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Chicago Football Classic is growing in popularity for blacks

Central State University's Sains Sains returns kickoff during his teams game against Morehouse College during second half their game Saturday

Central State University's Sains Sains returns a kickoff during his teams game against Morehouse College during the second half of their game Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field. The game was the 16th Annual Chicago Football Classic which features two historically black college football teams. | Michael R. Schmidt-For Sun-Times Media ORG XMIT: CST1309212036214126

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Updated: November 7, 2013 6:38AM

In 1997, three of Chicago’s prominent businessmen came up with an event that has become one of the city’s most popular.

Every year, the mayor, elected officials, business leaders, educators, socialites, and thousands of everyday folks flock to Soldier Field for the Chicago Football Classic.

Larry Huggins, president of Riteway Construction, and Timothy and Everett Rand, co-owners of Midway Airport Concessionaires, founded the event as a way to help generate revenue for historically black colleges and universities.

This year’s contest between Morehouse and Central State marked 16 years that the classic has been a big part of Chicago’s fall social scene.

But a football classic is about more than football.

In New Orleans, the annual Bayou Classic between Southern University and Grambling State University, founded in 1974, has grown into a weeklong celebration featuring workshops, a college fair and band competitions.

Atlanta’s Football Classic got started 25 years ago and is billed as the largest fund-raiser for 100 Black Men of Atlanta’s mentoring, academic and scholarship programs.

“The first purpose [of the classic] is to encourage our students to seek higher education,” Huggins told me during a post-game interview.

“The second is to give young people a chance to go to Soldier Field,” he said.

Non-club tickets for Bears games range from $79 to $165, and club tickets are $265 to $540. But a family of four could attend the Chicago Football Classic for as little as $60.

Additionally, organizers routinely hand out complimentary tickets to youth groups.

Bryant K. Crowder, a youth leader at Lilydale First Baptist Church on the South Side, and a member of Masonic Grand Lodge Chicago, took a busload of young people from Roseland to the classic after receiving 50 complimentary tickets.

“The young people had an absolute blast! We got there early to go to the college fair. We watched the awesome high school battle of the bands and cheered Morehouse’s victory [Morehouse won 42-20]. It was an experience of a lifetime for our young people.”

An estimated 43,500 people attended the Chicago Classic a couple of weeks ago, the largest crowd ever to attend the local event. Huggins is hoping for an even bigger turnout next year because Soldier Field has agreed to give planners a date a year in advance.

“What we do in 90 days to have 40,000 people in that stadium is almost a miracle,” Huggins noted.

With a year to market the event, Huggins said he could fill the stadium’s 61,500 capacity. A local TV station has also expressed interest in broadcasting next year’s game.

It costs about $1 million to produce the event. The participating schools get an honorarium that helps support scholarship programs. Organizers also pay for lodging and transportation. The money has proven to be well spent.

Five years ago, about 66 students from Chicago attended Central State University. This past year, about 238 students attended the Ohio school.

“We’ve given out over $2 million in merit-based scholarships over the last five years,” said Jahan Culbreath, the athletic director.

“From a recruiting standpoint, we’ve been able to reach students and help them not just to come to Central State, but to other HBCUs,” he said.

Huggins points out that the Chicago Football Classic also has an economic impact on the city.

“When you look at the fact that people travel from all over the country to come to Chicago, to stay in a hotel, to eat in a restaurant, that results in millions of dollars for the city,” he said.

Despite the gun violence that has plagued the city, Huggins boasts that there hasn’t been one incident at the game in 16 years.

“How you stop violence is by making sure our kids are educated,” he said. “What this game does is expose our kids to higher education.”


Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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