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Celebration Bowl: Air Force Reserve set to sponsor college football game.

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For the second consecutive year, Air Force Reserve Command will be the title sponsor of the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. The game kicks off at noon Eastern Standard Time Dec. 17 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and will be televised live on ABC to open the college football bowl season.

The Celebration Bowl, which showcases the heritage, legacy, pageantry and tradition of historically black colleges and universities, pits the champion from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference against the champion from the Southwestern Athletic Conference. In 2015, MEAC champion North Carolina A&T State University defeated SWAC champion Alcorn State University 41-34 in front of more than 35,000 fans. With the win, North Carolina A&T won the FIBCU National Championship.

"Showcasing the top teams from HBCUs on national television is a great way to underscore the Air Force Reserve's commitment to diversity and culture of inclusiveness" said Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, Air Force assistant vice chief of staff and director of the Air Staff at the Pentagon. Prior to assuming this position in August, Harris served as commander of Air Force Reserve Command's 22nd Air Force at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. She represented the Reserve at last year's game.

"We're harnessing every possible resource to ensure that we continue to deliver the world's most powerful Air Force Reserve to fly, fight and win," the general said. "We're making this happen by strengthening the structure of the Air Force Reserve team, ensuring a character-based, diverse culture and developing robust partnerships outside the Air Force Reserve to include academia. The television broadcast (last year) emphasized to a national audience that the Air Force Reserve honors our legacy of culture and diversity and that the fusion of our varied and rich cultures generates a resilient force for freedom and forges a unique bond between the Air Force Reserve, families and communities."

"We are pleased to once again open the bowl season with the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl on ABC," said John Grant, Celebration Bowl executive director. "By presenting the champions of the MEAC and SWAC conferences in this bowl game, we expose millions of fans to the excitement of championship football."

When the opportunity for the Reserve to become the game's title sponsor came up last year, it was very late in the planning process. Senior leaders realized that having relatively little time to market the event posed a challenge, but, nonetheless, they saw the value of being associated with the event.

"My initial reaction was, 'Yes, this is exactly what I was looking for because we are always looking for ways to communicate with the American public about the opportunity to serve in the Air Force Reserve,"' said Chief Master Sgt. Darin Thomas, chief of advertising for AFRC Recruiting Service at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. "We felt like we weren't reaching all of the audiences that we wanted to reach. What was appealing about this partnership was the similarities we share with these teams and schools: great teamwork, discipline and how we are impacting lives every day."

Even though the partnership to sponsor the game last season was not completed until less than two months before the game, AFRC leadership felt the results were well worth it.

"I feel the game was very effective from a recruiting standpoint: The Air Force Reserve had exposure to nearly 3 million television viewers and created over 348 million impressions," Thomas said. "This year we have the opportunity to get a head start on advertising the game and participating in events leading up to the bowl game itself like the Air Force Reserve Trophy Tour sponsored by Coca-Cola and the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Daytona Beach, the kickoff game for the two conferences in their quest to win the trophy."

The chief said that as a result of the game, the Reserve is being exposed to new opportunities to build relationships. There are opportunities to work with ESPN through some of the network's properties that will continue to put the Reserve on a national platform. In addition, the NFL has decided to get involved by partnering with the two conferences during the week leading up to the game.

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"Our partnership with the HBCUs is not only important for our pipeline of qualified individuals at all levels of football, but also to improve the NFL's goals for diversity and inclusion," said NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent. "With our HBCU partnership, we are making steady progress in developing future coaches, officials, scouts, managers, front office personnel and others through effective football resources, educational programs and internships."

Much like the NFL's goal of working toward diversity and inclusion, the Reserve is also reaching out for diverse Airmen to lead the future force.

"The strength of our Air Force Reserve, our military and our nation is our diversity, and that diverse leadership hails from the halls of HBCUs," Harris said. "Our Air Force is the world's greatest because of great Airmen like Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Joseph McNeil, a graduate of (North Carolina) A&T, who is also an American civil rights hero best known as a member of the Greensboro Four; four-star Air Force generals like Bernard Randolph (Xavier), Chappie James (Tuskegee), Lester Lyles, now chairman of the board of USAA (Howard) and Fig Newton (Tennessee State); three-star generals like Julius Becton (Prairie View) and James Hall (Morehouse); and our military's first black female two-star general, Marcelite Harris (Spelman). We need bold, innovative leaders with courage and integrity to serve in our Air Force Reserve. And we know HBCUs have produced and will continue to produce those leaders who have been essential to our nation's defense."

At last year's game, both Harris and retired Maj. Gen. Richard Haddad, former AFRC vice commander, were able to speak to the teams at various functions and serve as the command's representatives, participating in the pre-game coin toss and making the trophy presentation after the contest. Haddad played college football at the U.S. Air Force Academy and brought his old helmet along to let the players know he understands the position they are in.

"I think having my helmet up there on the stage certainly got their attention," Haddad said. "The point I was trying to get across to them is that football gives you great opportunities in life, really any sport is an opportunity to learn about life lessons and to give you the ability to challenge yourself and ensure you have a path forward to being successful, not only in athletics but after athletics. That's what I tried to impress upon those young men there that night."

The general also took advantage of the chance to explain to the players the benefits of serving their country and teach them what it means to be a Reservist.

"I think I gave them an opportunity to understand there is service out there in the Air Force and military in general, and you don't have to do it full time," Haddad said. "You can be a part-time Reservist and still have another job. And I would venture to say most of them probably didn't have an understanding of how that worked."

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The Reserve is in need of college graduates in several critical skills areas.

"The Air Force Reserve recognizes there is a critical need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics talent, so we need to attract, recruit, develop and retain a world-class workforce of innovators that will continue to forge a path of technological dominance and sustain a combat edge for our military," Harris said." We just hope that when graduates look up and see an airplane soaring across the sky, they think, 'Wow, that could be me. I want to design, I want to fly, I want to soar, and, most importantly, I want to serve in the Air Force Reserve.'"

For the teams in the MEAC and the SWAC, there is a huge impact and motivation to reach this championship game. Having a national TV audience gives each participant, as well as the conferences, an opportunity to get their message out.

"It means a lot for our two conferences to have a bowl game that separates us from the rest of the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) conferences and a game that celebrates our rich history and tradition," said former Alcorn State University Head Coach Jay Hopson. "Anytime you have positive exposure like the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, it not only helps our program but also our school, and it also increases our enrollment."

Hopson led Alcorn State to the inaugural Celebration Bowl, where his team lost to North Carolina A&T, but his squad did win the SBN Black National Championship the previous year. He has since taken the head coaching job at the University of Southern Mississippi.

For each of the military members who participated in the inaugural game, there were moments that left an impression on them.

"I think the highlight in general was the pride I had in obviously wearing the uniform but also the pride in seeing Air Force Reserve Command plastered everywhere in the Georgia Dome," Haddad said. "There was something with regard to the Air Force Reserve Command, whether it was on the goal posts, on the field or on the screens. Everywhere you turned, you saw Air Force Reserve, and it was advertising what we do for our nation in terms of Reservists who are doing the Air Force's business."

"The highlight for me was talking to a couple of players and hearing their story and seeing how much having the opportunity to play in a bowl championship game on national television meant to them," Thomas said.

For Harris, one of the participating teams gave the game a special meaning for her.

"One special highlight was my opportunity to pay honor to my dad who completed his freshman year at A&T before enlisting in the Air Force," she said. "I became an Airman to follow in my dad's footsteps. I was able to have an A&T football jersey on hand for the game in remembrance of my dad with the number 22 on it to give a shout out also to 22nd Air Force."

(Babin is a public affairs superintendent assigned to the AFRC Recruiting Service at Robins AFB.)

Story and photos by Master Sgt. Chance Babin
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Author:Babin, Chance
Publication:Citizen Airman
Geographic Code:1U5NC
Date:Oct 1, 2016
Words:1734
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