Howard’s soccer dominance on display in new movie

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As a student at Howard University in the early 1970s, my friends and I casually watched the Bison football team play at Greene Stadium from a third-floor room and a Cook Hall dormitory window overlooking the ground.

Football was not of particular concern to us as we were tried and true black American sports fans with red blood. It never occurred to us that the game we were watching had more right to be called football than the game we were more familiar with.

But interestingly, we noticed that games against the Bison were often played at one end of the field, towards the goal their opponents were defending. We found it odd, but refreshing and fun, to say the least.

“Why can’t the other team send the ball to the far end of Howard’s field,” we would ask.

Howard’s football makes HBCU history

We didn’t know – even though we came to understand – that this phenomenon was proof of the Bison’s total dominance. This 1974 team finished 19-0 and won the NCAA division. I won the title in a four-overtime thriller against a powerful team from the University of Saint Louis. Perhaps most notable, the Bison have scored 63 goals over the season while their opponents – all 19 – have scored six goals. Total.

Did I mention Howard is a historically black college or university (HBCU) or was the first and only HBCU to win an NCAA division. I championship. Who knew? It turns out that not a lot. But there is more to the story.

Take down a football power

That’s the part the Grammy-winning rapper-turned-Oscar-winning actor Common and Steel Springs Pictures recount in an upcoming movie called “Rising Above.”

You see, prior to its record-breaking 1974 season, the Bison had won the 1971 NCAA Championship 3-2 against an equally powerful St. Louis team. This Howard team was led by Trinidadians Keith Aqui, Al Henderson and Ian Bain. But that title was withdrawn three weeks later by the NCAA, obviously for Howard’s use of two ineligible players. St. Louis had won the first NCAA Div. 1 football title in 1959 and six of 11 titles during this period.

The Billikens, as they were called, had a predominantly white team. Howard’s was all black, made up mostly of African and Caribbean players. The contrast was obvious to say the least.

Howard ending Saint Louis’ rule in Div. I college football in 1971 could be compared to Texas Western employing an all-black team to end Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team dominance in basketball just five years earlier. Texas Western (now Texas at the University of El Paso) was a predominantly white school – or a historically white college or university (HWCU), if you will. The NCAA did not find any anomalies in their list. But this is another story.

Howard was an HBCU. The NCAA found two in theirs.

The path to redemption

“We believe it was simply because we are a black institution that the NCAA was asked to investigate,” the late Howard University President Dr. James E. Cheek said in an official statement to the time.

Needless to say, the NCAA stripped Howard of that 1971 title and awarded it to the Billikens. Additionally, the NCAA imposed another penalty after the 1972 team lost 2-1 to St. Louis in the NCAA semifinals. The Bison played this match without seven players being deemed ineligible, which was ultimately reduced to four. As a result of this violation, the 1973 team was put on probation.

In this 1973 photo, Brazilian international soccer star Pele meets soccer stars Howard (L to R) Ian Bain, Trevor Mitchell, Desmond Alfred Williams, Asoku Cole and assistant coach Michael Jones.

So began the road to “Rising Again” for the bison that culminated in the 1974 Redemptive Domination. In fact, a 2016 Spike Lee ESPN documentary film called “Redemption Song” also tells the story.

Howard football led the way

All of these Howard teams have been coached by Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips, a renowned professional goalkeeper and football coach from Trinidad and Tobago. It was Phillips who united the mighty force that became the Bison teams throughout the 1970s. From 1970 to 1980, he posted an outstanding record of 117-19-11 and took his teams to the tournament. NCAA eight times. He is now 80 years old.

Howard Lincoln Phillips Coach

By the end of that decade, all of America’s top teams were recruiting players from Africa and the Caribbean and offering far more than Phillips and the Bison.

Taylor Materne wrote the screenplay for the new film, produced by Steel Springs’ Peter Lawson and Common’s Stardust Films banner. Current and former American football stars – Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Mo Edu, Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies – are funding and producing the project.

“I am very excited and grateful to partner with Steel Springs on this project,” Common said. Variety of the movie. “This inspiring story is a story we never knew existed and together we are passionate about storytelling.”

Common, Spike Lee, calls this writer. There are many other stories where they come from.


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