The plethora of jerseys, hats, scarfs, coats, flags, both big and small, went way past representing the two schools playing in this year’s Celebration Bowl. The annual Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) title game between the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference is one of Atlanta’s biggest sporting events and brings out fans of many different HBCU programs.

North Carolina Central junior quarterback Davius Richard scores a touchdown during the first quarter of the 2022 Celebration Bowl on Saturday, December 17, 2022 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

The Atlanta Voice witnessed fans at the Coca-Cola Fan Experience outside the stadium wearing gear from so many HBCUs that it was hard to keep track of, but we still tried. Here’s a list: Alabama A&M, Alabama State University, Alcorn State University, Bethune-Cookman University, Florida A&M University, Grambling University, Morgan State University, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College, Norfolk State University, North Carolina A&T, Southern University, Spelman College and Winston Salem State University.

None of the above schools were involved in Saturday’s game with many never having played in a Celebration Bowl or even currently having athletic programs at all (Morris Brown, Spelman). Yet the game continues to bring HBCU alums, students and supporters to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the game, pregame and post-game every year. The Celebration Bowl is just that, a celebration.

Jackson State redshirt junior tight end DJ Stevens catches a touchdown pass in the first quarter of the 2022 Celebration Bowl on Saturday, December 17, 2022 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

The Jackson State University and North Carolina Central University football programs and their supporters were in town Saturday afternoon and the game lived up to all the pre-game hype.

The North Carolina Central Eagles won the game in overtime 41-34 in front of a Celebration Bowl record 49,670 fans. The Jackson State Tigers, previously undefeated at 12-0 coming into the game, made a consecutive trip to the Celebration Bowl, losing a second in the row in the process. Last year the Tigers lost to South Carolina State University in front of a then record 48,653 fans.

A pair of fans pose with the Celebration Bowl trophy at the Coca-Cola Fan Experience Saturday, December 17, 2022. Photo by Donnell Suggs/The Atlanta Voice

The game within the game is the celebration (Editor’s Note: pun intended) of HBCU culture however. The stands were nearly filled (The SEC championship game, for example, saw 74,810 fans attend this year’s game) with fans of all ages, including an adolescent child no older than 4 or 5 years old dressed in a tigers costume. HBCU pride spans generations.

After the game during the post-game press conference Tigers graduate student and all-conference linebacker Aubrey Miller addressed future HBCU football recruits and left the feeling that his experience at Jackson State was a life-changing experience. “To all you recruits and all you players, come home,” he said. “If we can do it, y’all can do it. Whether they like it or not, we need to keep rising with this. Your talent needs to come home.”

“Overall it’s just great that HBCU’s are getting this attention,” said Jackson State sophomore quarterback and SWAC Offensive Player of the Year Shedeur Sanders.

The Celebration Bowl is the biggest stage for HBCU football and remains a celebration for one and all.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...