In the hallway of his family’s apartment in Valley Stream, N.Y., last month, Noah Bodden overturned a large green trash bag, spilling out several pounds of recruiting letters.
The envelopes bore the insignia of many prominent college football programs across the country, like Louisiana State, Baylor, Oregon, Tennessee and Arizona State. Some included handwritten notes from coaches to Bodden, one of the most promising high school quarterbacks in the country.
“You will make our team better the first day you step on campus,” one coach wrote.
It was all very flattering for Bodden (the first syllable “Bo” rhymes with “snow”), especially considering the power and prestige behind the outreach from teams that regularly play on national television and have extravagant facilities.
But in a surprising move, Bodden spurned them all. He pledged to go to Grambling State University, a historically Black college in rural Louisiana. Grambling has a rich football history, but like all H.B.C.U.s, it struggles to compete with the cachet and the financial advantages of major football powerhouses.
“I want to be a trendsetter,” Bodden said last month while sitting on a stoop across the street from his home. “I want to be like LeBron James and bring everybody with me.”
Bodden, 17, lives with his parents in a modest apartment above a check-cashing store. He worries about his homework, delivers food for Door Dash in his compact car and, by taking his talents to Grambling, is highlighting the growing appeal of H.B.C.U.s for many young athletes of color.
“It’s going to bring a lot of attention to Black colleges, and deservedly so,” said Doug Williams, who played for Grambling in the 1970s and in 1988 became the first Black quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl. Three decades later, Williams is part of a scouting committee sponsored by the N.F.L. that is pushing to ensure that H.B.C.U. players get fair consideration in the league’s annual draft.
Bodden’s splashy announcement was part of what H.B.C.U.s hope can grow into a wider shift.
Bodden, a senior at Christ the King High School in Queens, announced his decision in a splashy video in late September. It came a month after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., and four months after George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. Those cases and others spawned widespread protests that extended to the sports realm.
Professional players in men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and soccer sat out games, and high school athletes took steps, as well. Among them was Makur Maker, a 6-foot-11 basketball recruit, who said he would attend Howard University instead of U.C.L.A. or Kentucky. A handful of other athletes in football and in men’s and women’s basketball also said they would go to H.B.C.U.s.
Bodden pledged to Grambling for similar reasons, in part to help broaden the appeal of H.B.C.U.s to elite nonwhite athletes, some of whom worry about being exploited at predominantly white universities even as they help raise the profiles and profits of those institutions.
“With the social unrest this summer, a lot of H.B.C.U.s have been getting transfers and contacted by players they wouldn’t have gotten before,” said B.J. Jones, a former linebacker at Southern University in Louisiana and a writer and commentator for the website HBCU Gameday. “I think a lot of kids are now thinking, ‘Hey, you can love my talent. But do you love my humanity?’”
Jones said he could not recall a recruit of Bodden’s stature from a northern city in the United States who had committed to a historically Black college. Most H.B.C.U. players come from within the schools’ general geographical footprint in the South. But Bodden, Jones said, should find Grambling to be welcoming.
Jones, who was a third-generation H.B.C.U. football player, insists that Black colleges tend to emphasize developing student-athletes into well-rounded people rather than focusing simply on their sports. His grandfather played football at Tuskegee University, and his father and brother at Alabama State. When Jones was at Southern, which is near the Louisiana State campus in Baton Rouge, he and his teammates worked out and socialized with their L.S.U. counterparts. Jones said many of them envied the hospitality and comfort they felt while walking around the Southern campus.
“They would light up when they came to visit,” Jones said. “They would tell us, ‘I don’t feel ownership in my school like you do.’ It’s not just how you treat the Black athlete on campus. It’s also about how you treat the ordinary Black student who maybe can’t give you anything.”
This year, H.B.C.U.s canceled all of their fall sports because of the pandemic while the marquee conferences, which have television deals far more lucrative than those of Grambling and its fellow Black colleges, went to great lengths to stage football seasons. Williams said the H.B.C.U. decision revealed the schools to be motivated more by students’ well-being than by financial concerns.
The N.F.L. is still Bodden’s main goal.
Bodden believes that Grambling can help his chances to be drafted by an N.F.L. team, even though the university is in the N.C.A.A.’s Football Championship Subdivision, the second tier of the college game, and rarely appears on national television.
“It is by no means a mistake,” said Phil Simms, the Super Bowl-winning Giants quarterback who, along with his son Matt, has helped train Bodden. “Look, I went to Morehead State. If you’ve got it, the scouts will find you.”
Bodden hopes to compete for a starting job as a freshman, and there is less chance of that happening on a team in one of the elite Power 5 conferences.
“It’s all about getting to the league,” Bodden said, referring to the N.F.L. “If I had a good chance of going to Arizona State and starting, or at least having a shot right behind Jayden Daniels, I would go there. But that’s not the best decision for me right now.”
Only one Grambling football player has been drafted by an N.F.L. team in the past decade. Bodden believes he can be the next.
Bodden is 6-foot-4, weighs 215 pounds and has a right arm able to loft perfect spirals with incredible ease. He is rated the 48th best senior pocket-passing quarterback by 247 Sports, a network of websites that focus on college recruiting for football and basketball.
Matt Simms, a former quarterback for the Jets and the University of Tennessee, said he has seen N.F.L.-caliber talent in Bodden.
“I’ll tell him from time to time during a workout, ‘Just so you know, that throw was good enough to be the sixth or seventh best throw in the N.F.L. this week,’” Simms said. “It’s scary to think about how good he can get, because he can already throw the ball 50 yards, 20 feet off the ground.”
Bodden began working with the Simmses at the suggestion of Bruce Eugene, the offensive coordinator at Christ the King, who was a star quarterback at Grambling. Eugene said that he had initially favored Kansas, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech for Bodden, and had not pushed Grambling, but that he was overjoyed by the decision.
Bodden’s parents initially wanted him to accept an offer from Kansas.
“But we support his decision now,” said his mother, Maria Sisternes. “We are very proud of him making the choice that is right for him.”
With 15 Black college football championships, Grambling has gained a reputation as “the Notre Dame of H.B.C.U.s.” In 1971, seven Grambling State players were taken in the first five rounds of the N.F.L. draft.
But of the roughly 1,750 active players on N.F.L. rosters when the season began Sept. 7, only 29 had come from H.B.C.U.s., according to HBCU Gameday. And since the A.F.L. and the N.F.L. began drafting together in 1967, only 13 quarterbacks have been selected from H.B.C.U.s, according to the Football Perspective website.
As integration began to take hold in college football in the early 1970s and the best players migrated to the large, predominantly white universities, the talent pool for H.B.C.U.s shrank.
The last Grambling quarterback drafted by an N.F.L. team was Clemente Gordon in 1990, and the last before that was Williams, who was selected in the first round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978. Williams, who also coached at Grambling, replacing the legendary Eddie Robinson in 1998, now works for the Washington Football Team as senior vice president for player development.
“He’s going to have a culture shock, with the hospitality he is going to get,” Williams said of Bodden. “It’s not just a game there, it’s a family reunion. I can’t even imagine not going to a historically Black college.”
Bodden says he has made his decision, but he has yet to commit in writing. He can sign a national letter of intent no sooner than Dec. 16.
He could still change course. But he insists that won’t happen.
“I’m trying to promote a positive vibe,” Bodden said. “Imagine if a whole bunch of other recruits go to H.B.C.U.s, too. If you are good, they are going to come join you.”