Florida Classic is a game rooted in a rich history - FOX 35 News Orlando

Florida Classic is a game rooted in a rich history

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The Florida Classic is an annual rivalry between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman University.   The action unfolds at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando on Saturday and this year marks the 36th anniversary. 

Festivities surrounding the Florida Classic take place throughout Orlando all weekend.  It's been dubbed the largest matchup between two historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

Today, young athletes undoubtedly have their choice of where they can learn and play the game, but that hasn't always been the case.  Not even 50 years ago, black football players could only play other black football players.  But a Florida bowl game in 1967 not only changed the rules of the game, but the country.

"Going there to play the game was exciting," said James "Shack" Harris.

He and Ken Riley were two key players during that 1967 game.

"There was a lot of trash talking going on," said Riley.

Their teams squared off in the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic in Miami.  Florida A&M University took on Grambling State University.

"That game was very well attended by not only black people, but white," said Riley.

Both were quarterbacks at HBCUs.

"The most important thing then was representing our school, our community," said Harris.

They were rivals on the field; however, the heated fight for Civil Rights made them allies off of it. Journalist Sam Freedman chronicled the historic game in his book "Breaking the Line."

"You can't have the Civil Rights movement in this country without the HBCUs," said Freedman.

Freedman started working on the book seven years ago when he flew to Bartow to interview Riley.

"The process was important as it unfolded, because that's when I realized that Civil Rights wasn't just a backdrop for the football season at these schools, but there's a key Civil Rights story that went with each team," said Freedman.

After that '67 game, both FAMU and Grambling's coaches broke barriers.

That season, FAMU Head Coach Jake Gaither set the field for a landmark moment between FAMU and the University of Tampa.  Gaither lobbied leaders in Tallahassee for the first ever game in the south between a black college and a white one.  That game would take place two years later.

"This is the year that Gaither lobbied behind the scene to be able to play this interracial college football game," said Freedman. "Which had never been allowed to happen in the South."

Freedman said historians call it "possibly the largest act of mass public integration since emancipation."

Grambling's Head Coach Eddie Robinson groomed Harris to become the first black quarterback to start in the NFL.

"He's really the Jackie Robinson of pro football," said Freedman.

"I owe a lot to my coach, Coach Eddie Robinson," said Harris. "[He] was with me every day calling and supporting me."

Riley played for the Cincinnati Bengals. He broke records across the board.

"I was drafted as a quarterback slash wide receiver slash defensive back," said Riley.

Back in 1967, Grambling won the game.  Today, All-Americans are able to celebrate the victory.

Harris was the MVP of the '67 game. He went on to play for the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams and the San Diego Chargers.

Riley played his entire career for the Bengals.

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