GREENSBORO — The NC A&T student section relocated itself from the stands to the running track behind one of the end zones at Aggie Stadium on Saturday, as the final seconds of its team’s rivalry victory against NC Central ticked off the clock.
When the game was finally over and the Aggies’ undefeated regular season was secured, the crowd rushed onto the field with a burst of excitement and joy.
It was a celebration fit for a Celebration.
Because even while the party surrounding them was still picking up steam, coach Rod Broadway and the newly crowned Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions were being extended an invitation to play in the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 16.
The game, in its third year of existence, matches the MEAC winner against the champion of the rival Southwestern Athletic Conference in a contest billed as a battle for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities national championship.
It’s an invitation the Aggies gleefully accepted, even though it meant giving up a shot at playing for the mainstream national championship sanctioned by the NCAA.
“Our conference is committed and we stand behind what our conference decided to do years ago,” Broadway said of the MEAC’s contractual agreement to waive its automatic FCS playoff bid and send its top team to Atlanta. “As a competitor, I think we can get into that (playoff) and make a little noise.
“But that’s not our path. We’re going to the Celebration Bowl and hopefully we can make some noise there.”
A&T will have to wait until Dec. 2 to find out who it will be playing at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That’s when the SWAC Championship Game between Alcorn State and either Grambling or Southern is played.
It will be the third Celebration Bowl, with A&T having beaten Alcorn 41-34 in the inaugural event in 2015 and NC Central dropping a 10-9 heartbreaker to Grambling on a missed extra point last December.
In a release announcing the creation of the bowl, MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas said that the game was designed to “increase the exposure on a national platform” of the nation’s two premier HBCU conferences.
To this point, it has turned out to be just that. And more.
Last year’s game, which was televised by ESPN, had an average viewership of more than 2.71 million and was seen by servicemen and servicewomen stationed in more than 140 countries around the world on the Armed Forces Network. Each conference will also bank more than $1 million for their participation.
The exposure and the money, however, are only part of the reason why the Celebration Bowl is so popular with those that have participated in it — especially when compared to the much-less festive playoff.
Broadway and his players have a unique perspective on the comparison, having played in both over the past two seasons.
The Aggies received an at-large bid to last year’s NCAA tournament after going 9-2 and finishing second to Central in the MEAC. They were sent on the road, where they suffered a first-round 39-10 setback to Richmond.
A&T is currently ranked seventh in the final regular season STATS FCS Top 25 and, according to the website’s senior editor Craig Haley, could legitimately have earned one of the eight first-round byes in this year’s playoff. If nothing else, it at least would have played its opening game at home.
But even that wouldn’t matter, as far as Broadway is concerned.
“If you take a poll from our guys that played in both,” he said, “I’d bet you 100 percent would select to go back to the Celebration Bowl.”
His players confirmed that opinion following their emotional victory in Saturday’s Aggie-Eagle Classic.
“It’s nice,” senior left tackle Brandon Parker said. “You get down there on Wednesday and you may have practice on Thursday. But other than that, you’re going to museums, you have banquets here and there, they feed you good. So it’s a good time for everybody.”
In other words, it feels like a reward rather than just another game — especially one with the pressure of a “win or go home” mentality attached to it.
And speaking of rewards.
“They’ve got some kind of suite where you get gifts,” Parker said. “I could use some more Beats (headphones), myself. It’s awesome.”
Although the Celebration Bowl actually is a celebration, the players involved haven’t lost sight of the stakes involved in the game itself — specifically, conference pride and the ability to call themselves a national champion.
“It’s for the HBCU,” linebacker Jeremy Taylor said. “That’s very special.”