When Justin Durant decided to play football at Hampton University in 2003, the very last thing he thought about was parlaying that opportunity into a job in the National Football League.
“I didn’t even know that I had a shot of going [to the NFL] until probably my senior year,” Durant said. “When agents started calling and I’m looking at the ratings, I’m like, ‘Is this serious? Is this what’s going on?’ ”
Hampton University is a predominantly black university which doesn’t have the training facilities and equipment – and financial backing from its alma mater – which many of the predominantly white universities have. Durant, a linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys, even admits to the difficulties of trying to get to the NFL via the Historical Black College or University (HBCU) route, yet he knows it’s possible.
“I guess it’s a little bit harder,” Durant said. “But I’ve been trying to tell people that if you have the talent they’re going to find you, especially with all the ways of scouting and how they can get to see you regardless of the different platforms you’re put on.
“If you can do what you need to do, then they’ll come and find you.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars found Durant and chose him on the second round (48th overall) of the 2007 NFL Draft. That year, Durant appeared on the pro scouts’ radar after he became the first player named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year on three different occasions.
Besides Durant, defensive end Ryan Davis (Bethune-Cookman) is the only other current Cowboys player who played football at an HBCU. But Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said that’s certainly an area where their scouting department “absolutely” beat the bushes in search of talent.
“Our charge with our scouting department is we don’t leave any stone unturned,” Jones said. “It’s every college, it’s every minor league team, and it’s Europe.
“There’s football that goes on over in Europe and then there’s athletes in Europe, so we’re all-in on that. We work that situation in a very good way and in a positive way.”
Back in the day, the NFL was dotted with several players from HBCU schools. Durant even imagined out loud how the course of sports history would have changed had the celebrated Fab 5 – Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson – decided to get together and play basketball at the same HBCU college instead of going to Michigan.
“Oh my God, I can’t even imagine how the country would have reacted to (the Fab 5) being at a black college,” Durant said. “All the attention that it would get, how many people it would have influenced to attend (HBCU) schools.
“That’s crazy. I’ll be thinking about that all day.”
Durant came to the conclusion that: “If the Fab 5 played the No. 1 team (in the country in the NCAA tournament), they’re going to beat them. You know they’re going to win the conference, they’re going to be the 16th seed, they’re going to play in the (play-in) game, they’re going to kill whoever that is, and then they’re going to play the No. 1 team and they’re going to beat them.”
And if that occurred, perhaps teenagers would have given the HBCU schools an honest second look.
“I can’t even imagine how many guys it would have influenced,” Durant said. “Then again, would they have gotten the national attention that they got going to Michigan, which is definitely one of the more prominent basketball schools, especially at that time.
“It’s difficult, but I know those guys would have definitely influenced some younger generations to come.”
Doug Williams (Grambling State University) is the only quarterback from an HBCU school to win a Super Bowl when he led the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl XXII title. Jones wouldn’t be surprised if many more make it to the NFL, particularly since Hall of Famers Walter Payton (Jackson State) and Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) are HBCU alumni.
“Back in the day that’s where all the horses came from,” Durant said. “Definitely, those guys paved the way for us to even have the opportunity to be here now.”
Jones agreed with Durant’s assessment.
“There’s a lot of great football players, as you well know, that not only come from those (HBCU) colleges, but they come from Division III, Division II and right on down the line,” Jones said. “Guys develop at different rates.
“Some guys when they’re just out of high school they’re not fully developed, their young, they’re not mature. And then they grow up while they’re in college.”
As the Cowboys prepare to host the Green Bay Packers at 3:40 p.m. Sunday in a divisional playoff game at AT&T Stadium, Durant explains that he’s fortunate to have been able to continue his football career on the NFL level.
“I just really didn’t think it was possible,” Durant said of his chance to play in the NFL. “I was just going to school to get my education.
“But we’re just trying to hold the torch for our (HBCU) schools right now.”