athletics secondary to a pitch on academics.

"Howard was talking about academics so much instead of football," said Reed, whose studies improved considerably after he struggled in the classroom his freshman year. "They were the only school that did that. It was a different approach, but I liked that."

Since then, Howard has made Florida its prime recruiting territory.

"I have done a lot of thinking about Florida kids," said Jeffries. "I have been in college coaching since 1968, and what I have liked most about them is that they rarely quit on you. They stay in school and don't go home when things aren't going just right."

Howard has done a good job of keeping its Florida players happy.

"I have checked on many of the other kids we recruited in the Miami area that first year, and about 90 percent of them are already back in Florida for various reasons," Humes said. "When I call back down there, the main thing people say is that they are so glad we were able to keep these kids in school."

The academic requirements of Proposition 48, said Humes, have made more than 65 percent of Florida athletes ineligible to play as scholarship freshmen for Division I schools, but Howard is not pulling back. Jeffries and Humes believe this year's recruiting will yield a group at least as talented as the 1984 class.

"Every time I go home now, people know about Howard and they watch us on {Black Entertainment Network} television," said Killings. "All they want to talk about is our football team. Winning will do that to you."