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Eagle-Aggie or Aggie-Eagle: The battle for MEAC supremacy

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Live from the temporary capital of the HBCU football universe.

NCCU players and fans celebrate before their rivalry game with NC A&T. Johnny Lee Varina for SB Nation

The bands are loud. It’s Senior Day for the home team, and the players cannot suppress their smiles, cannot avoid breaking character when they get their framed uniforms before the game. The teams facing off are separated by an hour, at most, on I-40 and feature stars from the same high schools: Charlotte Vance, Greensboro Grimsley, Durham Hillside, etc.

This event is college football’s platonic ideal. This is what all of college football aspires to be. You could be anywhere in the United States right now, but you’re in central North Carolina, a little more than an hour west of I-95 and smack in the middle of the Research Triangle.

And if you forget where you are, the beat brings you back.

Yessir. pic.twitter.com/LIcbbpWroH

— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) November 19, 2016

This is Durham, N.C. This is O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, the temporary capital of the HBCU football universe. This is North Carolina A&T State vs. North Carolina Central. This is the Aggie-Eagle Rivalry — or the Eagle-Aggie Rivalry. Depends on whom you’re talking to.

The NC A&T band plays in front of Central fans at halftime.
The NC A&T band plays in front of Central fans at halftime.
Johnny Lee Varina for SB Nation

"It was in the fourth quarter," Ronald Gantt says. "We still haven't figured out how he even got onto the field!"

An NCCU alum, Gantt was meant to be a part of this rivalry, but there was plenty of reason to assume he might go the other way. A graduate of Greensboro's Dudley High School, he grew up half a mile from A&T's campus and moved back into his family home about 13 years ago. But he wanted to leave town for college.

Gantt’s brother Jerome played football at NCCU before spending time in the pros — a picture of him hangs inside the Eagles’ basketball gym — and when Ronald was choosing between NCCU and Virginia State, Central offered him more of a scholarship. It was fate to follow his brother.

He’s talking about one of the more colorful moments in the history of A&T-NCCU. A guy drove his car onto the field in the fourth quarter of what was eventually a 29-18 Central win. He parked his car, started shaking hands and high-fiving Central players, then drove off into the horizon. Depending on whom you ask, it seems the car has gotten bigger through the years. It was a Volvo. It was a hearse. One day it will be an RV.

This happened at Wallace Wade Stadium, on Duke’s campus, on the other side of Durham. They played a series at Raleigh a while back, too. For now, they’re back to home-and-homes.

In a way, this has backfired this year. Both teams are unbeaten in MEAC play and are ranked in the FCS top 25 — A&T is 9-1 and ninth, Central 8-2 and 24th. They have lost only to FBS opponents: A&T beat Kent State but lost to Tulsa, while Central lost to Duke and WMU.

The winner wins the MEAC outright and gets an invitation to the second annual Celebration Bowl. They could sell a lot more than the 10,000 tickets you can sell for O’Kelly-Riddick.

To compensate and accommodate overflow, however, NCCU has basically decided to throw a party. The school has set up seating and a large-screen TV next door in the track stadium. There’s a bounce house. Lord knows there’s tailgating. And a number of people will watch the game through the fence that keeps non-ticket-holders out. The stadium may hold 10K, but a lot more than 10K are in, or nearly in, attendance.

A&T’s status as one of the original land grants and the home of one of the country’s most famous antisegregation protests, plus its longer history at the FCS level, has defined this rivalry in terms known to any sports fan: They’re So Full of Themselves vs. They’re Not Really Our Rival.

A&T was part of the original group of MEAC schools that moved up to play in the new Division 1-AA in the late 1970s, while NCCU stayed behind until finally moving up a decade ago.

The schools continued to play almost every year. That generally constitutes a rivalry, yes? But I ran into obstacles when pitching this piece to various A&T offices, and I was finally told why after a while. To paraphrase: We don’t understand the premise of an A&T-Central rivalry piece because there is no A&T-Central rivalry.

This gorgeously petty commitment to capital-R rivalry is reflective of North Carolina itself. It is a state full of beauty, laid-back attitudes, and a commitment to passive aggression.

NC A&T's Tarik Cohen looks out at the football field.
Tarik Cohen’s final rivalry game was frustrating.
Johnny Lee Varina for SB Nation

Historically black colleges and universities — HBCUs — create opportunities for those the system previously would have allowed to slip through cracks. It serves the same function in athletics.

Tarik Cohen, A&T’s star running back, is listed at 5’6, 179 pounds. That kept the Bunn (N.C.) product off of recruiting boards before he even had a chance to put himself on them. He got an offer from A&T’s Rod Broadway, but according to an interview in The Undefeated, even Broadway underestimated him, professing to picture him as a special teams and third-downs guy.

Cohen thought he could do more, and it didn’t take him long to prove it. He has rushed for 5,549 yards and 56 touchdowns in four years. He has the low center of gravity of a bowling-ball-style back, only he has a track star’s fifth gear.

As he approaches NFL Combine season, he both accepts and rejects an obvious comparison.

"I think people just compare me to Darren Sproles because of our size. He’s really quick, but I think I’m faster than he is." He might be right — Sproles is wobbling ball, a shake weight, impossible to grab onto. Cohen’s burst might actually top the Kansas State product’s.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he dislikes the comparison. "He’s been an all-pro, and he’s had a long career," he rightfully notes. "That’s what I want."

Broadway’s own doubts about Cohen’s abilities didn’t dissuade the back from throwing himself into the A&T experience. "It was the family atmosphere," he quickly says when asked what drew him in. "I feel like it’s a big family union. That, and GHOE — the Greatest Homecoming on Earth."

HBCUs don’t throw themselves halfway into a party.

MEAC trophy
Central’s win gave the Eagles the outright MEAC title.
Johnny Lee Varina for SB Nation

"I’m going to tell you up front," John Grant warns me. "I’m neutral."

I’m pretty sure I believe him when he says that. He’s the executive director of the Celebration Bowl, and it’s his job to be Switzerland, but you never know. The A&T alum might have couple of urges of favoritism popping up now and then.

Regardless, he’s excited to be in Durham, and not only because it’s A&T-Central. He is here to issue a formal bowl invitation to Saturday’s winner.

HBCUs don’t throw themselves halfway into a party.

The Celebration Bowl was a rousing success in its 2015 debut, drawing 35,528 to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome and leading off bowl season with a classic. There was apprehension when the SWAC and MEAC signed on to send their champions to a bowl game instead of making them eligible for the FCS playoffs. But that hesitancy seemed to fade after the game itself.

"I came on September 1 [2015], and we had 109 days to do this," he says. "Going around and visiting schools and alumni, talking about that game, it was kind of a wait-and-see even talking to sponsors and companies about supporting this game. But without question, once the event took place, people got a chance to see, ‘Wow, we have something here.’"

Young A&T fans watch from the south end zone.
Young A&T fans watch from the south end zone.
Johnny Lee Varina for SB Nation

"All the years I was an assistant coach, we’d go to all these places to play these teams," says Broadway, the A&T head coach. "We’d go to the hotel to the stadium to the airport. We only experienced football. I want my guys to go to DC to play Howard and go to the national monuments. Go to Savannah State and go to the civil rights museum. Let them see the country and see how we were brought up."

Knowing your history is one thing. In 2016, Broadway has felt more of a need to talk about race in the present tense, too. It’s been a hell of a year in North Carolina. The state was already dealing with the tension and fiscal ramifications of the disastrous House Bill 2 becoming law when a man named Keith Lamont Scott was killed by a Charlotte police officer, sparking days of unrest and protest. The unrest ended publicly, but tensions still remain after significant voter disenfranchisement efforts and an increasingly messy gubernatorial race.

"It’s a sad situation when you’ve got to call a team meeting and talk to them about how to react if they get pulled over by the police, how to react in certain situations," Broadway tells me. He says he’s unsure what to tell them anymore, though. "We tell them to cooperate and put their hands in the air, but you put your hands in the air and you might still get shot!"

"Football is a direct carryover to life," says NCCU head coach Jerry Mack. "We all tell them about controlling what they can control. If you want to see a change, if you want to make a difference, you have to do things that are appropriate to make that change and make that difference."

That’s easier in some years than others, but Mack has put trust in both his players and his community. He brings in people from campus, the police department, and local government to talk about relevant issues.

"Throughout the season, we try to address certain things as they come up," Mack says. "Then we try to give them basically freedom of speech. They have to make up their own mind." Players from both A&T and Central were active on social media during the Charlotte protests, but in the coaches’ estimation, nothing went too far. "We haven’t had any issues," Mack says.

A&T and Central fans talk to one another in the stands.
As with so many college rivalries, A&T-Central pits neighbors against neighbors.
Johnny Lee Varina for SB Nation

"One thing you don’t have to do: You don’t have to get them up for the game," Mack tells me from his office a little more than 24 hours before kickoff. NCCU’s head coach only recently turned 36, but he’s established a heck of a track record. He just won the 23rd game of his career, passing the 22 wins Broadway had at A&T in the same time period.

"I think everybody’s head’s in the right place — not only the players and coaches, but the equipment managers, the trainers," Mack says. "Everybody’s putting their best foot forward."

Indeed, they all are. From almost the opening kickoff, Central is the team playing loose, confident football. A&T seems uptight, bearing the weight of back-to-back losses in the series. NCCU drives to the Aggie 4 on its opening possession, but quarterback Malcolm Bell throws an interception; it only delays the inevitable. Dorrel McClain opens the scoring with a 15-yard burst off right guard, then Bell rushes 41 yards to make the score 14-0 at half.

Quarterback play is huge. A&T is without starter Lamar Raynard for the second straight game, and fifth-year senior backup Oluwafemi Bamiro struggles, completing just 12 of 33 passes with two picks.

Early in the second half, Khalil Stinson, one of NCCU’s self-professed Quick 6 Boys, makes a leaping, one-handed touchdown catch in the right corner of the end zone, and the rout is on. The Eagles go up 35-7 early in the fourth quarter and cruise, 42-21.

Cohen is repeatedly bottled up. The senior, who rushed for 295 yards in the inaugural Celebration Bowl and combined 133 rushing yards with 125 receiving yards in an upset of Kent State in September, gains just 88 yards in 25 touches.

Toward the end of the game, Ludacris plays over the loudspeaker — a nod to Atlanta — and Mack gets the Gatorade bath. Then comes the Celebration Bowl invitation from Grant. Now Central fans have to worry about him being too successful and getting stolen away by a school higher up the totem pole. But that’s a worry for another time.

A&T, meanwhile, finds out on Sunday that it will play Richmond in the FCS playoffs. It would have been a shame if thiswere Cohen’s final time in the blue and gold.

"When I first got here, I hadn’t proved anything," Mack told me on Friday. "Coach Broadway is probably a future hall-of-famer. He did a great job here, and his legacy is set here and also at other places. I was just another coach coming in."

But then he sat up in his office chair a bit. "Now, over the last couple of years, we’ve been in position to split the [MEAC] championships, and the comparisons [between them] have increased. Being in the third year with a chance at an outright championship…" He paused and grinned. "It’s going to be interesting on Saturday."

It was.

NCCU stadium is packed with fans to its 10,000 person capacity.
NCCU’s stadium holds 10,000. There were more than 10,000 in attendance.
Johnny Lee Varina for SB Nation

At a restaurant near the Raleigh-Durham airport on Saturday night, I end up chatting with a man who says he played football for NCCU for a couple of years in the 1980s. He’s thrown when I say that a) I’m a college football writer, and b) I was at A&T-NCCU earlier that day. They’re not things that tend to go together.

That’s a damn shame. There are stories to be told here, and there’s a party to throw. And it doesn’t matter what color you are — you’re invited. As he puts it, "Fun is fun, man. It doesn’t matter what color you are. Fun is fun."

Gantt is reliving some more classic moments in the rivalry. (And yes, since Central won, A&T can’t object to calling it that.) There was the game in 1972 at Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium, the last game of his senior year. NCCU and A&T both came in at 8-1, and the winner would claim the CIAA title. NCCU, 9-7.

There was the game in 2004, when Broadway's Eagles "lost on a bad call by the referees. We had the ball, a little over a minute to go. We just needed to take a knee. The guy over center slapped the ball away as it got snapped. Gave them an extra timeout, too!" A&T kicked a last-second field goal and won, 16-15. "But they were MEAC officials, of course. That was what was going to happen."

"A&T people are known for running off at the mouth," he also tells me. But Lord knows he has bragging rights at the moment.

"We’re not rivals." "Bad refs." "They were scared." "Huffy opposing fans." This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

This country might be more divided right now than it has been in quite a while. But this conversation could be taking place in rural Oklahoma or southern Ohio, Louisiana or California.

We all speak sports. We’re all more alike than we care to realize. Some of us have more fun, though.