A few weeks ago, the No. 1 football recruit in the class of 2019, Kayvon Thibodeaux, took an unofficial visit to a historical football powerhouse in Tallahassee, Florida.
The only thing is, it wasn’t Florida State.
It was Florida A&M, one of the premier historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).
And while Thibodeaux did eventually spend some time on FSU’s campus, the Seminoles weren’t the reason the California native made the cross-country trip.
“The moral of the trip was FAMU,” Thibodeaux told the Daily News. “I didn’t just take the trip to go see Florida State, and then just happened to be at FAMU. My whole plan was to go visit FAMU. Florida State was having a camp, so I just went over to the camp.”
For Thibodeaux, a 6-5, 220-pound defensive end, the visit was the first time he’d ever been on the campus of an HBCU. He says he has friends that attend Howard University in Washington D.C. and an uncle that went to Tuskegee University in Alabama. So for the 17-year-old who lives in a state without a single HBCU, this was his chance to experience a campus that he once thought would be like the one he would wind up attending.
“Before I became highly recruited, I always wanted to go to an HBCU. And being who I am now, it gives me an opportunity to,” Thibodeaux explained.
“I’m big on culture and paying homage,” he continued. “Even when I went on a visit to Alabama, I went by the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that was in the movie ‘Selma’. For me, I have a lot of friends that aren’t that highly recruited and might not be getting offers and then they go to a junior college. So why go to a junior college when you can go to an HBCU? I just feel like every high school African-American athlete should check out an HBCU.”
Thibodeaux’s message is one that many HBCU alums have pondered and discussed, including me, for decades. Because before integration, HBCU’s were athletic powerhouses. But soon after, larger predominately white institutions (PWIs) started to monopolize the playing field when it came to recruiting top college football and basketball prospects. They had the money, facilities, and TV deals that HBCUs couldn’t compete with.
However, HBCUs were still able to produce NFL talent, as two of the most famous members of the National Football Hall of Fame attended schools like Mississippi Valley State (Jerry Rice) and Texas Southern (Michael Strahan).
And in 1994, Alcorn State’s Steve “Air” McNair became arguably the most popular HBCU football player ever when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. In his senior year, McNair rushed for 904 yards and passed for 5,377 more, accumulating 56 total touchdowns. He would finish third that season in the Heisman race and went on to become the third overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. In the NFL, McNair was named MVP in 2003, was a 3-time Pro Bowler, and started Super Bowl XXXIV.
So as you can see, HBCU programs can produce when given the opportunity. Which is why Thibodeaux’s unofficial visit to FAMU was so important, even if the Rattlers aren’t listed in his top-5 schools which include the Seminoles, USC, Alabama, Florida, and Oregon.
“For him to make that move was huge, just to visit,” former FAMU quarterback Albert Chester told the Daily News.
According to Chester, there has always been a kinship between black players at FSU and FAMU, especially given that the schools are less than a mile apart. Chester played for the Rattlers from 2003 to 2007 and said that players from both schools used to get together and have unofficial workouts and play some 7-on-7 in the offseason.
“At one time both teams were perennial top-5 teams in their respective divisions,” Chester explained. “The relationship was always pretty solid and there was always a mutual respect. I’ve got nothing but love for those guys, and it was always mutual.”
But according to some, it appears that FSU benefits from having FAMU down the street, and not vice versa.
“I could see how someone could work that angle,” said Chester. “You have the premier black college in the world next to your school. But, I never went over to Florida State for anything but to use the library. Everything I needed I found on my campus. I never had to go to FSU for nothing.”
For instance, take this quote from a story on Gridiron Now, that discussed the recruiting relationship between the two schools.
“The relationship that FAMU athletics has played in helping grow FSU athletics has been traditionally one-sided. Ask any (former Seminole) and he will tell you that he has spent some time ‘across the tracks’. It’s been one of FSU’s de facto recruiting tools probably since (former head coach Bobby) Bowden was at the school, which is about the time that African-American players started coming to FSU in droves.”
Tallahassee’s Southside, where FAMU is essentially located, is basically where a majority of the people who look like the players live in Tallahassee. It’s always been, “look we have diversity in the city, just come over here!”
There’s also a quote from a 1994 edition of Sports Illustrated that highlights a quote from Bowden along the same narrative.
“So what is so great about Florida State? Among other things, having the coeds of Florida A&M, a traditionally black school, about two miles away. That holds out the prospect of a rich social life for black Seminole players. ‘It’s a great school, and we’re proud of the way we get along with them,’ Bowden says of A&M. ‘But to be honest, I didn’t realize how much it meant to our recruits.”
While Bowden may not have fully understood the value of having FAMU as a neighbor, he certainly benefitted from it. NCAA rules forbid schools to comment on recruits, which is why neither FSU or FAMU could comment on Thibodeaux’s unofficial visit when the Daily News reached out to them.
However, the fact that the best football player in the country wanted to visit the campus of a program that’s coming off a 3-8 season says something.
There are other things at play besides just football.
“Why not offer him?” said Chester when discussing how his alma mater and other HBCUs should start recruiting more top-tier athletes. “With a guy like that, he just didn’t get good overnight. I would offer somebody in the ninth grade, just to say that we put it on the table. Because you never know.”
According to a 2016 report by PBS, a third of HBCUs have seen spikes in freshmen enrollment. Last year, North Carolina A&T, the largest HBCU in America, had a record-breaking incoming class of 2,300. Other HBCUs like Kentucky State University, Spelman College, Elizabeth City State, and Alcorn have seen applications and enrollment go up, as well, perhaps due to who currently occupies the White House and the political and racial climate we’re currently living in.
HBCUs provide a safe space for black college students, and that includes student-athletes.
And while I’m sure Thibodeaux won’t shock the world by putting a FAMU hat on when he finally makes his college decision, his recent visit just proves a fact that myself and other HBCU alums have always known.