Raycom College Football All-Star Game

By on 14 January, 2013 in Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

I grew up watching the Blue-Gray college football all-star game every Christmas. The game was played on Christmas, and was a cherished event after the present opening was complete. The players selected were usually not going to bowl games, and was played in an era when there were actually some good teams that didn’t go to bowl games (which once upon a time were mostly played on or around New Year’s Day).

The only way that I would feel more proud that the game was played in nearby Montgomery would be if one of our hometown players from Troy State had been selected for the Gray team (the teams pitted north vs. south in a Civil War theme that it’s hard to imagine being approved today). I was glad to see college players from around the country coming to Montgomery for an event that the whole nation was (I assumed) watching amid the warmth of a holiday glow.

It couldn’t last. The city lost the bowl game, which ran from 1939-2001. The whole thing ultimately folded after an aborted effort to relocate the game to Troy, where it was played for a single year in 2003 before being abandoned altogether. The city government recently spent a ton of money fixing up Cramton Bowl, which is where the game was played and, amid many nostalgic cries of regret about the demise Blue-Gray Classic from the citizenry, decided to court a new college all-star game to showcase the city and bring in some tourist dollars.

Enter the Raycom College All-Star Classic, which makes its debut in our city this week. It lacks the “War Between the States” gimmick, opting instead for a “stars” team versus a “stripes” team, but the premise is still pretty much the same. College football players are showing up for an exhibition game played outside of the usual bowl structure, putting their talents on display for pro scouts and (hopefully) a ton of fans.

The brains of the operation is Johnny Williams, who for many years was the Athletic Director at Troy State, where he oversaw the school’s leap to the “big leagues” of Division I-A athletics (around the same time that the school dropped the word “State” from its official name). The game’s namesake, Raycom, owns WSFA and a lot of other television stations. According to the company’s website, it is the largest privately owned TV broadcast company in the nation, now owning and/or operating 47 television stations in 18 states.

And that’s all well and good. But the question you should be asking is, “Should I go to this game?” And the answer so far appears to be an unqualified “yes,” even if you are only a casual fan of college football. The talent on display will be far superior to anything on display during football season here in Montgomery, and some of the players have been selected from top-flight SEC programs.

Alabama and Auburn are, of course, represented on the teams, as is Alabama State. And for fans of the Hornets and the Tigers, the game represents a chance to end disappointing seasons on high notes. And since the NFL won’t come calling for everyone, it will be the last chance to see some players on the playing field at all.

Opinions will vary, but I’m excited about seeing Quinton Dial, a gargantuan senior defensive end from the defending national champion Crimson Tide. I’m also hoping to see good things from Prentiss Wagner (WR, Tennessee), Ontario McCaleb (RB, Auburn), Russell Shepard (WR, LSU), Tino Sunseri (QB, Pittsburgh), and Roy Roundtree (WR, Michigan). But those guys are sort of the big name headliners of the event, and are probably where many of the NFL scouts will be looking too.

I’m also curious about players from the schools that aren’t football factories: a small running back from the Naval Academy named Gee Gee Greene, a quarterback from Iowa, and the guys from small schools like Valdosta State and Murray State. The guys from those smaller schools often seize the limelight and relish their chance to play against guys from schools that weren’t on the regular season schedule. And many of the guys from small schools dominated at those levels. It isn’t their fault that their schools weren’t featured on ESPN. But they may still be tremendous athletes.

I’m hoping the game includes some fun elements and isn’t just a scouting combine for the professionals looking to feed the never-ending demand for labor in the NFL. Athletic contests are most fun when they showcase unexpected matchups and allow true talent to shine. Nobody wants to go and watch a glorified job interview, even if football is pretty fun to absorb.

But for many players, this is at least an audition for potential play at the next level. Fallback options for each guy will vary tremendously, but most of the guys here want to show that they can practice with new teammates and learn new plays in a short amount of time, skills that would tremendously benefit them in the pros. And for many, this will be their first prolonged exposure to NFL scouts and media attention, so their ability to retain their humanity in the “spotlight,” will also be analyzed. The players will also get to work with NFL-caliber talent. The teams will be coached by Jim Bates (who worked with Nick Saban in Cleveland) and Super Bowl winner Dan Reeves. When your coach has participated in more Super Bowls than anyone else in history, you might want take the advice to heart. Not a lot of coaches can begin a sentence, “Well, here’s what I used to tell John Elway to do …”

Hopefully the game will have a long future in Montgomery. At the opening press conference, Mayor Todd Strange mentioned the frequent nostalgia for the Blue-Gray Classic and how he is often asked how Montgomery could get that game back. The Raycom game, Strange said, would be the real test of whether the public actually wants Montgomery to host a game or not. If people genuinely like the idea of our city playing host to such an event, they’ll pay the $20 and attend.

Many college football fans will be comparing the game to the more well-known Alabama post-season all-star game, the Senior Bowl, held down in Mobile. That game recently renewed its lease with Ladd-Peebles Stadium and is still considered a top showcase for potential pro football employees. The Senior Bowl will be January 26, and organizers of the Raycom game say that some players will play in both games. But the long co-existence of both bowls suggests that the market can support both all-star games.

The Raycom All-Star Classic is Saturday, January 19 at 2 p.m in Cramton Bowl. It will be broadcast, but the live experience is likely to be exciting. Tickets available online and at Montgomery-area branches of Regions Bank. The roster for the Stars team can be seen here and the Stripes team is here.

And if you see some gigantic young men walking around downtown Montgomery this week, let them know that our city is a pretty great place to be.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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