The HBCU Legacy Bowl is more than a game. It also prepares students for life after sports

The entrance hall to the HBCU Legacy Bowl’s career fair at The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in downtown New Orleans on Feb. 22, 2024.

NPR - Jaren Wilson’s day had already been jam-packed by the time he arrived at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on a Thursday afternoon in late February.

The senior defensive end out of Edward Waters University in Jacksonville, Florida, was in town for a full week leading up to the HBCU Legacy Bowl — a postseason all-star game that showcases the best NFL draft-eligible athletes from historically black colleges and universities — that Saturday at Tulane University’s Yulman Stadium.

Each day, Wilson had been running the gauntlet, bouncing around from team meetings, practices, a draft combine, visits with scouts from all 32 NFL teams and a few community engagement events that allow the players to have fun while also giving back to the host city.

But the week is about a lot more than football, and it’s the event at the convention center — a career fair — that had Wilson the most excited.

The fair, touted as the largest for HBCU students in the nation, hosted more than 90 businesses over two days, including sports teams, retail giants, investment banks and the U.S. Secret Service. Students can connect with businesses and future colleagues, find potential mentors and even get a job interview on the spot. There are also panels covering various topics, like financial literacy.

Wilson graduated with a degree in criminal justice from Edward Waters and is pursuing a master’s in business administration there. He said he is actively looking for a job outside of football and has never attended a career fair of this magnitude.

“I hope to get a job or career opportunity, because I’m here for the all-star game, [but] I know football doesn’t last for long,” Wilson said.

The word “opportunity” has been a central theme of the Legacy Bowl since its inception. The Black College Football Hall of Fame created the game three years ago to create a better pipeline for HBCU athletes to the NFL.

Since the inaugural game in 2022, five players have been selected in the NFL Draft, and an additional 50 either signed with a team as a free agent or were invited to a team’s minicamp.

The opportunities the Legacy Bowl hopes to create, however, extend to more than just football players.

Breland Cook, the Black College Football Hall of Fame’s director of development, emphasized that the career fair was open to all HBCU students. The organization even bussed in juniors, seniors and graduate students from across the region to New Orleans for free for the career fair.

“At the end of the day, not everybody will be playing in the National Football League,” Cook said. “[When] we made this all-star game, the plan was to make a platform to elevate HBCU men and women, and give opportunity both on the football field and in the professional world.”

The impact of the career fair, so far, has been just as successful as the game, with Cook touting some students leaving the fair with a job offer in hand, including four students who were hired on-site by the Seattle Seahawks last year.

Jeremy Upton, a senior at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, said this was his second time attending the career fair. This year, he set his sights on leaving with a full-time job in finance.

“[One company] that stood out to me was S&P Global,” Upton said. “They’re over the S&P 500. They [also] do financial investing, so as a finance and accounting major, that’ll definitely be something I’m interested in.”

Some students went to the fair to get closer to a career in football and sports, like Khaliyah Sylva — a kinesiology major at Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana.

Sylva is interested in sports medicine and got some face time with a few professionals in that field, but she said most of the sports teams at the career fair were looking for students interested in marketing and communications.

“Two companies that did stand out to me were the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts,” Sylva said. “They were very welcoming, even if they didn’t have the resources. They were trying to provide me with resources that would help me get the job that I want.”

While the career fair is open to all students, the other events during the week — like the football practices, draft combine and scout meetings — are not. For students like Sylva, those are prime places to meet and connect with other people working in the sports industry.

“I do wish I was able to go to the football events, being that I am a woman in sports, so it would have been beneficial to me not only to watch but maybe get some connections,” she said.

Despite this, Sylva still encourages HBCU students to attend next year’s career fair as a chance to network and make new friends at other HBCUs.

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