The annual “Real HU” battle between Hampton University and Howard University on Saturday again lived up to its expectations in being a well-attended event, drawing almost 17,000 people to Audi Field in Southwest D.C., and another 5,000 outside the stadium.
The event, billed as the “Truth and Service Classic,” is a battle on the gridiron between the two prominent historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). But there is much, much more to this rivalry than blocking, tackling or who has more points on the scoreboard.
It affords an opportunity for fans, students and alumni to gather in “friendly” competition.
The game had the usual down-to-the-wire finish, with the Hampton Pirates coming away with a 35-34 come-from-behind win over the disappointed Howard Bison.
We will get to the game later.
The two schools are about four hours apart, but Hampton has a large contingent of students and alumni from the DMV who look forward to the game each year. It does not matter whether they play in Chicago, New York, Hampton, Va., or D.C., they come out and support.
The atmosphere is like most classics or rivalries, the band competition, the trash-talking, the vending, tailgating and general excitement associated with an HBCU event.
“I had never been to this event, but I heard about it,” said Tee Webster, a freelance photographer. “You can tell that it is not just a football game. When I was outside getting my credentials, there were old and young who came together for this. There was a strong sense of love and pride that you could hear in the conversations.”
Amelia Watson is a senior at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who came down for a campus visit to Howard and took in the Classic. It was her first time at the event.
“From my perspective, I heard a lot about the rivalry when I was on campus on Friday so I thought it would be like the rivalries we have in high school,” said Watson. “It was a rivalry, but it was friendly. Everybody was together for something special whether you were for Hampton or Howard. I left there with the feeling that this is where I want to be for my college experience.”
The camaraderie stems from a collective pride in Black culture and HBCU identity that was felt throughout the stadium. Fans were seen wearing shirts that said “Black is Love” and “HBCUs are Black History.” Singer Étienne Lashley performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” referred to as the Black national anthem, shortly before kickoff.
“Since we’re HBCUs, we really feel that connection of being Black and having that brother- and sisterhood amongst each other,” said Ron Thomas, a third-generation Hampton alum who graduated in 2014.
In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, Hampton took some time to celebrate. Players jumped onto the bench and egged on their fans. They even briefly delighted as Howard’s fan section streamed toward the exits.
But then it was back to being friendly rivals, the two sides meeting at midfield for hugs and handshakes.
“Hasaan Hill, a junior at local Archbishop Carroll High School, was at the Classic with a group of students who did a tour of the ESPN production to learn the trade. It was also his first time.
“You could feel the rivalry throughout the stadium. Both schools wanted to win,” Hill told The Informer. “When you factor in the battle of the bands and how the alums and students and even some of the players from both schools dapping each other afterward, you realize that the culture is stronger than the rivalry.”
Howard University appeared to have the game in hand, leading 34-21 early in the fourth quarter but a costly special team mistake that led to one of their two scores in a five-minute span propelled Hampton University to their seventh straight win over the Bison.
“It hurts when you lose a game like that,” lamented Howard Head Coach Larry Scott in the post-game interview. “Those critical mistakes on the snap and punt, are the routine plays we have to make. We didn’t execute.”
The Bison offense was led by its senior Kasey Hawthorne, who performed a feat not seen in years, rushing for a touchdown, passing for one and catching another. Each of his scores came when his teams needed a score for separation from their rival.
After throwing his first touchdown as a Bison with almost 11 minutes in the third period, the multi-talented player from Sebring, Florida went down with an injury, was taken to the locker room and did not return. It seemed to have had an effect on the Bison offense.
“Too bad we didn’t have him in there in the end. His playmaking ability and versatility are important part of what we do. He is a very talented player. Not having him out there definitely had an impact. We missed him,” the coach said, explaining Hawthorne suffered a head injury from his touchdown pass early in the third quarter.
During the momentum change, the crowd got involved in the game. Sensing the chance for a comeback, Hampton began to change and get behind their team. That caused a response from a Howard faithful. To counter the energy from the Pirates, Howard Christian White walked down to the sidelines with his towel to exhort them to get more involved in the game.
The Pirates (2-1) responded to a Howard special teams’ miscue. On a fourth down punt attempt by the Bison, the ball was snapped over punter Aaron Bickerton’s head. He went back to retrieve the ball, but with the hard-charging Pirates bearing down on him near his goal line, Bickerton attempted to run but was stopped after a very short game. More importantly, it gave Hampton the short field at the Howard nine-yard line and they immediately capitalized to make the score 34-28 with still plenty of time on the clock.
With the momentum shift, Hampton put together a 63-yard drive in seven plays that resulted in a one-yard plunge by quarterback Chris Zellous. The ensuing conversion was good, giving them the first lead of the game.
Howard was still in decent shape with 3:03 left on the game clock. The Bison moved the ball, but Hampton sealed the deal with an interception of a tipped Williams pass attempt.
“Every time we play them, it comes down to this scenario,” said Scott. “But that’s what rivalry games are about. This is the third time we have played them since I have been here and each time it comes down to this. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth but kudos to them. They finished the game and we didn’t. For the next 365 days, they will have bragging rights.”
Howard came into the game as one of the top rushing teams in the Football Champion Subdivision (FCS), but Hampton held them to 116 yards while piling up 265 yards on the ground and four TDs.
Senior running back Ian Wheeler led the ground attack for the Bison with 66 yards on 11 carries. Jarrett Hunter contributed 62 on 20 carries. The Bison were playing their second straight game without their outstanding sophomore running back Eden James, out with a shoulder injury.
Howard graduate quarterback Quinton Williams ( who attended Upper Marlboro’s Dr. Henry A. Wise High School) had another efficient day for Howard, completing 19 of 38 for 273 yards and two touchdowns. His late-game interception was his first of the season and also the first turnover of the season for Howard.
“It all comes down to missed opportunities,” said Williams, who is having his best season. “We have to learn from this and get ready for the rest of the season.”