At 10:56 a.m, I arrived at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Celebration Bowl on December 21. It would’ve been earlier, but you know how Atlanta traffic can be.
As I walked closer to the stadium, I found it very apparent that the Alcorn State Braves and North Carolina A&T Aggies fan base are true to their respective programs. The Braves faithful sported purple and gold, with the Aggies in blue and gold. Jackets, hoodies, beanies and much more. The support was immense.
Then there I was. A media member, stargazing by the fabulous structure in my typical attire: tan buttoned shirt, black pants, brown boots. I couldn’t forget the Nike jacket that day. It was around 30 degrees. I questioned whether my weather app was wrong because it felt in the negatives.
I walked to will-call for my credentials. The clerk gave me a manila folder with the credential inside. There was a stamp on the outside with my name across the top.On a good day (majority of my existence), I have gone by Prince, at least that’s what my birth certificate states. That day, I was ‘Priince’. Autocorrect must not be something the staff had.
After putting on the lanyard, I had to go through clearance with metal detectors. S.A.F.E staff watched my every move, even my red book bag was inspected for explosives, firearms and any other dangerous contraband. I totally understood. But I was the one exploding that day, with excitement. I speed walked closer, and opened the two double doors.
A young lady, who seemed to be around her mid-20s, asked was I lost. I wasn’t, but I wish I was. My philosophy when going into sporting events as a media member is: Wander until someone tells you no. I didn’t even get the chance to, as she escorted me to another staff member. This time, it was to be placed on an elevator into the press box.
“We have one ready to come up,” the staff member said on her walkie talkie.
A sign above my head wrote: “Media Elevator To Press Box.” The doors slid aside and I walked inside the elevator. There was a woman in a wheelchair that pressed the button to “S2.” I didn’t ask, but I’m sure her job was to ride the elevator up and down for the day.
I rode the elevator at least 15 times throughout the game. She captained it about 12 of such times. I’m sure she took a break when I missed her services. She was dedicated, quiet and had a rather roaring voice when she spoke. It forced you to listen.
“Let me read your credentials, sir,” she said firmly.
I had no choice but to comply. As I got off, she told me to enjoy the game. I nodded. As I turned the corner, I was greeted by three television screens. From
left to right were the media members with affiliations, the Celebration Bowl logo and the map of press box seating. I noticed some huge names and major news organizations. But my name wasn’t on the screen.
Shaking is exactly what I did. I felt that I didn’t belong here. There was no way. Before I had the chance to soak it in, another staff member called for me, this time a tall man, about six-foot-two-inches. He towered over me.
I told him that I couldn’t find my seat. My credentials had the “042” which is where I was supposed to sit. I told him my name wasn’t on the screen with Peach State College Sports. He made a few calls and suggested that I wait in the press box lobby until he found a reason for the mishandling.
My parents didn’t raise a delinquent. My dad raised me to follow orders and my mom taught me to respect everyone. But this was my playground now. I began trailing down the hallways to the buffet bar, Atlanta Falcons team photos over the years, a table for game notes and more. Other media members walked directly passed me with chicken fingers, hot dogs and other foods in hand. I nearly bumped into another guy, but he didn’t flinch.
But where I was most starstruck was down a couple stairs. About five columns, three rows was where the media sat. It could seat pretty much an entire football team. Row 3 was the top of the mountain, with an elevated overview of the field. Row 2 was the same, just closer. But Row 1, was like standing at the gates of heaven. All you could do was just gaze at the 360 jumbotron above, the retracting roof, black and red seating. I could go on but you get the point.
The players from both schools were in pregame mode. So was I. I wanted to make sure everything worked before I embarked on the greatest opportunity to cover a sport so far in my career. A mini-television screen was placed at every seat on the first row of the press box. There were also plasma screens above for all the rows the use. There was absolutely no way you could miss the game, unless you chugged down too much soda, which is common in press box. Mouths get dry and reporters bet thirsty. The restrooms seemed like a maze to get to. People were running rampant like chickens with chopped off heads. It was a busy day on the job
It was about 30 minutes till kickoff. I finally met Javaris Harris, one of my peers but more of a close friend. Harris is another contributor for PSCS. We had combating interests. I was a press box guy, seeing things from above. Harris insisted we go down to field level.
“Bro, let’s go down to the field,” he said. “I’m trying to see some of the players before the game.”
Our credentials allowed us to roam the sidelines, just not during play. So we took the press box elevator down the field level. The lady in the wheelchair was present. Hall after hall, we turned. As I was looking at signs for directions, he had already seemed to know where to go. It wasn’t his first rodeo. Harris had been to the stadium before early in the college season for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff between Alabama and Duke.
We turned the last corner, got our credentials checked once more and walked out. There it was. Bigger than I had expected. Harris liked to see everything from bottom to top. I was rather impressed. It felt like being in an emporium, but for sports.
There was 32,968 fans in attendance. I couldn’t believe it. I closed my eyes, pinched my arm and inhaled deeply. It wasn’t a dream. But I couldn’t think. The bands from both programs were already battling. Drum majors and majorettes alike made their mark. It was a lot of happy parents in the crowd, especially those of the players. If I had to choose between the many parents, I would say the mothers were most fascinating. For most of the players, it was their last time playing collegiate ball. The mothers wanted their ‘baby boys’ to live it up one more time.
They were even hardcore to some points.
“You gotta hit ‘em in the mouth today, son.”
“We love you, baby! Make those boys cry over there.”
And my personal favorite:
“It’s gonna be a bloodbath! I hope y’all boys ready!”
By the looks of it, it seemed like it would be. Players were chirping at one another. There were no fights, so that’s good.
After networking with reporters, it was time to go back into my lair. The same route was taken. Then I realized, we still didn’t have our seats. I thought it to myself but didn’t tell Harris. As we got into the press box, I had to spill the beans. There was no update, but the staff member told us to just take an available seat.
We sat in Row 1 in the 40s. We emptied our book bags with notebooks, game notes and media guides. Kick off began and all attention was to the game.
Harris and I tweeted updates for our followers after each drive. He likes to use GIFs when tweeting. I’m more of the reserved, get-to-the point tweeter. I probably sent more tweets, videos and pictures. Aggies Quarterback Kylil Carter had himself a day, throwing six touchdowns to zero interceptions. Much of my videos were highlights of his long, downfield passes to receivers. It was a slow first quarter with simply no spark, only three points for the Braves.
The last three quarters proved to be everything fans traveled from their homes to freezing Atlanta winds for. I thought the scoreboard would run out of numbers. The Aggies won in dominating fashion, 64-44, for the third consecutive championship win — four in the last five years. In the third quarter, both squads combined for 49 points, the most ever in a single quarter in the five year history of the Celebration Bowl.
“Man, if they keep scoring like this, we might have ourselves a story,” I said to Harris. “Alcorn State just won’t give up.”
There’s absolutely no cheering in the press box. That’s a rule of mine, but I said “Wow” about 30 times. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Harris put it into perspective at towards the game’s conclusion.
“Bro, that’s a basketball score in a football game,” he said. “I didn’t expect that at all.”
We continued laughing at how amazing it was. It was a magical atmosphere. But it wasn’t just us. Other reporters threw their hands up in disbelief. Eric Jackson, reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, grinned several times in the final moments of the game. I had met Jackson several times before at conferences. He is Valdosta State alum, the school I attend and will graduate soon from there.
The game was over and I was already writing the article a few minutes before. I had an imaginary deadline, considering I never received a definite time from my editor. But I wanted to be punctual about it. It was a competition. Every man and woman for themselves.
I continued to write the story, pulling the human elements out of a firework show of a game. At the same time, I was being magnetically pulled by Harris to go down to the field for fifth quarter, a tradition most revered in the Historically Black Colleges & University. This is where the bands were playing one last time.
Halftime was the exact same, but it was a huge battle. Aggies’ fans were electric. Braves, alike. But the Aggies brought the championship back to Greensboro. Head coach Sam Washington hoisted the trophy in front of all its fans. ‘Aggie Pride’ could be heard like a siren coming down a busy road. Everyone stopped and let the chant run wild. Fraternity brothers and sorority sisters were in the stands chanted the saying as well. Some demonstrated their trademark strolls and steps.
Carter was awarded Offensive Player of the game and Linebacker Jacob Roberts was voted Defensive Player of the game, as both wore the championship hats and shirt. There was no confetti which seemed odd. Once the stage was clear and all the celebrating came to a halt, the press conference was underway. I was a few minutes late to the press conference, considering I was conducting a few on-field interviews.
Carter, Roberts, Washington and moderator Michelle Jinks occupied the table. The press conference was conducted in the Falcons interview room. The Undefeated, HBCU Gameday and AJC asked a bulk of the questions.
Jinks didn’t allow the firehose of questions. She did a great job keeping the questions to a minimum, while making sure the reporters get the most intimate answers. I sat in the far back, Harris beside me. ESPN Events filmed the entire press conference. Hopefully they didn’t see me slip and almost tore my ACL in life television trying to snag a seat. I’m sure they edited that one out.
As hectic as I had seen press conferences on television, it’s entirely different when you actually go. Everyone has a hand raised. Phones are recording everything. There’s never enough seating. But the reporters were deliberate. It didn’t matter if their legs or butts went numb, they wanted that sound bite. I did too.
I just wanted to be comfortable while doing so.
The press conference had concluded but Washington and the two stars stayed behind to shine more personally with reporters. I had previously met AJC’s Jaylon Thompson, a former Sports Journalism Institute alum. I had just been selected to the Class of 2020 in November.
“Hey, can I get a picture with you?”
“Of course, man,” Thompson said.
We went back to the field for the photo. He’s shorter than me and it put me out of place. I am usually the shortest in some settings, he seemed to be a shade under five-foot-seven-inches. But he was the coolest reporter I met (outside of Harris) that day. Everything from SJI, to AJC and just journalism life. He gave me a million dollars worth of advice for free.
I wish he had given me advice on how to get one more day inside the stadium because I didn’t want to leave. As we went up the press box one last time, the drink machine was still working. I grabbed one last cup of sweet tea. Whoever made it should be blessed and put in for a raise.
I took in the last sights. Walking towards Row 1, I dropped my bag, cut off my phone and just sat.
I came to terms with where I was, what I witnessed and the adventure that came along with it. Another reporter next to me was finishing filing his story before sending it to his editor. He nudged me.
“My editor always told me, never send in a story without letting someone else read it for errors first,” the
reporter said, who was about three times my age. “Tell me if you find anything.”
I’m 20, set to turn 21 in January. He had seemed to know everything there was to know. I checked over his story, being a former sports editor of the VSU Spectator. Never thought I would be asked to check another story. I checked for AP style, grammar and content. It was spotless. My story was good, in my
opinion. He had a different angle to his story though.
“I really appreciate it, young man,” he said, as he shook my hand. “When I ask people to do it, sometimes they push back.”
I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity to help another person. Harris was waiting on his ride at the same time. I was not going to leave him behind. It’s already past 5 p.m. My mom was blowing up my phone asking when I would be heading home. I didn’t know what to say.
“Uh, maybe around 5:30. I am waiting on a friend to get picked up.”
Once the phone hung up, Harris’ ride was awaiting him outside the stadium. My heart sank into my socks, not because of a friend leaving.
It was actually time to exit. The warmth of closeness, engagement and expectation was set to be changed into the frigid cold outside. I took the elevator one last time with reporters and the wheelchair lady.
Back the the field level I was. The same door I entered just hours ago. The cheers and rumble when I first came in were gone, traded into emptiness. It was an exodus of reporters leaving at one time. They had done this before. They had experienced this turn of emotions before. It was second nature for them.
I walked outside, turned my head and looked at the glow from the Mercedes-Benz logo. It looked like the Bat-signal in the grey sky.
“I’ll be back,” I thought.