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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008 01:42 pm

Fall classics

College football matchups are just a few hours away and help a good cause

FAMU players celebrate at last year’s Indy Classic.
A member of the Florida A&M band steps it out at the 2007 Circle City Classic.

While there is no shortage of great prep gridiron action or NFL team spirit in Springfield, the capital city's offering of college football leaves something to be desired. Sure, Urbana-Champaign and Memorial Stadium are a quick jaunt, but after last year's trip to the Rose Bowl, Illini tickets are at a premium.

If you're ready for some football of the college variety, you can never go wrong with the "classics" — popular turf clashes between historically black colleges and universities that originated in the South in the 1920s. Three of them take place this fall, all are within driving distance from Springfield.

The atmosphere of a classic is nothing like that of most college sporting events. To put it into perspective, classics come with the excitement of an Ohio State/Michigan showdown and feature a halftime show and often enough celebrities to rival the Super Bowl. Many attendees dress more like they're seeking admittance into a swanky nightclub than going to watch 22 guys pummel each other in a sports arena.

However, classics aren't just about the game, alumni bragging rights, or even the centerpiece battle of the marching bands (a staple of football classics depicted in the films School Daze and Drumline) but organizers say the events are primarily fundraisers for college scholarships.

The closest game to Springfield, the St. Louis Gateway Classic, began in the fall of 1993. The following year, a half-dozen civic leaders from the STL, led by former IBM executive Earl Wilson, Jr., formed the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation, which, in addition to the football games, hosts high school basketball, amateur boxing, and golf tournaments throughout the year, which all support the agency's core mission: helping kids get a college a degree.

"People talk about teams, teams, teams. It's not about teams – it's about education," says Wilson, the foundation's executive director. This year's 14th annual Gateway Football Classic between Kentucky State University and Stillman College takes place on Saturday, September 27 at 3 p.m. ($16 to $35; Edward Jones Dome).

The game will also feature a Battle of the Bands and the coronation of Miss Gateway Classic. On Thursday, September 25, St. Louis-born humorist and activist Dick Gregory hosts a comedy reception at the President Casino's Galaxy Room. Around 50,000 fans are expected to attend the weekend's events, which include the game, a parade, and pep rally. For a complete list of events visit www.gatewayclassic.org/events.

The Chicago Football Classic Foundation also provides scholarships Chicago-area high school students through its Adopt-a-School program. The 11th Annual Chicago Football Classic goes down at 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 6 at Soldier Field. Tickets to the game, which features West Virginia State University and Central State University, range from $15 to $30. Other weekend activities include a college fair, Greek step show, Battle of the Bands, and a concert. Go to www.chicagofootballclassic.biz for more information and a complete list of events.

Finally, Indianapolis' Circle City Classic is one of the largest classics in the nation and takes place on October 4. Kickoff for the 25th annual contest, this year between Alabama A & M University and Tuskegee University, is scheduled for 4 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium. Ticket prices are $10 to $45, and sell out quickly. More information can be found at www.circlecityclassic.com/events.

As much fun as the classics are for fans, and as much good as they do for kids bound for college and the economy of the host cities, keeping host foundations afloat is a constant challenge.

"We've been around 15 years and we'd like to say we've been able to fill the dome, but we haven't," Wilson says.

By diversifying the foundation's year-round programming and fundraising efforts, and not relying on donations from charity groups, the Gateway Classic Foundation is able to cover its expenses and keep $1 million in the bank at all times, he adds.

"We have never fallen into the trap where you depend on the system and we don't put all our eggs in one basket with just one football game," Wilson says. "That's why we've been successful."

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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