Photo: Adrian Green (12) escorts and celebrates. He says Ferris players are very close.
College football mines hundreds of prospects from the talent-rich South, where the sport is religion, to play for northern schools at all levels. An experience on their own attracts some. Others were overlooked by schools closer to home.
Adrian Green of Cedar Grove High in Ellenwood, Ga., falls into the latter category.
He held out for a Division I scholarship offer until the the national letter-of-intent signing day had passed, leaving him empty-handed. That’s when he received out-of-the-blue phone calls from co-defensive coordinators Ryan Brady and Ryan Hodges at Ferris State, an NCAA Division II school in Big Rapids, Mi.
“When (Brady) said Ferris was in Michigan, I automatically thought I didn’t want to go there; it’s cold,” recalled Green, a redshirt junior cornerback for the Bulldogs. “But my mom (Tanji Flanagan) told me to call him back.”
Green can thank her. He is playing in the NCAA DI national championship for Ferris.The Bulldogs (15-0) face Valdosta State (13-0), a school from his home state, in a game televised on ESPNU at 4 p.m. ET Saturday in McKinney, Tx.
“It still beats me how they heard about me, but I’m glad I ended up here,” said Green. “There are nice people in this community, the school is fun and the team is close. We don’t separate as black and white players; we do things together. We want to bring this small town a national championship.”
Green, who is African-American, is from a town of 38,000 that is 78-percent black and located 215 miles northwest of Valdosta. That’s about the same distance and direction from Detroit to Big Rapids, a town 10,600 that is 88-percent white.
He flies non-stop from Atlanta to Grand Rapids. A teammate picks him up at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport for the 58-mile drive further north to Big Rapids.
The expedition is long, but Green has learned it only faintly resembles the journey of opportunity Gideon Smith made a century ago.
Smith was one of college football’s original black pioneers that migrated from the South to a northern school. In 1910, Smith left Hampton, Va., to attend Ferris State, then known as Big Rapids Industrial School. The magnet was education, but he also took up football as the Bulldogs’ first black athlete.
Smith ultimately became better known as Michigan State’s first black athlete that led then-fledgling Michigan Agricultural College to its first two wins over national power Michigan in 1913 and 1915. He was inducted in Michigan State’s Hall of Fame in 1992.
His career places him as a forerunner to Michigan State’s Underground Railroad teams of the 1960s under Coach Duffy Daugherty that led the integration of college football. Daugherty transported players shunned by their home states in the segregated South to lead the Spartans to national titles in 1965 and 1966.
Smith later returned home and was a coach at Hampton University, then known as Hampton Institute. His 20-year record of 102-47-13 includes a 1922 black football national title. He was inducted into Hampton’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
In 2017, he was added to the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame voting that is conducted by the National Football Foundation
“I respect a lot what he did and the gates he helped opened for people like me,” Green said. “I can easily catch a flight and then I’m in Big Rapids. I can’t imagine back then trying to get to Big Rapids from Virginia and then doing all that he did.”
Smith was among the original students in a partnership between Ferris and Hampton. Woodbridge Ferris, the school’s founder, invited black students to further their education and transfer on, often to Michigan State or Michigan.
Woodbridge Ferris, later Michigan’s governor and U.S. Senator from Michigan, had been inspired by Booker T. Washington’s 1901 book, “Up from Slavery.” He believed every city in the United States should erect a statute of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United State that freed the slaves.
All these decades later, in a nation that has made strides in race relations since Gideon Smith yet with more distance to travel, Green experiences less cultural shock than Smith likely encountered.
“I feel comfortable here,” Green said. “I think I can speak for the team that we all do. As a team we enjoy each other. It’s not like the black guys hang out just with the black guys. We’re not like that. We’re a team and I feel we live by that.”
Green first arrived in Big Rapids in 2015, spending his first year as a redshirt. That time to grow into his body and add techniques to his athleticism and speed.
He always had the speed, running legs on Cedar Grove’s 400-meter and 1,600-meter relay teams that won state titles in the Georgia High School Association Class AAA meet. But he only carried 162 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame.
As he practiced on the scout team, his older teammates praised his athleticism and speed and encouraged him to develop techniques.
“They taught me how to run with receivers,” Green said. “I had to learn when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive. It was like learning football all over.”
They also told him he had to gain weight.
“I’ve gained 20 pounds since I’ve been here,” he said. “I was a person that ate only when I felt like eating. They told me during workouts the only way to gain weight was to eat more. My diet is much better.”
In his first season as starter, he earned second-team honors on both All-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference team and the NCAA DII Super Region Three second-team.
Green leads the Bulldogs with 15 pass breakups along with his 36 tackles, 26 solo stops.
He gradually re-gained confidence he had lost his first year, building on two seasons as a backup and on special teams player on talented rosters that advanced to the 2016 and 2017 NCAA DII quarterfinals.
“Coming to college and seeing people better than me took my confidence away at first,” he said. “But as the years went by, I knew my time was coming. I got better. But I was still a little anxious when I made my first start this year. Once I got my feet wet after the first couple of plays my confidence was back.”
The time his body matured and his teammates and coaches spent working with him was invaluable. So much so Green wonders if he would have developed as a Division I walk-on as fully as he has at Ferris.
“I think about that often,” he said. “Maybe if I went to a Division I school my focus wouldn’t be what it is here. Maybe I get lost in the system. Coming here I’ve learned to work with some great teammates. And we’re winning. We’ve got a chance to win a national championship. This is definitely a blessing for me to be here.”
His journey includes following in Gideon Smith’s pioneering footsteps from the South to a northern school that features a unique milestone in the integration of college football.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."