In 2011, Howard University and Morehouse College, two historic HBCUs, agreed to meet in the first-ever Nation’s Football Classic at the once-revered RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The match was a reunion of sorts for a rivalry that began in the 1920s but went stagnant due to a lack of sponsorship — the last time the two teams had met was 1997.
The matches became more social events than game days — Howard solidly defeated Morehouse four years in a row, after all. This September’s Classic, with Hampton University, also an HBCU, replacing Morehouse, took on a similar role.
Hampton and Howard have their own long-standing rivalry, though Howard had won the last four meetings. (They dubbed the match the “Battle of the Real HU.”) Either way, football was the foremost focus for only a handful of people in attendance.
Current students and recent alumni gathered at a stage in the stadium’s shadow, watching rapper 2 Chainz perform medleys of his own songs and covers. Decades of alumni wandered around the perimeter of the tailgate area, chatting with old friends and joking with rivals. They wore shirts with phrases like “Howard Mom” or “The Real #HU.”
It was an ordinary football tailgate, catching the last kicks of summer and the beginning of another rejuvenated HBCU rivalry.
Stephanie Chapman, a 1991 Howard grad, had only a 20-mile drive to RFK from her home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. With her was a neighbor whose two children are Hampton students. They loved the rivalry — and the marching bands at halftime even more.
Football was the focus for Richard Aiyegoro, who was selling “Straight Outta Howard” T-shirts with a friend.
Aiyegoro, a D.C.-area native, graduated from Howard in the spring of 2015 and was a wide receiver and special teams player for the Bison. Though he grew up near RFK and is a lifelong Washington Redskins fan, he didn’t get a chance to visit the stadium until he was playing on the field himself.
“We’ve been beating Hampton for the last four years,” Aiyegoro joked. “I know my dudes are gonna get that win tonight.”
Hours later, inside the open-air stadium now primarily used for D.C. United soccer matches, the Bison and Pirates took to the field while fans trickled in to seats in the lower bowl.
The previous week, Howard had been blown out, 76–0, by Boston College. They were 0–2.
Hampton came in riding a 1–1 record. John Wall, point guard for the Washington Wizards, strolled around the sideline as the game wound through its first half.
Hampton’s last-second field goal extended their lead to 16–8 going into halftime, which, for many, was the main event.
As cheerleaders for each team filed onto the field, fans who’d been eating and socializing in the concourses filed back into their seats as the marching bands lined up to perform.
In red, white, and blue, Howard’s band — nicknamed “Showtime” — formed an eyeball-shaped formation in center field. The fight song blared toward fans in the home stands. The band mixed classic university anthems with popular songs.
Hampton’s band, following the home team’s crew, took the field and promptly arranged themselves into a big, blue, “HU” formation. As the band played for nearly 10 minutes, Hampton’s dance team, the Ebony Fire, performed at the front line. Nearing the end of the song, the dancers formed a line, picked up cardboard signs, and flipped them over to reveal letters spelling “EQUAL RIGHTS” down the line.
If halftime was a battle of spirit, Hampton stole the victory from the home crowd, far and away.
Hampton won, 37–19, to further their lead in the rivalry’s all-time record to 48–43–1. It was the 1,000th game in the history of Hampton football, and the Bison in blue remained on the field as the remaining Howard fans headed to exit.
Hampton was presented with a trophy shaped like the Washington Monument, branded with the Nation’s Classic logo. Now seven games into their season, Howard has yet to find a victory, and Hampton is floating soundly with a 4–4 record.
As the last fans wound their way out of RFK, Hampton’s band remained in stands in the lower bowl, playing a distinct and fitting melody for such an all-round victory: Kanye West’s “Heartless.”