RENTON — For a few years now, Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner has arrived for his postgame news conferences wearing sweatshirts of different historically Black colleges and universities.
It’s Wagner’s way of not only honoring HBCUs but also attempting to raise awareness and support for the students and athletes at those schools.
Last month, Wagner took his efforts a step further, announcing a multiyear partnership with the HBCU Legacy Bowl. The bowl, presented by the Black College Football Hall of Fame, is a postseason all-star game that according to a news release will showcase the top 100 NFL draft-eligible football players from HBCUs. The game will be played on Feb. 19, 2022 in New Orleans, and broadcast live on the NFL Network.
A news release says the event is about more than football and will serve as a “week-long celebration of Black culture and history (that) will provide invaluable exposure for HBCU students.’’
Wagner said last week partnering with the bowl is “just a part of the work I’ve been doing. Just trying to spread light on something.’’
Wagner said he felt it was particularly important after an NFL draft in which 259 players were selected but none from an HBCU.
“You watch and see there were no players drafted from HBCU schools,’’ Wagner said. “I think all of that is just opportunity. So if I could partner with a great program like that to provide opportunity for those guys to live their dream, I’m definitely all for it.”
Wagner need look only across the locker room to see a player who might have benefited from his work — rookie cornerback Bryan Mills.
Mills attended North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina, an HBCU founded in 1910 whose alums include Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta; Herman Boone, the football coach immortalized in the movie “Remember the Titans”; and Sam Jones, who won 10 championship rings as a member of the Boston Celtics, second most in NBA history.
The football program plays in the Football Championship Subdivision in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and has had 27 alums play in the NFL, including Ryan Smith, a 2016 fourth-round pick of Tampa Bay who played in every game last season as they won the Super Bowl.
Mills hoped to follow in Smith’s footsteps as the next North Carolina Central player to get drafted.
He was so confident of his chances that he decided to enter the draft following a 2020 season in which his school did not play a game due to COVID-19, meaning he could have returned for 2021.
Mills had been one of the team’s standouts in 2019 when he had five interceptions and 13 pass breakups in what turned to be his only football season there. His potential earned him an invite to the Senior Bowl in January where some draft analysts felt he showed enough to be taken in the fourth-to-fifth-round range, especially considering his listed height of 6-1 and arm length of 32 inches fits the prototypical big cornerback mold.
A native of Palmdale, California, Mills had already shown an ability to beat the odds. He had no scholarship offers out of Quartz Hill High and played at two local junior colleges to keep his football dreams alive.
He ended up getting one four-year offer, from North Carolina Central, and that was due in part to a coach from NCC getting a recommendation from a friend on the staff at College of the Canyons, where Mills played in 2018.
Mills said of having only one scholarship offer: “Everybody has their own journey.’’
But he had no complaints with NCC, where he majored in human behavior and social sciences (preparing for the draft left him six classes short of a degree he plans to someday finish).
He watched the draft avidly hoping, expecting, to hear his name called.
Instead, all 259 picks came and went without his phone ringing.
And Mills can’t help but wonder if the lack of exposure that HBCUs receive might have played a role.
“A lot of the cameras go to the bigger schools,’’ he said.
Which is why he was glad to hear about Wagner and his efforts with the Legacy Bowl.
“There’s just not a lot of publicity (for HBCU athletes),’’ he said.
Some wondered if the pandemic made NFL teams lean more on known players from bigger schools. There were just eight picks from non-FBS teams this year.
Still, the lack of any from HBCUs caused some observers to ask questions.
“It’s hard to believe that not one guy is worthy of being drafted,” former NFL standout QB Doug Williams, who played at Grambling before leading the Washington Football Team to a Super Bowl title in 1988, told The Washington Post. “That, to me, that’s a travesty. Hopefully we can fix it.”
Mills, at least, had options when the draft ended. He said a handful of teams called with free-agent offers. But he’d been a Seahawks fan dating to the early years of the Legion of Boom, and they gave him a $20,000 bonus, more than all but one of the 11 undrafted rookie free agents the team signed this year.
“It was a long three days,’’ he said of the draft. “And I didn’t lose hope, but I was a little frustrated. I thought I was going to get drafted. But sometimes it doesn’t matter if you get drafted or undrafted. You still have to play football at the end of the day.’’
Mills doesn’t have an easy path to a roster spot with the Seahawks, who has 10 players listed as cornerbacks in camp. He’s playing the right cornerback spot which puts him behind incumbents D.J. Reed and Tre Flowers.
He said it took a little while to learn the Seahawks’ unique “step-kick’’ technique they ask their cornerbacks to master.
“This is my first year doing it and I was a little off,’’ he said. “But I’ve got the hang of it now.’’
Reed said he sees Mills “getting better every day. He was very raw when he first got here. He didn’t really know how to read stuff. But now you see him now being patient at the line of scrimmage. He’s super athletic. He’s long and rangy. He has a lot of potential.’’
Reed says Mills’ athleticism hasn’t been confined just to the football field,
“When we do the rookie dances and stuff like that, we have him do back flips,’’ Reed said with a smile. “He can do any type of flips — front and back.’’
What Mills mostly wants to do is stick his landing permanently in Seattle and show that maybe all players at HBCUs need is more of a chance.
“There is always some hidden talent at HBCUs,’’ Mills said. “I think it’s just being overshadowed.’’