Travis Hunter

Nearly a week later, the decision of the nation’s number one high school football player Travis Hunter to sign with HBCU institution Jackson State continues to be the talk of the college football world. Head coach and Hall of Famer Deion Sanders was already basking in the glow of a 10-1 season and HBCU Coach of the Year honors. But his landing Hunter has topped all that, especially since one of the schools Hunter spurned is Sanders’ alma mater Florida State. The others were SEC stalwarts Georgia and Auburn.  Hunter, a gradate of Collins High School in Suwanee,Georgia, represents the type of athlete who once could only attend an HBCU, or maybe a handful of schools on either coast or in the Midwest. The Southern football powers were lily-white, and players like Hunter routinely attended HBCUs, but in the post-integration era, the number of top 10 recruits that chose HBCUs over Power 5 schools has been minimal, and certainly no one rated the top  prospect in the entire nation.

Hunter just finished helping lead his school to a state title. He seemed headed for Florida State or Georgia before Sanders was able to change his mind.. Hunter even talked about the impact of his decision last week. 

“Florida State has always been a beacon for me,” Hunter said in a statement timed for release right around his announcement. “I grew up down there, that’s where my roots are, and I never doubted that I would play for the Seminoles. It’s a dream that is hard to let go of, but sometimes we are called to step into a bigger future than the one we imagined for ourselves. For me, that future is at Jackson State University.

Jerry Rice, Doug Williams and, of course, the legend, JSU’s own Walter Payton — Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a rich tradition in football. I want to be part of that history, and more, I want to be part of that future. I am making this decision so that I can light the way for others to follow, make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more: an exciting college experience, a vital community, and a life-changing place to play football.I look forward to working with the iconic Deion Sanders, and especially with my fellow Tigers. Along with Coach Prime, they have made me feel like I’m already part of the team. Like I’m home. And I can’t wait to welcome the next class of top athletes into the family of HBCUs.”

A couple of other considerations no doubt affected Hunter’s choice. For one, the new name, image and likeness rules (NIL) make it possible for college players at any institution to make sizeable amounts of money legally beyond their scholarship. There will be multiple opportunities for Hunter to profit from deals not only in the Jackson market, but beyond it. Second, if you’re a defensive back with pro ambitions, there couldn’t be a better person to coach you than one of the greatest defensive backs in college and pro football history. 

But perhaps the biggest yardstick for whether the Hunter signing is an aberration or signal of things to come will be whether other top ranked Black athletes choose HBCUs in the future. Just this past year for instance, every other player ranked second through 10th either signed with or committed to a Power 5 school. Texas A&M, North Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Georgia and Texas were the teams that landed them, and certainly most, if not all, were Black. 

Still, the Hunter signing’s potential is huge in multiple ways. One concerns as a television attraction. HBCUs generally find their games restricted to either ESPN 2 or streaming channels like ESPN + or ESPN 3. But when you have the nation’s top-ranked player on your squad. people want to see him in game competition. It’s a continuation of the buzz HBCUs got first when Sanders became Jackson State’s coach and second when Eddie George joined TSU in that same role. Suddenly publications that seldom, if ever, paid attention to HBCUs were sending reporters to their campuses and covering their games.

The Hunter signing was featured in every major newspaper and discussed for hours on multiple sports networks. While there are those who feel Hunter has made a mistake by not opting for competition in the SEC, there are many others who see this as a possible turning point for HBCU football. While many legendary and Hall of Fame players have come from HBCUs, never has a player ranked either first or second by every recruiting site chosen an HBCU school as a final destination. Over the next three or four years, all his games will be scouted, his progress monitored, and (assuming he doesn’t get hurt) his draft position scrutinized.

If Hunter goes on to a great career and becomes a Top 10 draft pick, perhaps other top high school players will consider HBCUs as well as Power 5 schools.

But no matter what happens from this point, Deion Sanders and Jackson State made history last week with the signing of Travis Hunter.