Alabama State University makes history in Selma bringing spring practice to Memorial Stadium

Published 5:19 pm Saturday, April 21, 2018

Alabama State University head football coach Donald Hill-Eley picked a perfect day to bring his football team to Selma to wrap up their third week of spring practice.

For the first time, a Division I collegiate football program had a full practice at Memorial Stadium that was free and open to the public.

Alumni, fans and local high school kids came out to watch the Hornets go through position drills and scrimmage.

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Sam Johnson, ASU class of 1976 and father of Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, was in the stands to watch his alma mater practice.

“This is a big step forward just to see this satellite camp brought to Selma,” he said. “I’m so proud of what we’re doing at Alabama State now. The historically black colleges need to have an anchor and be promoted. You get the chance to see a different side of these historically black colleges. It’s great exposure, makes an impact and is a great recruiting tool.”

Between Michael’s high school games at Dallas County, college games at Georgia Tech and professional games in the NFL, Sam hasn’t seen his Hornets play in more than 20 years.

“I remember when we were back in the SIAC, and in that particular time, we were dominating the SIAC,” he said. “The greatest competition I think we had was Alabama A&M. The great Magic City Classic. Boy, that was something to look forward to.”

High school coaches from Dallas County, Keith, Selma and Southside were on the sidelines with some of their football players to get an up-close view of how practice is run on the next level.

Selma High athletic director and head football coach Christopher Raymond had several of his players on the sidelines with him where they could listen to and watch the ASU coaches and players.

“It’s very important for our program and [my players],” Raymond said. “It’s an opportunity for our kids to get their names out there and see how a college program is supposed to be run. You’re seeing the guys fly around and they’re having fun doing it. I want to thank Alabama State for coming. I want to thank the coaches for showing the community what Alabama State is all about.”

The Hornets only have two more practices remaining before the Black and Gold Spring game this upcoming Saturday, April 28, so everyone was in full pads and flying around the football.

Despite the change of scenery, the Hornets were still able to have a productive practice on both sides of the ball.

“I like seeing another environment, and it’s good for everybody else too,” redshirt junior quarterback Darryl Pearson said. “It feels different, more like a game atmosphere.”

During the scrimmage, Pearson escaped a sack with a spin move in the pocket before he targeted Southside High School alumnus De’Quan Johnson across the middle.

Alabama State University wide receiver and 2016 Times-Journal Player of the Year De’Quan Johnson receives a pass in drills.

The 2016 Times-Journal Player of the Year caught the pass after it was deflected by the defensive back covering him, and walked into an end zone that he’s been scoring in since he started playing football.

“It just feels good to come back home and play in front of my family. I get to see some friends and people I played against. I get to show them what it’s like to play on the college level and showing them that they can do it as well,” Johnson said. “We here at the school did this to show that we support Selma, and we just want to support from back at ASU.”

It was also a homecoming for senior safety Davian Brantley, who played his high school ball at Selma High.

“I’m excited for the simple fact that I get to come home,” Brantley said. “We need all the support we can get down here in Selma, and us coming down here to be a positive influence allowing the kids to come out and see something positive is pretty big.”

The chance to play in Memorial Stadium again was a special moment for both Brantley and Johnson. They had the opportunity to see old friends and coaches, while also being able to set an example for the current high school students who still remember watching them play on Friday nights.

Kelsey Burton was a former Selma High cheerleader, but now she’s a junior at ASU and one of the football team’s equipment managers. She’s always had a love for sports, but didn’t want to cheer any longer.

“I feel like coach Hill-Eley is doing something really good allowing us to come back here,” she said. “I haven’t been on this field in four years, so to be able to come back and do what I do and my team come with me feels really good.”

The Selma connection between Burton and her fellow Hornet Selmians has helped them bond together while in the college environment.

“It’s good to have somebody from back home that can relate to you,” she said. “It’s really fun to have someone to connect with, interact with and just have a piece of home with you.”

The spring practice was Hill-Eley and ASU’s way of giving back to the community. The city didn’t ask ASU to come, and it’s atypical for a program to break their routine during a limited practice period to leave their home field.

It was important to Hill-Eley to show the city of Selma that ASU is present and cares about their community.

“It’s part of us giving back,” Hill-Eley said. “We want to be visual mentors in our community. As important as it was for the people here in Selma, it was important for a lot for my guys. Having 90-something guys, and probably 10-15 of them are the only ones that have been to Selma.”

Hill-Eley used this trip as a learning experience for his team as well, and led them across the Edmund Pettus Bridge not long after practice had concluded.

Southside head coach Daniel Flowers, another ASU alumnus, was proud to see that his school was willing to put action behind their words in supporting Selma.

“It actually showed that they’re not scared to come to Selma and show what they got,” he said. “It’s great for the school and it’s great for our community.”