The East-West Shrine Bowl, the longest-running all-star game in college football, is partnering with Draft HBCU to help promote NFL draft prospects from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It’s a year-round commitment that seeks to identify talent, overcome inequality of opportunity, and ultimately shine a light on both prospects and programs that haven’t received the level of respect that their historical success deserves.
Shrine Bowl and Draft HBCU partnership to promote prospects and programs
There’s a mantra that it doesn’t matter where you play. If you can play, they’ll find you. All-star games like the East-West Shrine Bowl have played an important role in enforcing that mantra. They’ve been able to shine a light on smaller-school prospects from the FCS ranks and beyond, with an ever-increasing number seemingly making their way to the NFL.
Last April, 20 FCS prospects were selected, including two first-rounders. To begin the 2022 NFL season, 123 former FCS players were on initial 53-man rosters.
Yet, of those non-FBS prospects, just four players were drafted from HBCUs in the 2022 NFL Draft. While it’s an uptick on the zero draftees in 2021, it’s still a tiny drop in the ocean and one of many indicators as to the issues facing players from HBCUs. A more staggering statistic is that of the 2,880 players on NFL rosters at the start of preseason, just 33 came from an HBCU.
Despite the first-ever HBCU Combine held in January 2022, there were just four prospects from those programs invited to Indianapolis for the 2022 NFL Combine. It’s not enough to just shine a light on HBCU prospects and schools for one-off events. Raising awareness and creating opportunities is a year-round, multi-year, consistent, and continuous process. This is where the partnership between the Shrine Bowl and Draft HBCU comes to the fore.
Historical lack of awareness and appreciation
“Part of the issue that HBCU schools unfairly have had over the last decade, in my opinion, is a lack of awareness and appreciation for those programs, for those schools,” Shrine Bowl Director Eric Galko told Pro Football Network. “When I took over the Shrine Bowl, there was a list of 10 things that I wanted to do, and HBCUs were right up there.”
Galko has been around HBCU prospects and programs as the former director of an HBCU-based all-star game and witnessed firsthand how handcuffed they were by a lack of exposure, despite having a high level of playing talent and coaching staff.
He’s spent time around the blossoming HBCU program, Jackson State, where leading figures such as Deion Sanders and Otis Riley intimated that while game-week exposure was great, providing players, coaching staffs, and scouts with year-round promotion and opportunities is key to ensuring HBCU elevation and continuous growth.
The partnership with Draft HBCU helps the Shrine Bowl to deliver that year-round exposure.
“Their goal is to promote all the players on the HBCU side that have NFL aspirations, that have NFL talent,” Galko said of the partnership. “We want to highlight HBCU players every week. We want to work with Draft HBCU to promote HBCU schools and athletes all year round besides just our invite process or game week. They do a really great job, they’re focused. We’re going to do as much as possible at the HBCU level to make sure people are aware of the talent at these programs and Draft HBCU fits in pretty well there.”
Who is Draft HBCU?
While the Draft HBCU platform — like the athletes and programs they represent — may not be well-known to mainstream media or casual college football and NFL draft fans, they’ve been working diligently to evaluate the players that deserve next-level opportunities while highlighting the history and heritage of black college sports.
Their goal is simple. The platform exists to bridge the gap between HBCU schools and the NFL while helping the athletes they evaluate to understand what it takes to get to the next level. Forming an alliance of awareness with the Shrine Bowl helps to reach those goals for their players and programs.
“The partnership of course means exposure on the forefront,” Draft HBCU Football Evaluator Maliik Obee explains. “The partnership allows us to not only influence the potential HBCU inclusion in the Shrine Bowl but to motivate our players to thrive like those before them.
“It gives players a goal to reach for. Last year, the Shrine Bowl had four HBCU participants and all four are currently on an NFL roster. It’s a great opportunity for us to set precedent that the HBCU players to come through the Shrine Bowl have real potential to play on Sundays for a long time.”
It’s a sentiment that is echoed by Galko when discussing the long-term goal of partnering the longest-running college all-star game with the Draft HBCU platform.
“We want to be aggressive in doing the opposite of what I think has happened in the last 10 years to make sure we’re not missing anyone. For us, we want to make sure that an HBCU player is thinking that ‘Hey, if I just do my job, I know that the Shrine Bowl is going to be watching.’ I think Draft HBCU has put more guys our way than we initially had.”
Shrine Bowl HBCU Players of the Week
What does this year-round exposure look like? The partnership kicked off this last weekend with Shrine Bowl HBCU Players of the Week. “Hopefully our POTW collaboration inspires players to reach their potential & up their stock,” Obee told Pro Football Network.
Grambling State running back Maurice Washington earned offensive honors after rushing for 95 yards and two scores on just five carries against Northwestern State. Meanwhile, Mississippi Valley State’s Ronnie Thomas was named the HBCU Defensive Player of the Week. The 6’0″, 250-pound defensive lineman put on a show against Austin Peay, tallying 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble.
There will also be initiatives throughout the season, such as scouting fellowships and the highlighting of HBCU invitees when the Shrine Bowl invitation process kicks into gear within the next two months. Everything is designed to raise awareness of the prospects with the knock-on impact of elevating the profile of HBCUs, ultimately getting to a moment in time where there is an appreciation and respect for the programs themselves.
“We want to see HBCUs get the respect they deserve”
“The more HBCU talent spread across the various pro leagues, the more players, and just students, in general, will value their institutions,” Obee reiterates. “I’ve sat in the stands for Pro Days when there were five scouts, and times when there were one. Instead of complaining about opportunity, we look to help create more.
“For me, creating a platform where dedicated individuals can become the next voices of black college sports and get the respect and attention of the general football world and beyond, that’s one of my personal goals. HBCU football or sports overall isn’t cliche — as the Hall of Fame numbers confirm. We want to see HBCUs get the respect deserved.”
On the subject of long-term elevation, Galko points to Jackson State as a “tentpole for what HBCU universities will be” while asserting that “in three to four years, it’ll be top talent going to HBCUs. I feel confident in that.”
For now, Galko, the Shrine Bowl, and Draft HBCU are focused on doing all they can to elevate the profile of HBCU prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft class and ensuring that when the annual all-star game kicks off on Feb. 2, 2023, the history and heritage of HBCUs is reflected within it.
“I want to have some of what makes HBCUs great as part of the event,” Galko concludes while admitting there are logistical issues to getting something like Southern’s Human Jukebox to Las Vegas. “I’d love to have some HBCU flair during the Shrine Bowl game itself. That’s important.”