With footballs clutched in their grasps and grimaces across their faces, the “four lightning backs” make their way across an empty campus field: The Bruiser, the Tipper, the Rabbit, the Shaker.
It’s yearbook photographs like this, in black and white with silly captions, that capture the storied football history of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a history that abruptly ended 33 years ago. The lightning backs (Emerson Boozer, Douglas Goodwin, Curtis Gentry and Leslie Donaldson) helped lead the Hawks in 1965 to their 20th straight winning season. All but Donaldson would play in the NFL.
High costs and budget cuts at the historically black college in Princess Anne caused football to be eliminated after the 1979 season.
But a passionate group of alumni and university staff called Hawks For Football has worked for more than a decade to resurrect the program, and is hopeful that now is the time for a revival, with a new school president and the university’s partnership in a feasibility study.
Results of the study — which will show whether or not the school can support a football program — are expected in two to three weeks. If successful, a commission will be put together to see when the team will begin play. Hawks For Football hopes to field a team within the next four years.
“Football was the number one,” said Boozer, who as a member of the New York Jets was one of five Hawks to play in Super Bowl III. “It was a small community, but they were totally behind the football team.”
Joanne Johnson-Shaw, the spokeswoman for Hawks For Football, said a football program would fill a major void, not only for the university but for the community.
She said thousands of the school’s students leave the campus during fall weekends in order to attend homecoming celebrations and football games at other black colleges. The influx of students from other colleges to attend UMES’s homecoming would provide an economic base for Princess Anne businesses, Johnson-Shaw said.
The program’s historical dominance was started by Coach Vernon “Skip” McCain. Along with the football team, McCain coached the basketball team and was the school’s athletic director. From 1948 to 1963 he compiled a 101-16-5 record and was named coach of the year in 1950 by the Washington Pigskin Club.
The Hawks sent nearly 30 players to the NFL. Prominent alumni include former Redskins Mack Alston and Johnny Sample and NFL Hall of Famer Art Shell of Oakland.
“When you talk about winning, we just had a passion around athletics,” Johnson-Shaw said. “There is a pride and a spirit and a love that comes from that and no other sport brings it.”
Johnson-Shaw graduated from UMES in 1972 and her daughter, Stacey, will be a junior this fall. Her daughter asked Johnson-Shaw why she didn’t tell her the school didn’t have a football team. “What do you think I’ve been trying to do all these years?” she replied.
University President Dr. Juliette B. Bell said it’s important that the school takes its time with a decision like this. She took over for interim president Mortimer Neufville on July 1 and is still gathering information herself.
A few weeks prior to the start of the feasibility study, the state’s flagship university in College Park slashed seven sports as part of a budget overhaul.
“Given the current financial situation across the country, any decision that involves substantial amounts of money is one that would have to be very careful in making,” Bell said.
Of the 11 institutions in the University System of Maryland, five currently field football programs: Maryland (Football Bowl Subdivision), Towson (Football Championship Subdivision), Bowie State (Division II), Frostburg State (Division III) and Salisbury (Division III).
UMES has an enrollment of more than 4,000, which is smaller than any of the other University System schools that play football. But it is comparable to other historically black colleges and universities that have teams, such as Bethune-Cookman, Delaware State and Hampton.
Hawks For Football last conducted a feasibility study in 2005, with hopes of fielding a team by 2010. That study — which was done without the compliance of the university and fell on mostly deaf ears — concluded that the best fit for a potential team would be in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which is composed of historically black schools in the eastern and southern United States.
UMES does not have a stadium, and the previous study said stadium construction would bring start-up costs to $2.5 million. Johnson-Shaw said a stadium is part of the school’s proposed outdoor facilities. There is no minimum attendance requirement that needs to be met for FCS schools.
“I acknowledge that I’m biased, but I hope that the study shows that a football program is not just a passion of the alumni, but it is necessary for recruitment efforts of the university,” Johnson-Shaw said. “It would increase the spirit and the pride of the students.”
Boozer said he wasn’t always supportive of the effort to reinstate football. He thought the money spent on football could have been better spent on improving the university. In the three-decade absence of football, Boozer said the university had “really developed.”
“But when you really think upon bringing it back,” said Boozer, “you say why not?”