By Vince Agnew, Player Engagement Insider
The first NFL Careers in Football Forum was a formal kickoff to a partnership between the NFL and Historically Black Colleges and Universities—a link that has existed since the beginning of NFL history. The HBCU has stocked the Pro Football Hall of Fame with men who navigated the trenches inspiring generations of fans, teammates and organizations with their excellence. Now NFL greats Troy Vincent and Aeneas Williams are priming that relationship to expand far beyond the field.
The NFL and HBCU partnership came about through the passion and drive of these two men and others with the purpose to teach young men and women about the career options that lie ahead of them in order to leave their own legacies.
Vincent, the Executive Vice President of NFL Operations, once held a prominent position for fifteen years on any football field that he assumed his cornerback duties. After enjoying the career of a lifetime playing for the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins, he assumed his second career path keeping him close to the sport he domineered for over a decade.
He is now is in charge of overseeing anything related to the game’s operations and the league’s players with the reach of his position being broad. He spoke at the Careers in Football forum hoping to leave a similar impact on the game as his playing days.
In line with Vincent, Aeneas Williams was also a prolific cornerback racking up a litany of awards while playing for the Cardinals and Rams and garnered the ultimate respect by being inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. Although he manned the same position as Vincent, his life’s journey to reach that point looked much different.
Williams grew up in Hollygrove, a subdivision of New Orleans, Louisiana, an area known at the time for its poverty, drug trafficking, violent-crime rates and for its budding hip-hop artists Lil Wayne and Birdman.
Williams’ father was the first college graduate on either side of the family and was the inspiration for he and his brothers to carve out something better.
Williams would attend Southern University where he focused on his studies and did not walk on to the football team until his junior year. That is also the time that he gave his life to Christ and began to understand the importance of living a life with purpose.
In two seasons at Southern, Williams built a stats sheet, reputation and play style that would open doors he could have never fathomed.
“Who knew growing up in New Orleans, the opportunities that football would present for me, for my family,” Williams said. “I’ve had a chance to work with the president of the United States all the way down to the city counsel and the mayor.”
He now pastors a church in Ferguson, Missouri and also held a role in the NFL Legends Community. Currently Williams serves as the senior advisor to Vincent and is elated to be a key member in the NFL/HBCU partnership having an influence in helping the game stay great for subsequent generations.
“Coming from the HBCU, Southern University, and now shining a spotlight on many of these HBCU’s to let young people know about these opportunities is significant,” he said. “Not just on the football field but within the business side of things. God can give each and every one of us opportunity, it doesn’t matter where we are from.”
Evident by the NFL team presidents, executives and decision makers present at the forum, the entire league is genuine in this approach to educate others about the possibilities and ways to accomplish them. They offered themselves to the attendees by sharing their stories, giving advice and spending one-on-one time building relationships.
“We wanted to make sure we are touching all people, all races and all genders about the available careers in football,” said Vincent who was named on Forbes Magazine’s list of Most Influential Minorities in Sports this year. “Our fan base is broad from diverse backgrounds, we want to represent what our fan base and what America is.”
“We want to share information with everyone and go [to the HBCU] where some of our finest men who have ever walked on the field changed the way we see the game.”
Each speaker at the forum achieved success coming from a multitude of circumstances and assured the students and athletes that the dream does not have to end if they do not make it as an NFL player. There are an abundance of opportunities available to them to operate in an environment where they are passionate, regardless of their upbringing.
This campaign and the influence that students and athletes from the HBCU have had on the NFL will continue to be highlighted with a pregame ceremony at Super Bowl 51, honoring the school’s members who make up ten percent of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Particularly in the climate of our country right now, it means even more for the entire league to put a spotlight on HBCU Hall-of-Famers, which is going to happen at the Super Bowl,” Williams said.
NFL legends such as wide receiver Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State University), defensive end Michael Strahan (Texas Southern University) and Williams among many others, not only triumphed between the white lines, but also continue to thrive long after their playing days. This is in part because of the experiences and education that they received in college.
“The NFL is far beyond the 53 men that are playing on the field. There are other career paths, true career paths,” said Vincent. “Playing is not a career path, it is an experience. But being inside the marketing unit, being inside the broadcasting unit, that is a career.”
The experiences at the Careers in Football Forum will spark conversation, opportunity and action pressing the game of football to continually become more vibrant. The partnership between the NFL and Historically Black Colleges and Universities is laced with a message that holds true for every walk of life—in order to go far, we must all go together.