NCCU relishes chance to play 'big boys'

N.C. Central finally gets a major opportunity on Saturday when the Eagles travel to Wallace Wade Stadium to face Duke for the first time in the two schools' history.

Staff WriterSeptember 24, 2009 

  • Dubbed "The Bull City Football Fest," a pep rally for Saturday's Duke-N.C. Central football game will be held tonight at Durham Athletic Ballpark from 5:30 to 11. The free event is scheduled to include live music, local artists and performances by groups from both schools. Coaches and players from both teams will be on hand for the pep rally portion of the event, which is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m.

    N.C. Central at Duke

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham

    Radio: WRJD-1410, WDNC-620

    North Carolina

    at Georgia Tech

    When: Noon, Saturday

    Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta

    TV: WRAL, WFXI

N.C. Central sophomore quarterback Michael Johnson is not one to sugarcoat anything.

So it was no surprise to hear his candid response to a question about what a win would mean to the N.C. Central athletic program when it faces Duke on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. It's the first time the schools will meet after a nearly combined 200 years of playing football.

"A win would shock the community; it just might shock the nation," said Johnson, who grew up in Durham and graduated from Hillside High.

"This is the first time we've ever played Duke so I'm not about to sit here and say this is just another game," Johnson continued. "I'm not going to try and sell myself on that or anybody else. This is a big-time game, and we're going to come out to play."

Just miles apart, N.C. Central (0-3) and Duke (1-2) have played in different NCAA divisions until recently. N.C. Central reclassified from Division II to Division I two years ago.

A football game against the ACC's Devils adds to an already joyous time surrounding the N.C. Central program.

Two weeks ago, school officials announced that the athletic program had been voted into the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and will start scheduling conference competition in 2011.

The Eagles must meet NCAA reclassification standards to complete the five-year transition process, but milestones like the admission to the MEAC and the game against Duke have solidified its place in Division I.

Duke will be the first NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision team the Eagles face. The schools have played in basketball, but competing in football is a direct example of the program's growth.

"All of this is coming together finally," N.C. Central athletic director Dr. Ingrid Wicker-McCree said. "We've worked very hard, our predecessors have worked very hard to get to this point."

Certainly, Wicker-McCree said, people at the school are excited and motivated. She expects a large, boisterous crowd for Saturday's game considering the proximity of the schools and community connections. Members of both football teams worked together on a community service project last Christmas.

"There is so much history between the two schools," Wicker-McCree said. "We have facilities that were named after the Duke family. There's a natural bond throughout history of the two institutions and their impact on the community in Durham.

"Both schools have an impact on the community. And so this is another way to give back to the community and say we're trying to bridge all the diversity in Durham and celebrate that."

Duke coach David Cutcliffe said he could understand the excitement about the game.

"I see a celebration going on at Central about who they are," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "There' a celebration at Duke about who we are. You put the two together -- we're both in Durham. How awesome is that?

"We've got programs that are on the rise right here in Durham. So what I view it as is a celebration of two programs headed in the right direction."

Still, the Eagles want to celebrate a victory. With a winless record to start the season, N.C. Central coach Mose Rison said that will take a "monumental" effort, considering Duke has 85 scholarship athletes while the Eagles have just 49.

He hopes to get the offense, averaging just 14.7 points per game, on track.

No matter, N.C. Central players and coaches have welcomed the challenge. They have been thinking about the matchup for years, especially when the Eagles were riding a wave of success in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, where they won championships in 2005 and 2006. They were also the 2006 Black College Football National Champions.

"People have always wondered how good can we be," Rison said. "Are we good enough to play with a school like Duke in the ACC? The wondering minds have always wondered because we were good enough at the Division II level."

And it's a player's instinct to wonder how they might fare against players at higher levels.

"I know guys say, 'I wish we could play Carolina, I wish we could play State. I wish we could play Duke,' " Johnson said. "It's not all the time your wishes come true."

In the summer of 2008, N.C. Central and Duke players faced each other in seven-on-seven passing competition. The action was respectful but heated.

"At first you come out there and you don't know if you if can play with those guys," Johnson said. "We started playing and you saw it wasn't so bad as you thought, but it's going to be a totally different ballgame when those big boys get in there."

Rison, whose defense has been more reliable than his offense, deflected a question about what a N.C. Central victory would mean. He has cultivated a relationship with Cutcliffe and has a long-standing friendship with Duke athletic director Kevin White -- both factors in making Saturday's game happen.

"A win would mean our first victory of the year," he said. "Other than that, a football game is a football game. We're playing Duke. I have nothing but tremendous respect for Duke. So if we win the football game, it's a game we win. ... It's not going to move this program forward.

"We're not going to take a step back if we lose."

But, really, wouldn't an N.C. Central win at least mean something special to the community?

"They may talk about it for years," Rison said.

robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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