by Mike Potter
WALLACE WADE STADIUM & PEARSON CAFETERIA/DURHAM The game is still four days away, but the hype is already getting pretty revved up.
If you're a football fan in Durham, then unless you've been living under a rock for a few years you know what Saturday night's "Bull City Gridiron Classic" is all about.
Duke will host N.C. Central for an historic first meeting at 7 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium, and while neither team has had the kind of season it might have wanted so far, that's taking none of the shine off the matchup.
The Blue Devils are 1-2 and looking for their first win at home this season. A victory would certainly leave a good taste in the mouths of David Cutcliffe's boys heading into ACC play starting next week.
For Mose Rison's 0-3 Eagles, it would be not only the first win but also a big start toward getting the program some major respect.
It won't be the biggest football game ever played in Durham. The Blue Devils' classic old yard has already hosted a pair of bowl games, when Duke hosted Oregon State in the 1942 Rose Bowl and the Eagles took on Grambling in the 1972 Pelican Bowl for the Black National Championship.
Both teams have been ranked high in their respective divisions - Duke always competing in the top level of NCAA Division I while NCCU is over halfway through its transition from Division II to Division I's Football Championship Subdivision - in the past, with each hosting Top Ten battles in the Bull City. And Duke has hosted numerous "Victory Bell" games against historic rival UNC while NCCU's "Turkey Day" matchups with archrival North Carolina A&T were always the talk of the town.
But it's arguably the most important. Never have both Durham universities - who have squared off in men's and women's basketball and baseball and many other sports - been on the football field together.
Wallace Wade Stadium is guaranteed to be hopping.
"I'm sure a lot of these players know each other," Cutcliffe said. "I sense from our players a respect for their players and the program at Central. I don't think it's pretend. I think they're truly excited about this game. I think they realize it's being talked about all over Durham. Everywhere I go, and a lot of our employees that I see on campus that are Durham natives have been telling me about it for three weeks.
I think it's an opportunity for Durham to celebrate two fine universities, existing so close geographically, but more importantly this is a football game between two football programs that are headed in the right direction."
Rison said the mere scheduling of the game was a positive stepping stone for his program. One reason it happened was that Duke athletics director Kevin White, who was coaching track at Central Michigan where Rison was a star running back, gave Rison his first full-time coaching job as a high school assistant.
"I've gone to church, I've gone to grocery stores, I've been out in town, I've talked to several different people," Rison said. "And everybody that lives around here said they're really looking forward to this football game and what it's going to do for this city.
"We've never played football, and both schools have been playing for a long time. We did have that hidden basketball game (the now-famous "Secret Game" in 1944 in which the NCCU team and a team from the Duke Medical School thumbed their nose at the infamous Jim Crow segregation laws) that nobody knew about. But we never thought we'd be playing football against one another this soon.
"I thought maybe eventually one day we could get together, but I knew when Kevin arrived there was a possibility we could play this football game. They had an opening on their schedule. With us being independent and in transition and able to make our own schedule we were able to work this thing out. It's going to be a lot of fun, and it's going to be a great venue on Saturday night."
Rison said it's not a be-all and end-all game for his program, but some of his players might disagree.
"Coach is from Flint, Michigan," said NCCU and former Hillside High quarterback Michael Johnson. "And I'm not really one to sugar-coat things. I'm from Durham. So, a win against Duke for me, and I think a win against Duke for my student body and for my teammates - it's like Carolina beating Duke in basketball or Carolina beating Duke in football.
"This is the first time we've ever played Duke in football, so I'm not about to sit here and say that this is just another game. I'm not even going to sell myself that or anybody else that. This is a big-time game and we're going to come out to play. A win is going to shock the community. It just might shock the nation. This is a big-time game. It's very important to me."
NCCU has four Durhamites on its roster in the sophomore Johnson, fullback and senior captain Saeed Abdul-Azeez as well as sophomore defensive back James Reese out of Southern High, and Hillside alum and sophomore wideout Geo Irvine.
Duke has three, including senior game captain and defensive tackle Kinney Rucker out of Jordan High along with freshmen back Desmond Scott - who is scheduled to play in his first game on Saturday - and wideout Corey Gattis out of Hillside.
There is also a brother act from Georgia, as freshman nose guard John Drew is getting plenty of action for the Blue Devils while sophomore linebacker Chris Drew is on the Eagles' two-deep.
But not only the Durham guys are pumped about the matchup.
"We tend to see them around town and know the same people," said Duke junior linebacker Abraham Kromah, who is from Staten Island, N.Y. "We do get along off the field, but when you're on the field that's the last thing on your mind.
It's going to be a great atmosphere. This is a great thing for Durham and the community. We hear about it in the barber shops and the malls and everywhere we go. I've heard about it since the game was scheduled."
The lead-up will include some public festitivies Thursday night with the "Bull City Football Fest." And there will be a full afternoon of activities leading up to the game outside the stadium on Saturday.