ATLANTA – As the final 10 seconds ticked off the clock, North Carolina Central football coach Trei Oliver dodged a celebratory Gatorade bath from three of his players.
After the final whistle blew and 0:00 lit up on the scoreboard inside Center Parc Stadium on Saturday night, Oliver and his players made their way to the end zone as the school’s marching band played and grooved to its version of Cameo’s “Talkin’ Out The Side Of Your Neck” in the bleachers.
Below the band, on the field in a huddle, Oliver—who had led his team to its first MEAC/SWAC Challenge victory in school history amid a precarious MEAC landscape—was full of excitement.
“Yessir, yessir, yessir, let’s go,” Oliver told his players as he shook their hands and doled out hugs following N.C. Central’s 23-14 season-opening victory against Alcorn State.
Eagles wide receiver Noah Ellison smiled and broke out the popular “Get Griddy” dance.
The celebration was well deserved. The last time N.C. Central graced the gridiron for a game came 644 days ago, at the end of a 4-8 campaign in 2019. The Eagles entered Saturday as 15-point underdogs to Alcorn State, the 2019 SWAC champion and 2021 preseason favorite to win the SWAC West. But Oliver and his players made it clear that N.C. Central was a new team by earning the first victory against Alcorn in school history.
Prior to Saturday’s showdown, fans and students from both schools—along with high school students from the Atlanta area, alums from other HBCU institutions and members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council celebrated the epitome of HBCU culture on ESPN’s College GameDay.
Fans danced as the bands of both schools, joined by hip hop trio Migos, brought electrifying energy to the Atlanta streets.
The event marked not only the start to the college football season but also the beginning of a journey that starts in Atlanta with the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in August and culminates in December with the Celebration Bowl, the battle between the conference champions of the SWAC and the MEAC.
One local artist, George F. Baker III, depicted the beauty and tradition of both conferences through a majestic mural highlighting both schools and the culture of HBCU sports.
Baker finished the design of the mural on Wednesday and painted it the next day before adding the finishing touches on Saturday, right in the midst of the HBCU culture unfolding on the streets of Atlanta.
“It’s nothing like being able to capture the culture and tradition of HBCUs,” Baker said. “That was my goal for this mural, to celebrate the culture of all HBCUs.”
Derek Horne, the athletic director at Alcorn State, said the big stage not only helps his school but all HBCUs across the country.
“We know we are relevant,” Horne told Sports Illustrated. “It shows our relevance that we have a product that can be seen nationally and that we are worth the dollar and the investment… not only in what we do in our athletic programs but that we also shape great men and women.