Sometimes the most heated moments in a rivalry football game happen before kickoff. That was the case for players from N.C. Central and N.C. A&T last season in Greensboro.
Emotions spilled over from the locker room to the football field, where players were pushing and shoving each other at midfield during warmups. Punches were thrown, there were three personal fouls called and the Eagles’ all-conference safety Davanta Reynolds was ejected from the game before it even started.
The Eagles and Aggies meet again on Saturday, this time in Durham, and the goal this year is for the teams to keep their emotions in check.
“Human behavior is the greatest phenomenon known to man,” NCCU coach Granville Eastman said. “Nobody has been able to explain it since the beginning of time. What I did do on Sunday at our team meeting we made sure we showed them some video of that footage. Explained to them, in my heart, I thought that was a setback and set us up to lose the game before the game begun.”
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After the Aggies defeated the Eagles, 24-10, last November, they went on to win the MEAC crown outright, the Celebration Bowl and the HBCU national title. That game would be the last of the season for the Eagles, their hopes of sharing the MEAC title gone.
N.C. Central’s hopes of a share of the MEAC title were dashed again this season when the Eagles lost 28-25 in overtime to Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 8. Now the MEAC title tiebreaker scenarios involve N.C. A&T, Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman and South Carolina State.
With two games left -- against N.C. A&T and at South Carolina State -- the Eagles will be playing for the chance to be the spoiler and for pride.
“You throw the records out the window and we play for pride,” N.C. Central junior left tackle Nick Leverett said Tuesday. “It’s one of the biggest rivalries in college football to me. We wait all year for the game and it’s here now and we are ready for it.”
Something else on the line for the Eagles could be the future of Eastman, who took over as interim coach in December when Jerry Mack left to be the offensive coordinator at Rice. If the Eagles (4-5, 2-3 MEAC) don’t win their last two games, they’ll have their first losing season since 2013.
Under Mack from 2013 to 2018, NCCU won or shared a MEAC title three out of four years. A losing record this season could have administrators looking for a new coach. Eastman, who is also the defensive coordinator, realizes a lot hangs on the game against the Aggies. But he doesn’t let it get to him.
“I know somewhere in there that’s a possibility,” Eastman said. “I can’t worry about that. I understand that the outcome might have an effect on that, but I have no control over that, so all I can do is prepare our guys, our coaching staff and our team the best way I can. I’ll get our guys motivated to play a great football game and hopefully we will come out victorious.”
Eastman realizes the game will have some long-term effects, regardless of the outcome.
“This game could set you up for a great recruiting offseason which helps build your future. It sets you up for your offseason development,” Eastman said. “It could (also) set you back, recruiting wise. We came out last year, certainly disappointed in the outcome, but we tried to build some positives off of it. There’s going to be some good coming out of this going into the next season.”
The Aggies, ranked No. 12 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll, leads the series with the Eagles 50-34-5. NCCU has won seven of the last 12 matchups. With the exception of the last two meetings, the rivalry games have been close, with eight of the last 13 being decided by seven points or less.
But records don’t matter to the Eagles heading into Saturday’s game against N.C. A&T. Eastman in practice this week said few words are needed to get his team excited to play “that program over in Greensboro.”
It took Eastman until the second year of his tenure in Durham to understand just how intense this rivalry is and how much this game means to people.
Leverett, the junior left tackle, said in the past it’s taken him a day after the game to lose the adrenaline rush he gets from playing the Aggies. He said this year he’ll try to keep his emotions in check before the game. But when he puts on his pads and sees N.C. A&T blue and gold across the field, that could change.
“My dad taught me that you have to be able to control your emotions, because if you let your emotions get the best of you then you won’t play like you’re supposed to play,” he said. “When we get out there I try to stay back and be calm and that’s pretty much it.
NC A&T at NC Central
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, Durham
TV: ESPN3 (live); ESPNU (tape delay)