NCCU Professor Charles Johnson with "NCA&T vs. NCCU More Than Just a Game." Picture by Allexus Killian.

More than just a game

September 21, 2023

When thinking about the historic N.C. Central University and N.C. A&T rivalry, one might immediately think of football, but actually the rivalry runs deeper. It goes beyond the field.

It goes beyond the championship titles, or the first Eagle-Aggie Classic, or even the trash talk from both sides during iconic tailgates.

It’s about “iron sharpening iron,” according to NCCU history professor Charles Johnson.

Johnson is coauthor, along with N.C. A&T history professor Arwin Smallwood, of “NC A&T vs. NCCU — More Than Just a Game.”

“We worked hard to make sure the book was balanced, and we wanted to make sure every year was covered. No matter how briefly it was covered, it was covered,” Smallwood said.

Johnson, an NCCU alumnus, said the feud represents spirit and competing at a high level.

“It is about excellence. It is about competing at the highest level. It’s about never quitting,” Johnson said.

“Aggies and Eagles compete at everything, so it’s not just football or sports.

We stand on a very proud legacy here at North Carolina Central, but they feel about their institution the same way we feel about ours, and our players know that.”

“The goal was to educate students as well and bring people into the rivalry and into the game.

Then once they got brought into the book and game, they could learn more about some of the iconic people who helped develop each institution and lead them to where they are today.”

The book is organized into five different “eras of rivalry” beginning in 1922. In the first rivalry era, from 1922-1939, NCCU and A&T played 15 times and the Aggies won 9 of those games.

Their very first game ended with an A&T victory 26-0.

The 1940-1959 rivalry era is described as a “high watermark” because both universities had players that reached the National Football League.

A couple of key names include linebacker Robert “Stonewall” Jackson from A&T, and defensive lineman John “Big John” Baker from NCCU.

With the 1960s and 1970s era there were major changes tied to integration and the Civil Rights Movement.

“Before the 1970s, most of the state’s top African American high school football players played for NCCU and A&T. With the acceleration of racial integration of many predominantly white universities, especially after 1970, these players increasingly attended white schools,” wrote the authors.

In 1971, NCCU and A&T left the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and moved to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

This wouldn’t be the first time this happened. NCCU returned to the CIAA in 1979 and then went back to the MEAC in 2010. The Eagles are still in the MEAC conference today, while A&T joined the Coastal Athletic Association in 2022.

Johnson and Smallwood described the 1980-1999 era as the “Era of Record Setters.”

There were multiple record setting moments.

These include: NCCU quarterback Earl Harvy throwing for record 360 passing yards in a game in 1985; A&T Coach William Hayes becoming the winningest coach in the history of the rivalry; and Robert Clark setting the NCCU record for most receiving yards at 4,231.

According to Johnson, the fact that some of the former players have stayed in contact with each other after all this time might just be the most special part.

“Some of those players have been away for 60 years, and they still talk to each other almost every single day.

They pick up the phone and call each other, and they pick up and call their coaches,” Johnson said.

“It’s something about the familiarity there. Dr. Smallwood and I came to have an appreciation, and it really took on new meaning.”

In the final rivalry era, from 2000 to now, the feud continues to evolve.

And the two HBCU’s continue to sharpen each others’ iron. NCCU has moved from Division II to Division I which increased the number of scholarships available to athletes.

And a younger generation of rising stars still make their mark on the traditional rivalry.

A&T’s Smallwood deferred from giving his prediction for the most recent game, but NCCU’s Johnson predicted that the Eagles would beat “the stuffing” out of the Aggies. He was spot on. The Eagles topped the Aggies 30-16.

And now that historical rivalry stands at 53 wins for the Aggies, 37 wins for the Eagles, with 5 draws.

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