The Chicago Football Classic, a game between two historically Black colleges and universities, returned to Soldier Field for the first time since 2019, though the festivities leading up to it were the main event.
Started in 1997 by businessmen Larry Huggins, Everett Rand and Tim Rand to push kids to “achieve their personal best,” the weekend-long event is a celebration of academics and extracurriculars where thousands of dollars in scholarships are given out in addition to the reunion programming.
Saturday kicked off with a college and career fair at the stadium, followed by a battle of the bands that pitted area high schools against each other.
Amid the grill smoke and music was Mark Johnson, a liaison recruiter and graduate of Alcorn State University, who said the gathering is more than just a game or cookout.
“It’s acknowledging the rich legacy. It goes beyond the pageantry, the pomp and circumstance,” said Johnson, a Mississippi native.
The dual degree holder said it helps ensure the descendants of those who were part of the Great Migration — a period of the 20th century during which an estimated 6 million Black Southerners moved north to escape Jim Crow laws — get a chance to reconnect with HBCUs and the unique culture that comes with them.
“It’s that family environment,” Johnson said. “We’ve lost a lot of who we are… We want to ensure the continuation of that legacy.”
He said he was encouraged to see young people taking an interest in the culture he was aiming to preserve.
Johnson called his time at Alcorn State “formative” — and he doesn’t want young people to miss out on what he experienced.
“If it wasn’t for a lot of the lessons I learned there, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” Johnson said. “It’s my responsibility as an alum to make sure they are aware of that. It’s personal to me.”
Ashante Winters, a 19-year-old south suburban resident, was attending the event for the first time. She saw familiar faces in the crowd from high schools she used to mentor at.
“It’s good to see all the kids here,” Winters said. “That was me at one point.”
“It’s always great to see the bands out here,” added Delano Redman, a 24-year-old Chicago State University trumpet player. “They’re inspiring our youth to do something better for themselves than being outside on the streets.”
Bryant Redd, of Blue Island, said he was happy to return to the event with his family, which had become an annual tradition four years straight before COVID-19 nixed the festivities.
He was joined by his wife and 10- and 16-year-old sons, Bryant Jr. and Bryce, though his eldest daughter was off at North Carolina A&T. Redd said all three are musically inclined, so the battle of the bands was a hit ahead of the highly anticipated football game.
Redd agreed with Johnson, saying a lot of kids from the Chicago area didn’t know about HBCUs, which was part of why he wanted to keep bringing his kids — along with their shared love of the sport.
“They could see where they’re gonna go when they get older,” Redd said. “He might be playing for one of these teams one day.”