Erik Moses escaped into his RFK Stadium office for a brief respite Saturday afternoon, but not before someone asked him about the cheerleaders, who wanted to know if they should perform on the grass or the dirt surrounding the field. "Sometimes I wonder why I got a law degree, when all I do is put out fires," said Moses, whose idea of a black college football game — the AT&T Nation's Football Classic — in Washington, D.C., was 60 minutes away from fruition.
The Pepsi MAX Fan Festival was going strong in one of the parking lots, complete with three soundstages fighting for attention. The "Block Party" stage was dominating, with a DJ spinning tunes that drew large crowds for the Wobble, Cupid Shuffle and other line dances. Earlier, MCs from Howard and Morehouse engaged in The Root's Classic Rap Battle, a freestyle competition. (One rapper was disqualified for breaking the rules by uttering a profanity, while the same profanity, coincidentally, was playing in a song at another stage.)
There was an area for hopscotch, where participants threw gigantic clothesline pins into the boxes, and an area for jump rope, where a local double Dutch team impressed with flips and splits. A representative from the NAACP sought signatures for a petition regarding the Troy Davis murder case. Vendors sold Howard and Morehouse paraphernalia while those schools' alumni associations hosted tailgate parties nearby under huge tents. Target set up clothing racks to hawk its wares, and three food trucks sought fans hungry for wraps, hot dogs or pizza.
Back in the office, Moses sat behind a cluttered desk and stole a glance at the flat-screen TV overhead, where his alma mater (North Carolina) was hosting Rutgers in a football game that drew 53,000 fans. Moses, senior vice president and managing partner of Events DC, the district's agency for sports and entertainment, was hoping about one-fourth as many would show up for the inaugural NFC.
"In our minds, 10,000 to 15,000 in our first year is probably right in the sweet spot," he said. "In four years, this game should be doing 25,000-plus. But we've done a lot of hotel rooms and lots of people are in town. The clubs were busy last night and they'll be busy tonight, too. Part of our job at Events DC is to make money for the city and the businesses in the city."
After a week in which the city received 15 inches of rain, the sun finally broke through and the weather held up. Advance sales are rarely great at games like the NFC, and the constant deluge dampened them even further. But lines at the ticket windows were 20 to 30 deep as game time neared and tailgaters sauntered toward the stadium. Plenty of empty seats were visible when Howard kicked off, but a crowd of 18,409 was announced before the game was over.
And the crowd was treated to quite a thriller in Howard's 30-27 victory. The Bison fell behind, 20-9, early in the third quarter before rallying behind Greg McGhee. The freshman quarterback threw a pair of touchdown passes and junior halfback Charles Brice added a 17-yard scoring run to give Howard a 30-20 lead with six minutes left in the game.
However, the Maroon Tigers kept matters interesting when junior defensive back Latavius Watts scooped up a Brice fumble and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown, closing the gap to 30-27 with 2:20 remaining. Though their onside kick attempt was unsuccessful, the Tigers got the ball back with 37 seconds left in the game and reached Howard's 25-yard line on a long pass from junior quarterback Byron Ingram to senior wide receiver Derrick Hector.
But Ingram was sacked by senior defensive end Corey Berry, and time expired about one second before Morehouse could attempt a final play. McGhee, who completed 22 of 29 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns, was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
It turned out that the game was as entertaining as the halftime show, which wasn't necessarily a given. Keisha Knight Pulliam, of The Cosby Show fame, and A.J. Calloway, from Extra, hosted the Battle of the Bands, making no attempt to hide their favoritism (Pulliam attended Spelman College, and Calloway attended Howard). They also gave shout-outs to their respective Greek-letter organizations, Delta Sigma Theta and Omega Psi Phi.
Howard's Showtime marching band, 159 strong, went first and performed for 10 minutes. The biggest rise came when a rotund clarinet player got his groove on near the end, busting a split just before the band exited the field. Morehouse's House of Funk marching band, with 110 members, represented well, too, getting the crowd going with a rendition of "Doing the Butt."
Musical appetites were whet during a pregame concert featuring Brand Nubian, Nice & Smooth and Biz Markie. D.C. native and Grammy-nominated singer Raheem DeVaughn sang the national anthem, while D.C. native and rising artist Alison Carney sang "Lift Every Voice." D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (a Howard grad) performed the ceremonial coin toss, with a friendly wager riding on the game. Gray would have treated Reed to lunch at D.C.'s Ben's Chili Bowl had Morehouse won, but instead, Reed will treat for lunch at Atlanta's the Varsity.
No word on what, if anything, the school presidents wagered. But it's a safe bet that both of their institutions came out ahead for the experience. President of Howard Sidney A. Ribeau and Morehouse President Robert M. Franklin made intellectual rigor part of the Classic weekend, putting together a daylong symposium entitled "Beyond the Stereotypes — Academics, Athletics, Character and Black Male Achievement," as well as an H.U. versus Morehouse student debate that drew about 1,500 people. The United Negro College Fund got involved, too, sponsoring a college showcase and recruitment fair at the D.C. Convention Center that attracted college-bound students and their parents from around the city.
"Dr. Franklin and Dr. Ribeau were very, very serious about ensuring that the academic part of this rivalry was highlighted," Moses said. "We threw it in and embraced it because we agreed with them that we should highlight that. But they put it all together."
From the symposium to the college fair to the Kickoff Rally featuring Sean "Diddy" Combs and Jermaine Dupri; from the debate to the networking receptions to the parties; from the fan festival to the game to the numerous celebrities in attendance — it all came together for the AT&T Nation's Football Classic.
"Sitting here now, it feels great," Moses said. "Seeing all the people makes it seem tangible. People are in town because of what we talked about three years ago and tried to bring to fruition. It was a game whose time had come and needed to happen."
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, lives in Washington, D.C., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.