September 28, 1968. Over 60,000 fans pile into Yankee Stadium to watch Grambling play Morgan State in the New York Urban League Classic. It was the first Black College Football game in "The House That Ruth Built." It was Eddie Robinson vs Earl Banks. It was James "Shack" Harris vs Raymond Chester. It was all the rage.
The fans that day saw one of the most legendary Black College Football games of all time with Morgan State preserving a 9-7 victory with a last-minute goalline stand. The following year, over 60,000 more fans watched Grambling avenge their defeat to Morgan State. In 1971, the New York Urban League Classic changed things up and hosted Southern and NC A&T. However, only 25,000 fans flocked to Yankee Stadium.
It was clear that Grambling and Morgan State were the Kings of New York. In fact, in 1971, the yearly rivalry earned such a great reputation that ABC made it the first game of its broadcast schedule, televising it nationally in prime time on September 11.
From 1968 to 1987, Grambling played 17 games at Yankee Stadium, accumulating a 13-3-1 record. Poor field conditions at Yankee Stadium after Grambling's game against Central State in 1987 forced the Urban League Classic out of Yankee Stadium, but Grambling continued their reign as kings, playing at the Meadowlands nine times from 1988-1999.
A new King of New York arrived as Hampton faced the Tigers five times. The Pirates took over the crown as the Big Apple's Black College Football Kings, playing in the New York Urban League Classic 16 times, winning 12 matchups. The Urban League Classic's final years would see Morgan State and Howard fight for the crown before the Classic ended with a whimper after the 2014 game.
Now, HBCUs want a piece of the Big Apple again as last year, Howard and Morehouse played at Giants Stadium in front of 30,042 fans. Even more surprising was the announcement of Hampton and Grambling's game at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, the home of the New York Red Bulls. Even Delaware State wants a piece of the New York City metro as they will visit Army, which is an hour and a Metro-North train ride away from Manhattan.
The big question is will Black College Football be revitalized in the Big Apple with these games? Grambling is no longer Eddie Robinson's Grambling or even Broderick Fobbs' Grambling as the Tigers are in transition in Hue Jackson's second year. Hampton has an uphill battle to fight in the CAA and even has another school in the NYC metro, Stony Brook, to compete with. Howard is on an upward trajectory after a 2022 MEAC co-championship, but they are still a year or two away from a Celebration Bowl breakthrough.
While Grambling has a rich history in New York, is it too long ago? Red Bull Arena does not have the prestige and familiarity with Tigers fans that Yankee Stadium does. Even MetLife Stadium seems like a more exciting venue for Grambling and Hampton fans. Both schools have a rich history in the City That Never Sleeps but will the fanbases and alumni care enough?
No matter what the result is on September 2nd, one thing is certain. New York City is again fertile ground for Black College Football. Grambling and Hampton will hope to relive the past on September 2nd and revitalize Black College Football in New York City.
***Mark Pollak's book, The Playing Grounds of College Football: A Comprehensive Directory, 1869-Today, aided my research immensely.