The NFL and the Reese’s Senior Bowl announced last week they will hold the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) Combine in Mobile, Ala. Select players from four HBCU conferences — CIAA, MEAC, SIAC and SWAC — and other HBCU institutions will be invited to participate in the event.
“Throughout NFL history, HBCU athletes have exemplified a standard of excellence both on and off the field,” NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said. “The HBCU Combine is part of honoring that legacy and making every effort to accelerate exposure of HBCU draft prospects to all NFL clubs. The game is better when all have the opportunity to compete.”
Of course, top players from HBCUs have gotten exposure for years. Hall of Famers such as Walter Payton (Jackson State) and Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) are HBCU alums that were first-round draft picks. But the HBCUs weren’t always on the NFL map.
Before the days of combines – heck, before the days of mass media and easily accessible game tape – NFL scouts relied more heavily on their relationships with college coaches. One of the best NFL execs when it came to nurturing relationships with college coaches was Gil Brandt, the Pro Football Hall of Fame exec who was the Dallas Cowboys VP of player personnel from 1960-1988.
Brandt discovered many under-the-radar prospects from HBCU schools thanks to his communication with those schools’ coaches. He was also a pioneer when it came to finding players who thrived in other sports or perhaps would benefit from a position switch.
Perhaps no pick exemplified Brandt’s eye for talent more than “Bullet” Bob Hayes. In 1963, Brandt visited with Florida A&M head coach Jake Gaither, who sang the praises of Hayes, a nondescript running back who also happened to be a world-class sprinter. After talking to Gaither, Brandt believed he could take a chance on converting Hayes to wide receiver in the pro ranks.
The Cowboys selected Hayes in the seventh round of the 1964 NFL draft as a futures pick. Ten months later, Hayes won a gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1964 Summer Olympics. Hayes then led the NFL in touchdown receptions in each of his first two NFL seasons on the way to a Hall of Fame career. Many observers believe the concept of zone coverage was first implemented in the NFL as a way to contain Hayes.
If there’s another hidden gem like Hayes out there, the HBCU Combine may help find him.