In what can be seen a prime recruiting target for high school football players from the inner city of St. Louis, the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation will resume hosting a black college football showcase game on Saturday afternoon at the Edward Jones Dome.
The Tennessee State University Tigers, a first-time participant in the event, will take on the Central State University Marauders out of Ohio in the 20th anniversary of the game.
In the early years of the showcase, the contest was played outdoors in the old Busch Memorial Stadium and featured such historically black programs as Alcorn State (Miss) and Howard University, with future National Football League quarterbacks as such as Steve "Air" McNair of Alcorn, who went on to lead the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl in which they lost to the St. Louis Rams.
From a local Public High League perspective of late, the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions, who have been the most frequent Gateway Classic participants have had many local standouts in the starting lineups, including wide receiver Raymond Webber from the Career Academy Phoenix and linebacker Charlie Bass from the Sumner Bulldogs programs.
But interestingly enough, the biggest local name on field in Saturday's matchup will be the first-year coach of the Marauders, E. J. Junior. For fans, or followers, of the former St. Louis Cardinals NFL franchise (long since known as the Arizona Cardinals), Junior was a Pro Bowl linebacker on a team annually deficient on defense. He was a Pro Bowl selection in both 1984 and 1985 of a 13-year NFL career, which also included stints with the Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks.
Before assuming the head coaching reins at Central State (in Wilberforce, Ohio), Junior coached for several years as an NFL assistant coach with the Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, respectively, before coaching on the collegiate level at Southwest Baptist in Texas in recent years.
But Junior's Gateway Classic appearance will mark his return to St. Louis as a head coach on any level. During his days with the Big Red, as the old Cardinals were known, they played their home games at Busch Stadium well before the Dome was constructed. Although Central State has only two St. Louis-area players in defensive backs Deandre Williams and Joseph Blount, perhaps the best-known person associated with athletics from either team is the Marauders athletic director and director of student wellness, Kellen Winslow, the NFL Hall of Fame tight end from the San Diego Chargers and a Mizzou grad and East St. Louis native. Upon introducing as the new coach, Winslow noted that Junior embodies what the school needed as a coach and positive role model for the student-athletes.
"He also brings strong leadership, knowledge of the game and excellent organizational skills," said Winslow in a prepared statement. "We are excited to have E.J. and his wife Yolanda join the CSU Family."
Although Central State's football program has been struggling for some time and is 0-3, the Marauders do have a history of producing NFL players, including former Pro Bowl linemen Orlando Brown and Erik Williams.
Meanwhile Tenn. State, which is coached by Ron Reed, a Texas native with roots there as well, has no current local players on the squad but will likely garner many recruits locally by virtue of showcasing its program here. Like Central State, the Tigers have produced notable NFL talent such as current star defensive back Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie with the Denver Broncos, former Pro Bowl defensive ends Richard Dent of the Chicago Bears and Ed "Too Tall" Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, among a litany of others. As it turns out, the best defender on this year's Tigers team is also a defensive end: 6-foot, 280-pound junior Samquan Evans, who was recently named Ohio Valley Conference defensive player of the week after recording eight solo tackles, two tackles for losses and a sack and a half in a game. Oprah Winfrey heads the list of famous Tenn. State alums away from the sports field.
To that end, the Gateway Classic Sports Foundation's objective has long been to raise money from the game and other revenue-generating events to raise scholarship funds for high school students. To date the foundation has awarded $2.9 million to students over the years. But while the annual game itself has been the biggest revenue-producer for the Foundation, it is merely the main event, as it were, for Gateway Classic weekend.
On Friday from noon to 5 p.m. there will be a fish fry and street festival outside the Edward Jones Dome, to be subsequently followed by a pep rally for both schools. Then on Saturday morning starting at 10 a,m, there will be the Pepsi Gateway Classic Parade, from Martin Luther King Drive to Washington Avenue to Broadway. Local high school bands as well as bands from the participating schools will perform.
Of course no mention of a black college football classic would be complete with acknowledging that sometimes the pre-game, half-time and post-game entertainment by the schools' bands generates more crowd frenzy than the game action. Indeed, the Battle of the Bands showcase at intermission is a staple of the black college football experience. Small wonder for the first time this year there will be a "Day Party" two hours before the 2 p.m. kickoff whereby all game ticket holders are invited to show up and show their spirit.
The Gateway Classic was founded by the late Earl Wilson Jr. who ran the foundation until his death a few years ago when his son Rich Gray, one of the pioneers of all-sports radio, took the reins before passing it along to his daughter Dawn Gray-Fueller, who is chief operating officer in charge of marketing strategy, business operations, finance and sales is a former star basketball player at Cardinal Ritter College Prep. For additional information on the full array of events transpiring during Gateway Classic Weekend or to inquire about donating to the foundation, please call 314-621-1994.