Hampton beats Howard in the ‘Battle of the Real HU’

At halftime of Saturday’s game between Howard and Hampton — the latest installment of the 115-year rivalry known as the Battle of the Real HU — nearly all of the 16,330 fans at Audi Field remained in the stands, many holding camera phones above their heads. The schools were engaging in a time-honored HBCU tradition of a band battle, complete with dancing musicians, spinning batons and whipping flags. The fans roared louder than they did for any play during the game.

“You can ask a lot of people — they’ll say they come for the band,” said Dontrell Allen, a senior bass drummer in the Howard marching band. “We bring the entertainment factor, the wow factor. We bring the soul and spirit to the football game.”

To whatever extent Saturday’s game was only a matter of settling “Who is the real HU?” the answer for at least the next year is Hampton. The Pirates stormed back for a dramatic 35-34 victory after trailing 34-21 early in the fourth quarter. They extended their winning streak over the Bison to seven games, a run that began in 2015.

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But the almost-annual rivalry game, which has now taken place 98 times since 1908, has always been bigger than football, even when the football delivers, too. A cloudless afternoon in the waning days of what is still technically summer turned into a spirited celebration, not just of two prestigious Black Ivy League schools, but of HBCU life and culture.

Michael Harris, a 1999 graduate of Morehouse College and pastor at First Baptist Church of Passtown in Coatesville, Pa., made the 2½-hour trip to Audi Field despite having no particular allegiance to either of the HUs. Harris brought along four teenagers from his church, wanting them to take in the HBCU experience in its most vibrant form.

“Who knows? From this experience, it may encourage them to pursue going to an HBCU — in particular, maybe even Hampton or Howard,” Harris said.

The Battle of the Real HU lacks the underlying antipathy of other famous college football rivalries. Before the game, fans dressed in Hampton royal blue and Howard indigo blue mingled among each other, laughing, taking selfies and bopping to hip-hop beats. There was no mistaking that Saturday was a home game for the Bison, yet no one seemed to boo as the Pirates were introduced and ran onto the field.

The bantering between the schools has always taken on the tone of playful ribbing. Howard, for example, claims it is the real HU because Hampton was known as Hampton Institute — HI — until 1984.

“It’s a rivalry built out of love in a lot of ways,” Howard Athletic Director Kery Davis said. “There’s no fighting in the stands — there’s hugging in the stands.”

The camaraderie stems from a collective pride in Black culture and HBCU identity that was felt throughout the stadium. Fans were seen wearing shirts that said “Black is Love” and “HBCUs are Black History.” Singer Étienne Lashley performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely referred to as the Black national anthem, shortly before kickoff.

“Since we’re HBCUs, we really feel that connection of being Black and having that brother- and sisterhood amongst each other,” said Ron Thomas, a third-generation Hampton alum who graduated in 2014. “It’s a jab that we have: This school is better than yours. But when we get together, it’s unified. We can find common ground, just seeing other people that look like you.”

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Still, the schools set aside some of their cordiality in the name of winning a football game.

For much of the day, it appeared Howard might end a nearly decade-long losing streak to its rival. Wide receiver Kasey Hawthorne streaked down the sideline on a 52-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter, ran in another score before halftime and threw for a touchdown on a goal line jump pass in the third quarter, each time giving the Bison a 14-point lead. A subsequent field goal put Howard ahead 31-14 with 6:11 left in the third quarter, but the do-it-all star Hawthorne was lost for the day to a head injury.

Hampton’s comeback began almost immediately. Elijah Burris burst through the middle of Howard’s defense for a 93-yard touchdown run on the first play of the Pirates’ ensuing possession. An early fourth-quarter drive that could have given the Bison a three-possession lead stalled with two incompletions on the 5-yard line. Howard settled for a short field goal to take a 34-21 lead with 14:49 left.

Six minutes later, a botched punt attempt gave Hampton the ball on the Howard 13-yard line. Paul Woods then hauled in a 12-yard touchdown pass from Christopher Zellous on fourth and nine to cut the Bison’s lead to 34-28. After Howard went three and out, Hampton’s Darran Butts ripped off runs of 25 and 20 yards to set up Zellous’s winning one-yard touchdown run with 3:02 left.

Howard advanced to the Hampton 48 on its final possession, but an interception with 44 seconds to go sealed the result.

“Right now, they have bragging rights for another 365 days, what have you,” Howard Coach Larry Scott said. “Obviously, it leaves a bad taste in our mouth moving forward.”

In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, Hampton took some time to celebrate. Players jumped onto the bench and egged on their fans. They even briefly delighted as Howard’s fan section streamed toward the exits.

But then it was back to being friendly rivals, the two sides meeting at midfield for hugs and handshakes.

“It is a rivalry. Of course we want to win. We want to claim the real HU,” Allen said. “But we want to see all HBCUs win. We want to see all Black people win. We all just want to prosper.”

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