Tents lined the aisles leading to the stadium. The sound of blaring trumpets filled the air. Fans, the majority of whom were awash in arrays of orange and green or blue and white, stood around coolers and portable smokers.
This was the scene Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium where the Florida A&M Rattlers battled the Jackson State Tigers in the Orange Blossom Classic. The Tigers pulled out a 7-6 win over the Rattlers but the real show happened in the stands and the bowels of the stadium where fans reveled with friends and family alike.
“It was awesome,” said JSU alum Laverne Segars of Atlanta. “We haven’t been in this type of arena in so long.”
With COVID-19 having decimated many public gatherings in 2020, Sunday’s game felt long overdue. It might’ve been the first game of the season but for attendees, the energy closely resembled that of homecoming, one of the premiere events for HBCU students and alumni. Not even the brief showers that drenched a score of fans just before kickoff could dampen the mood: Ponchos were thrown over carefully curated outfits and people shrunk for cover under the canopy but the party did not stop.
“Corona made us respect and cherish the times that we could travel,” said Dr. Heavenly Kimes, a FAMU grad and star of “Married to Medicine.” “We took a lot of stuff for granted but now we make [the game] more special because we know that we may not be able to get out.”
The atmosphere even impressed JSU Coach Deion Sanders, who compared it to his last on-field experience at Hard Rock Stadium: Super Bowl XXIX in 1995.
“Just to see the fans, hear the fans, to hear the sonic boom, to feel the boos and the jeers and the haters and naysayers from Florida A&M, that was wonderful,” Sanders said. “I love that kind of emotional roller coaster. I like seeing the guys’ faces because they start feeding off the fans.”
At almost every break in play, the two bands — FAMU’s Marching 100 and JSU’s Sonic Boom of the South — captured the crowd’s attention. Renditions of everything from Gloria Estefan’s “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” to Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s “Leave the Door Open” sent fans into a frenzy of dances, chants and cheers. The experience was a welcomed sight for Angela Suggs, a FAMU grad and president of Florida Sports Foundation.
“Seeing residents and visitors of Florida laugh and enjoy each other is what it’s all about,” Suggs said. “That’s the value and benefit of sports: bringing everybody together.”
Although FAMU’s crowd section might’ve been the best seat in the house, the who’s who of Miami’s Black political scene could be found in the 200 club level. Miami-Dade Commissioner Oliver Gilbert meandered among the crowd, his bright orange pants seemingly paying homage to his alma mater. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson’s signature blazer and hat combo — orange and green, respectively — made her stand out in a sea of casually dressed fans. Miami Gardens Councilwoman Katrina Wilson, donning a Rattler hat, chatted with fellow Councilman Robert Stephens by the concession stands.
Although a graduate of Florida Memorial University, Wilson came to support FAMU, a school that she deemed “family.” The celebration of not just football’s return but HBCU culture in general left a lasting impression.
“It helps you appreciate the life that we have had [because of COVID-19] and how you really want to be in the moment more to appreciate each other,” said Wilson. “… Going to HBCUs really touches your heart in an intimate way.”
The absence of homecomings in 2020 left many alums without a chance to reconnect with HBCU family. And with COVID-19 cases on the rise, Sunday could be the last opportunity for JSU and FAMU alumni to come together, especially considering a few homecomings — including that of Morehouse and Spelman colleges — have already been canceled in 2021. Homecoming, however, was an afterthought; the only thing that mattered to everyone in attendance was, as Wilson alluded to, enjoying the moment — and hopefully attracting some future Rattlers and Tigers in the process.
“HBCUs are so important,” said FAMU alum Thomas Jones of Houston. “… To be here so young kids can see this, see the potential, it’s been an overall great experience.”