by Anthony Harrison

NC A&T University’s homecoming football game is typically a pretty big deal in Greensboro. You don’t get the moniker “Greatest Homecoming On Earth” for nothing.

A few factors amplified this year’s homecoming celebration.

Anthony HarrisonFor one, the university heads into its 125th year of existence in 2016. That long and storied academic history produced the A&T Four, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and ill-fated astronaut Ronald McNair.

It’s an excellent legacy for a historically black university, steeped with civil rights activism.

But perhaps the biggest draw to the Oct. 24 homecoming game was that the Aggies kick ass at football this year.

While the program has produced talent in years past — including NFL Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea — A&T’s football teams have rarely dominated, especially in recent memory. But over the past four seasons, the Aggies have clinched winning seasons, with the last year culminating in a five-way tie for the head of the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference.

Coming into the homecoming game, their record stood at 5-1, the only loss coming against the Tar Heels, who currently tout a venerable one-loss season of their own.

Tickets sold out — and kept selling. A&T wanted everyone to see this game; they wanted everyone to be there who could possibly get in. And hell, no one worth their pudding would miss this game.

More than 22,000 fans crowded into Aggie Stadium, literally overflowing onto the track and into the surrounding parking lots.

Of course, many fans found the scene outside the stadium quite welcoming.

Tailgating at any sporting events is de rigueur. But, again, you can’t call your homecoming the greatest on Earth by keeping things simply at par for the course.

The acrid smell of hot dogs and burgers cooking on the grill wafts through the air, sure. But add to that the oily odor of frying catfish, the spiciness of fried chicken, the sizzle of porterhouse steaks and visions of mac & cheese, cole slaw, green beans and other delights, all in heaping portions. And it’s accompanied by the polyphonic cacophony of everything from old-school funk and disco to the freshest trap, emanating from PA systems, boomboxes and dozens of car stereos.

Aggies roll hard with tailgating.

The marching band doesn’t fool around, either.

The Blue and Gold Marching Machine’s reputation precedes this column; it’s practically insulting just to point that out. From their route starting point at Murrow Boulevard, they arrived at Aggie Stadium at around 12:30 p.m., accompanied by the A&T Golden Delight dancers, the legendary drum line and a rear echelon of former band members. Even after that long march, the brass section possessed the pipes to cause temporary tinnitus for fans sitting on the visitors’ side.

The Aggies faced the Howard University Bison, a longtime MEAC rival. The Bison hadn’t won a game and recorded some embarrassing losses against Appalachian State and Boston College.

Despite all odds, Howard didn’t look half bad in the first quarter, even in the face of crippling penalties and withering defensive play by the home team. They strode onto the field in the second quarter tied 7-7, even leading momentarily after freshman wide-out Guy Lemonier set up a short-scoring drive by returning a punt to the A&T 12-yard line.

But then the Aggies turned on, and they turned down for nothing.

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I recall diminutive sophomore running back Tarik Cohen showing his stuff during the spring game, but he played a red-letter performance against Howard. He consistently slid and slammed through the Howard defensive line, including a 31-yard touchdown run to put A&T back on top after that momentary loss of the lead. He may be small, but he played with the heart and power of a six-footer.

He’d be named Player of the Game with two other touchdowns, rushing for 137 yards on 17 carries.

Right before halftime, A&T kicked a field goal, setting the score at 30-14 in their favor.

And then the announcer came over the PA.

“Attention: If you are sitting in the Howard band section, please vacate your seat,” he calmly requested. But with a hint of a smile, he said, “They are coming back.”

Disgruntled Aggies had taken over the whole section. Police officers’ requests to leave went unheeded until the Howard band returned from their halftime routine.

Returning to the field, the football team would not grant Howard University any similar courtesy.

The Aggies decimated the Bison in the third quarter. A&T scored four touchdowns, and the defense shut down any attempts by Howard. Redshirt junior defensive end Angelo Keyes even recovered a fumble for a touchdown. The special teams rose to the occasion as well, with sophomore defensive back Jeremy Taylor blocking and recovering a punt attempt and sophomore wide receiver Khris Gardin returning another punt for a touchdown. Aggie second stringers came on the field, and Howard never scored again.

The final score: 65-14.

A parking attendant across the street off Bessemer Avenue asked me: “How was the game?”

I reported the score.

“It was a blowout,” I added. “It was a great game.”

He just shrugged and smiled, saying, “Hey, it’s homecoming! Greatest on Earth!”

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