GRAMBLING, La. - DeVante Kincade was bouncing around a humid basketball gym in August, wiping sweat from his forehead while trying to sink 3-pointers. With a football.
Grambling's senior quarterback was about to help lead a football practice on hardwood courts after torrential downpours the night before had left the Tigers' practice fields unplayable. Receivers occasionally slipped and fell to the floor while running their routes because of condensation on the surface.
This scene would certainly be unlikely at most Southeastern Conference schools — many have indoor football practice facilities. And Kincade knows firsthand about the immaculate SEC digs after playing two seasons at Mississippi.
But the former Ole Miss backup QB and his teammates believe what they have at Grambling more than makes up for whatever they might be missing.
"The grind is what makes it even sweeter," he said.
The challenges of playing football at a Historically Black College or University have been well documented. Practicing in gyms, little television money and long bus trips are just part of the deal.
But playing at an HBCU is not just about entertaining halftime shows or all those amenities the players lack. It's about community.
Kincade said it's an experience to savour.
"There's nothing like an HBCU," he explained. "Don't worry about the facilities. The life at an HBCU makes you forget about the facilities because there's so much enjoyment. They say, 'Everybody is somebody at Grambling,' and that is so true."
There aren't any FBS programs at an HBCU. More than 20 FCS programs are considered HBCUs, including the entire Southwestern Athletic Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Several others play at the NCAA Division II level.
Tucked just off Interstate 20 in north Louisiana, Grambling's approximately 5,000-student campus can feel — and look — a lifetime away from a sprawling SEC campus and one of its majestic football cathedrals. At Ole Miss, Kincade said everyone was friendly, but the gleaming athletic and academic facilities sometimes created a barrier to a normal campus life.
At Grambling, Kincade said, it's not unusual for him to hang out at one of the campus cafeterias or at the student union, socializing with other athletes but also regular students.
"There's nobody here looking at you like a star — you're just another student," he said.
The SWAC's preseason offensive player of the year is quick to say that he enjoyed his time at Ole Miss and has nothing but respect for former coach Hugh Freeze. Still, when it became apparent he wasn't going to start for the Rebels, he transferred to Grambling, and hasn't regretted the decision once.
The pipeline from HBCUs to the NFL is not as well-travelled as it was prior to integration, but the road exists. About 30 former HBCU standouts are currently in the league, and the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Kincade hopes to add his name to the list.
NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks said scouts are aware that HBCUs are still a place teams can find undiscovered or underappreciated talent. He said Kincade has a "big-time personality" and could be successful in the NFL given the right opportunity.
"The post-season All-Star games are going to be important for him because some will question his size," Brooks said. "But the thing is, he's got a live arm, he's athletic and he's good at finding passing lanes."
Kincade's move to Louisiana has also worked out for Grambling.
He's led the Tigers to a 20-2 record during his two seasons — including a 16-0 mark in SWAC games — and the program is trying for its second straight conference title and Celebration Bowl win in December. Kincade has thrown for 2,286 yards, 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season.
The Tigers are preparing for the annual Bayou Classic game in New Orleans against rival Southern on Saturday.
Kincade's mother is thrilled that her son has been able to lead a program at quarterback and have success doing it. Even better, it's only a few hours from their home in Dallas, Texas.
LaTonya Boyd has struggled with some health issues over the past several years, including blood clots and what she called mini-strokes, but she's been able to attend most of her son's games the past two seasons. She said Grambling's smaller atmosphere has been beneficial.
"He's a humble kid and the school is very family-oriented," Boyd said. "All of the coaches have been so good to him and are good examples."
Grambling's appeal isn't a surprise for one of the school's most famous alumni, quarterback Doug Williams. After a stellar career at Grambling in the 1970s, he became the first black starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, leading the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 pummeling of the Denver Broncos in 1988.
The 62-year-old Williams, who is the Redskins' senior vice-president for player personnel, is disheartened by talk that HBCUs might not be relevant in today's world. He said there are an "awful lot of kids who need an HBCU."
"It's not about division. That's not the way it is," Williams said. "Going to Grambling inspired me and helped me become the person I could."
Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs has built a mini-dynasty in north Louisiana. He played for Grambling in the 1990s and has found the sweet spot for recruiting good athletes who might not be quite SEC-caliber but are a good fit for the HBCU experience.
"It offers a little different thing to the student-athlete," said Fobbs, 43. "There's a lot of universities that are inclusive for minorities, but I think in all areas they're not at times. Let's face it: The elephant in the room is that racism exists on many levels and many times African-Americans have to transform to a different way than they're normally, culturally doing things in order to be received and accepted from time to time.
"And I think a lot of that has to do with why HBCUs are so important. It allows you to be yourself, be comfortable and to be around a lot of the same things that you grew up listening to and being around. ... It's almost like sleeping in your own bed or being in your own house."
A house with at least one upgrade — a new artificial turf field with better drainage was installed at the football stadium in late August.
Just something else Grambling can take pride in.
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