Deion Sanders is having a good few weeks selling vision for the Jackson State Tigers program, whether it’s five-star recruits or one SEC fan jumping on the bandwagon.
On Wednesday’s national signing day, the program made history, signing the first five-star high school recruit at an FCS program. Travis Hunter, the No. 2 recruit in the 2022 ESPN 300, flipped from Sanders’ alma mater of Florida State in order to join Coach Prime and Co. next fall.
Now, the Tigers can also end the week on another historic high note as they are on the verge of the program’s first-ever 12-win season — pending how they fare against the South Carolina State Bulldogs in the Cricket Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia (Noon, ABC and the ESPN App). It has been quite the turnaround for the HBCU program which hadn’t had a winning season since 2013.
The Tigers punched their ticket to the Celebration Bowl by defeating Prairie View A&M in the SWAC Championship game, the Tigers’ first conference title since 2007.
Ahead of the game, Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, called on Mississippians to come to Jackson to support his team.
“I need everybody to come. Wear whatever you’re going to wear…I just need you in there to see what we do, Sanders said ahead of the SWAC title game. “And that would be a beautiful thing that we come together to support Mississippi. This is Mississippi vs. Texas.”
Walker Sturgeon, who lives in Oxford, Mississippi, was one of those who answered Sanders’ request. Sturgeon is also a former Ole Miss football walk-on defensive end who later earned a scholarship. He was a member of the team from 2010-2014.
“I’ve always really considered myself more of an Alcorn fan,” Sturgeon, who was recruited by the Braves, Jackson State’s rival, in 2009, told ESPN.
As a part of his recruitment, he was in attendance at the 2009 Capital City Classic between the two Mississippi rivals, and it was the last time he saw the Tigers before Coach Prime took the helm.
He documented his gameday experience online, and the post has since gone viral.
Sturgeon was one of 50,128 fans in Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, JSU’s home field, on game day. Sanders wanted the game to be about getting fans in the state to show some love for another in-state school.
“It’s about unity…,” said Sanders. “This moment is bringing this whole city together. I want you to come home.”
For Sturgeon, it’s the gameday experience, that has been a great part of SWAC games.
“The beautiful thing is [the atmosphere] hasn’t changed…,” Sturgeon told ESPN. “That’s what makes it so special…The SWAC has maintained that.”
From the tailgates to JSU’s band, the Sonic Boom of the South, which was in the top five of the Undefeated’s final HBCU Band Rankings of the season, and everything in between Jackson State’s entertainment factor isn’t limited to the on-field action and doesn’t begin or end with its superstar head coach.
This is part of why Sturgeon urges other SEC fans to “broaden their horizons” when it comes to supporting other football conferences, particularly the SWAC, which has its footprint in most SEC states.
“It’s not a betrayal to the SEC,” Sturgeon said. “You don’t have to be something you’re not to appreciate this atmosphere and live this experience.”
It appears that some fans outside of the SWAC and MEAC are already embracing that. The Celebration Bowl will be played in front of its first-ever sellout crowd, the bowl announced this week. While some of that could be tied to Sanders’ return to Atlanta, where he’s in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, it is still an impressive leap.
Read more: What Sanders’ success means to HBCUs
Sanders, who was drafted fifth overall in the 1989 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons, hyped the game and his return to Atlanta this week.
“(In Atlanta) where I started, to be back with my two sons and an entire football team and with Jackson fans, alumni … and everyone on my back, I love it,” said Sanders, about bringing a team to his first professional home, during a Celebration Bowl news conference.
Sturgeon will be there, too. A Ph.D candidate at Ole Miss, he received several invitations to attend the Celebration Bowl as a result of his viral moment and positive encounters at the SWAC Championship, but was unsure if he could make it due to his academic work. He finished his assignments early in order to attend the game and cheer on the Tigers. He said he’ll be wearing his Ole Miss shirt and JSU hat, mixing his two favorite college teams.
“I’d feel guilty if I didn’t validate such warmth by supporting JSU through this last game of the season at the very least,” Sturgeon said in a Facebook post. “If I can’t show up for the folks who literally made me go viral, what would that say about me?”
Like Sanders and the Jackson State fans he encountered, Sturgeon had an invitation of his own for those who might be interested in joining the bandwagon next season.
“Mississippi ain’t such a bad place and y’all ought to visit us when you can.”
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