By the time he and his victorious N.C. Central football team returned to North Carolina on Saturday night, Trei Oliver’s voice was just about gone. He’d lost most of it hours earlier, during the raucous aftermath of the Eagles’ 41-34 overtime victory against Jackson State in the Celebration Bowl.
The triumph delivered Central its fourth HBCU national championship in football, and first since 2006. It was the Eagles’ first, too, since becoming a Division I program in 2011. Fortunately for Oliver, his thumbs still worked just fine. He received about 320 congratulatory texts, he said after the team’s plane landed, and was making his way through all of them.
“I’ve been trying to respond to everybody’s well-wishes,” Oliver said, hoarsely, during a phone interview. “I’ve got about 60 left.”
For Oliver and his players, Saturday represented an appropriate coronation after one of the best seasons in school history. Exactly 100 years after its first football season, Central won 10 games for the third time. It won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which has been reeling in recent years amid the departures of long-standing members.
And that the Eagles’ Celebration Bowl victory came against Jackson State, in Deion Sanders’ final game there before he leaves to become the head coach at Colorado? Well, that made it even more satisfying.
“That made it so much sweeter,” Oliver said, “to send him on his way to Colorado or wherever else he’s going, ‘and-1.’ He’d been talking all this ‘and-0’ stuff, ‘and-0’” — referencing Jackson State’s 12-0 record entering the Celebration Bowl — “and they’re going to dominate. So he can take that ‘and-1’ with him to Boulder, Colorado.”
Indeed, Central’s victory spoiled Jackson State’s previously-perfect season, and a quest for a storybook ending in Sanders’ farewell. Sanders, who is nowadays perhaps better known by his self-appointed “Coach Prime” moniker, had become a national story leading into the Celebration Bowl. It was his final game as head coach of an HBCU, despite suggesting when he began the job in 2020 that God had sent him to Jackson State for a larger mission.
At the time, Sanders described the move as a “match made in heaven.” Becoming the head coach at Jackson State, he said, was “a God move.” Before Sanders’ arrival, the school, which has a rich football history and is the alma mater of Walter Payton, among other prominent players, hadn’t had a winning season since 2013. It hadn’t won the Southwestern Athletic Conference — the MEAC’s HBCU partner and rival — since 2007.
Sanders quickly reversed the Tigers’ fortunes. They won the SWAC in each of the past two seasons. He convinced some of the best high school prospects in the country to come play for him in Jackson, Mississippi. Among them was Travis Hunter, the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2022, and a freshman whose touchdown reception tied the Celebration Bowl as time expired in regulation.
Sanders could only watch, though, while the Eagles’ prevailed in overtime, and throughout a game in which Central again and again proved its mettle. The Eagles built a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and then recovered from a 21-17 halftime deficit. Davius Richard, Central’s junior quarterback and the MEAC Player of the Year, passed for 177 yards and a touchdown and ran for 97 yards and two more touchdowns.
The Eagles’ signature moment, though, came in overtime on a 19-yard run from Latrell “Mookie” Collier, whose stiff arm of a hapless Jackson State defender went viral moments after it happened. Collier’s run, which moved the Eagles’ to the Tigers’ 3-yard line, set up the winning touchdown.
“I really didn’t know it was as bad as people who saw said it was,” Collier, a junior, said by phone Saturday night. “And then I go on social media, and some of my teammates showed me and — and it was a lot worse,” he said as he began to laugh.
“But it was one of those things. I always practice the stiff arm and the opportunity came, and I just executed on it.”
In a way, the play was a metaphor. Collier not only stiff-armed Jackson State, but also its confidence-infused head coach — not to mention the notion that anyone should abandon an HBCU for so-called greener pastures. Collier recognized the greater significance of the stiff arm, and of Central’s victory.
“It’s showing people that HBCUs have the same exposure and opportunity” as higher-profile schools, Collier said after a game that was nationally-televised and inspired a large amount of social media chatter. “Regardless of what may be portrayed, just give HBCUs a chance. And I know that recruits won’t regret it.”
Collier’s stiff-arm was a play for the ages for the Eagles, who earlier this season beat their rival, North Carolina A&T, and then ended the season by beating Sanders and Jackson State. There’s symmetry in the victories. A&T left the MEAC in 2021, in a similar way to how Sanders is now leaving behind HBCU football.
The MEAC, in particular, has been besieged by departures in recent years: A&T, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman in 2021; Savannah State in 2019; Hampton in 2018. FAMU and Bethune-Cookman left to join the SWAC and Hampton the Colonial Athletic Association, where North Carolina A&T will begin play next season.
Now Sanders’ departure from Jackson State is another blow to HBCU football. Oliver, a North Carolina Central alum and a part of a family of Central alums, offered a defense of the health of HBCU football Saturday night, upon the Eagles’ return from Atlanta.
“HBCU football is alive and well,” he said. “If you were in that arena tonight, the energy in there was electrifying. It was a sellout. That was a national championship ballgame. You could just feel the energy in there. I don’t understand why anybody would not want to be a part of that.”
Sanders, for one, is leaving it behind after three seasons at Jackson State, and he’s likely to take several of his best players with him to Colorado — players, like Hunter, Sanders convinced to come to an HBCU to help him build something. After the Eagles’ victory Saturday, Oliver said there wasn’t much of an exchange with Sanders during their brief postgame handshake.
“Deion apparently didn’t want to have anything to do with me leading up to” the game, Oliver said. “He didn’t come to the (pregame) press conference. So, he wasn’t around at any events that I was at. I didn’t have any words for him and he didn’t have any words for me.
“We shook hands and kept it moving.”
On Saturday, Sanders’ opened his postgame press conference with something of an apology to Jackson State fans, for whom he said he had “much love.”
“Came up short once again,” he said, a year after the Tigers endured a 31-10 defeat against South Carolina State in the 2021 Celebration Bowl. “Don’t know what to say.”
For Central, meanwhile, the celebration was only beginning. The Eagles endured heartbreak in 2016, suffering a 10-9 defeat against Grambling State in the Celebration Bowl. This was Central’s first national championship in 16 years, and that it came as a two-touchdown underdog in Sanders’ final game at Jackson State meant that it was a victory for HBCU football, too.