Javon Hargrave was Kevin Colbert's third round pick to add to the defensive tackle depth for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While fans will hope for Hargrave to become an impact player soon, his pick bears some historical significance as he hails from South Carolina State, a historically black college/university.
The phrase "historically black college/university," or HBCU, refers to institutions of higher learning which were founded in times when African-Americans were not as welcome into major universities as white students were, and continue to stand to this day. While the enrollment to these institutions is not entirely made up of African-American students, the majority of HBCUs still have a heavy percentage of African-American students, despite many HBCU efforts to diversify their enrollment in recent decades.
The historical significance of HBCUs and their tie to the Pittsburgh Steelers stems back decades into the 1970's when Chuck Noll was in the middle of building the greatest dynasty in NFL history. The Rooney family recognized the editor to the local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally recognized black-owned-and-operated newspaper, Bill Nunn Jr., who was a sportswriter that recognized the top 100 HBCU athletes in the country with his column in the Courier and would host an annual national banquet to celebrate these players.
During that time, talented players at HBCUs were often overlooked for players at predominantly white institutions due to the lack of coverage of HBCUs by the mainstream press and the focus of NFL scouts into the more well recognized programs such as Alabama, USC, Texas and other big name universities.
Nunn was a former student-athlete for West Virginia State, a HBCU, who played basketball with the first African-American player drafted into the NBA, Chuck Cooper, at both Pittsburgh's Westinghouse High School and West Virginia State University. He spent his time covering HBCU athletes with the Courier to help them gain national recognition, which eventually was recognized by the Rooney family. The Rooneys saw that Nunn had a good eye for talent and recruited him to be one of their scouts during the seventies to help them build a dynasty.
Nunn would be hired in 1970, and helped find some of the more legendary recruits of the decade which would become key parts to Super Bowl champion teams. Half of the Steelers' legendary Steel Curtain defensive line hailed from HBCUs in that of defensive tackle Ernie Holmes and defensive end L.C. Greenwood. Two of Pittsburgh's current members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame that came from the 1970's in cornerback Mel Blount and wide receiver John Stallworth both came from HBCUs as well. While several other HBCU players would be drafted by the Steelers during the 1970's, one of the bigger impact players who added as an undrafted free agent was safety Donnie Shell.
Between Blount and Shell alone, the Steelers would see over 100 interceptions recorded by their HBCU selections as well as great plays from the other mentioned players. Shell went to the same HBCU as Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State University, and Shell sits as one of the best Steelers who has yet to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Steelers led the way in the NFL with selecting HBCU talent and turned the focus of many pro football franchises to the recruiting pool, where some of the greatest players ever were taken in Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and plenty others.
In recent decades HBCU talent has not been a feature of the Steelers due to many more African-American athletes getting the opportunity to play under scholarship at predominantly white institutions, leading to a smaller talent pool for the smaller institutions of HBCUs to choose from. The Steelers' most recent HBCU selection was offensive tackle, Jamain Stephens from North Carolina A&T, who was selected in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft, but ultimately ended as a bust.
Also drafted that year was linebacker Earl Holmes from Florida A&M University, who went on to become a solid middle linebacker during the late 1990's and early 2000's for Pittsburgh under Bill Cowher. Another notable HBCU talent would be the most feared linebacker from the Steelers in the 1990's, Greg Lloyd, drafted in 1987 out of Fort Valley State towards the end of the Chuck Noll era.
Hargrave's connection to the Steelers' legacy of great HBCU talent is worthy of note, and his selection celebrated by the HBCU community, as he was one of only three HBCU players selected in 2016. Whether Hargrave will be able to uphold such a strong legacy remains to be seen; however, being around a strong organization such as the Pittsburgh Steelers will certainly help his chances of becoming a NFL star; as well as playing next to two upper-echelon players in Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt on the Steelers' defensive line.
If you ever want to learn more about the Pittsburgh Steelers and the team's connection with HBCUs, be sure to read both Gary Pomerantz's "Their Life's Work," as well as Andrew Conte's "The Color of Sundays," as both give historical accounts into how the Steelers built their dynasty of the 1970s.