Florida A&M defeats Howard in Celebration Bowl to win HBCU National Championship

In a stunning come-from-behind victory last week, Florida A&M University’s football team beat Howard University 30-26 to win the Cricket Celebration Bowl played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  As 41,000-plus witnessed the game in person, with hundreds of thousands more watching the contest on ABC or streaming on Watch ESPN, the FAMU Rattlers’ quarterback Jeremy Moussa threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to turn back the Howard Bison football squad.

By beating Howard, FAMU was crowned the 2023 HBCU National Champion.   Entering the classic game, FAMU (11-1) was the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champion, while Howard (6-5) topped the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).  Most college football experts predicted a competitive game between the two teams but felt Florida A&M would ultimately be victorious.

While statistically, the Rattlers outgained Howard in rushing yards 357 -187 and won the air war 289 – 106 in passing yards, the game could have easily gone the other way.  Nevertheless, FAMU would not be denied, becoming just the second National Champion from the SWAC to win the Celebration Bowl, with the Grambling State Tigers becoming the first in the conference in 2016.

However, Florida A&M’s head coach, Willie Simmons, said that he has been preparing his football team to excel in times of adversity.

“When we came here in 2018, we had a goal to build a championship culture,” Simmons told national media outlets after the game.  “We have our seven goals that we start every season with.  The sixth goal is to win the Celebration Bowl and capture the HBCU Championship.  Our seventh goal is to build a sustainable championship culture year to year.”

While winning the national championship is the goal every year, Simmons said he also wants his teams to build strong character on and off the field.

“There’s so many life lessons that we learn through this game,” Simmons said.  “You learn how to overcome adversity, pick yourself up when you’re down, and learn how to work together.  If you take those same things to the classroom and into the community, you’ll be successful in life.”

While the Celebration Bowl featured two of the best HBCU football squads in America, both schools’ marching bands – FAMU’s Marching 100 and Howard’s “Showtime” Band – didn’t disappoint as both music units electrified the stadium with on-the-field pageantry of precision marching, creative dancing, and powerful and commanding musicianship of instruments.

Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris, a Howard alum, attended the game wearing Howard gear.  She was spotted dancing in a luxury suite when her school’s marching band performed at halftime.  After the game, Harris said, “We didn’t win, but it was a good game.  FAMU did their thing.”

Both schools have done their thing in the area of performing arts for multiple decades.  Over the years,     Howard has produced such artists as the great Donald Byrd, Sean Combs, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, The Blackbyrds, Meshell Ndegeocello, Kenny Lattimore, and more.

FAMU has produced such performing artists as Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley, Common,                    K. Michelle, Anika Noni Rose, Darryl Tookes, Amir Windom, Kendra Foster, Will Packer, T’Keyah Crystal Keymah, Lin Roundtree, Rico Love, and more.

Regarding the Celebration Bowl, many Detroiters and other Michiganians with FAMU and Howard connections were thrilled to root for their favorite team.

“It was an exciting win,” said Wayne County Commission Chair Alisha Bell, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Florida A&M University.  “I am so proud to be a FAMU Rattler, but I am extra proud after FAMU won the HBCU championship game at the Celebration Bowl.”

Bell said she was amazed by the number of people watching the HBCU classic game in person.

“To have over 41,000 people at the game in Atlanta was awesome,” Bell told the Michigan Chronicle.  “That goes to show there’s a want and a need for people to see HBCU games.  And although we rival each other, everybody knows it’s one love when it comes to HBCUs and all the great people that Black colleges have produced in every sector of society.”

With the success in Atlanta, could an HBCU football game be played in Detroit in the coming years?  The city’s Black history shows between 2003 and 2007, the Detroit Football Classic, powered by The Ajamu Group, brought HBCU teams to the Motor City to compete at Ford Field.  Competing teams were FAMU vs. Alabama State, Howard vs. Alabama State, Jackson State vs. Hampton, and FAMU vs. Delaware State.

In 2020, the Detroit Football Classic was set to bring Tennessee State University and Southern University to Ford Field to play.  However, the game was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The game and the weekend were supposed to include tailgating parties, galas, exhibitions by both schools’ marching bands, an HBCU college fair, and other opportunities to take part in the HBCU experience.

To date, there hasn’t been any news announced of a future HBCU football classic game coming to the Motor City.

“It’s been maybe 16 or 17 years since we had an HBCU Classic football game played in Detroit,” said Bell.  “We definitely have to work on bringing one back to the city.  I would love to see that happen.”

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