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Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic

Family ties make Grambling-Tennessee State game special for this couple

Michael and Stacey Watkins are grandchildren of legendary coaches Eddie Robinson and Joe Gilliam Sr.

When Grambling and Tennessee State renew their storied rivalry in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic on Sunday, two sets of teams, bands and fans will collide. It seems fitting with the intensity of the occasion that Grambling and TSU each claim the same mascot, the tiger, in their battle to be the top cat.

But on a sectional sofa in their family room in a Dallas suburb, with their 70-inch television tuned to the NFL Network broadcast of the game, these fierce foes will be joined together in the persons of Michael and Stacey Watkins, aka the royal couple of historically Black college and university (HBCU) football. He is the grandson of Eddie Robinson, the legendary coach at Grambling, and she is the granddaughter of Joe Gilliam Sr., the renowned defensive coordinator at Tennessee State.

Stacy and Michael met and started dating when they were students at Howard University.

Michael Watkins

None of which they knew when they began dating as Howard University undergrads, which is a story we’ll come to a bit later. What is most immediately relevant is that, the two teams, in clashing for the first time since 2002, are reviving a traditional matchup that has included such stars as quarterbacks James “Shack” Harris and Eldridge Dickey, defensive lineman Claude Humphrey and wide receiver Charlie Joiner over the years. Though Grambling holds the edge 22-18, Tennessee State’s longtime coach John Merritt was the rare one in HBCU circles to persistently defeat Robinson.

For Michael and Stacey Watkins, any Grambling-TSU game is, in her words, “a family affair.” But, given the stakes on the gridiron, they are a competitive affair, too. “As my grandfather tells it,” Michael Watkins said in a recent interview via Zoom, “when they would meet, he and Joe from that point in the middle of the field where it’s most coaches saying, ‘Great game, congratulations’ and all that, they’re saying, ‘Hey, your grandson wants to marry my granddaughter.’ ‘No, your granddaughter wants to marry my grandson.’ That gives you an idea. A lot of people think we were betrothed because of the families and the college football history between the two.”

The epochal courtship began during the fall of 1988, during Michael Watkins’ junior year at Howard, when a sophomore named Stacey Gilliam stopped by his dorm room in Lucy Diggs Slowe Hall selling logo sweatshirts. Never would she have a more eager customer. Unbeknownst to Gilliam, Watkins had been eyeballing her all year, too enamored with her beauty to even speak, but always leaving the door to his ground-floor room ajar to catch glimpses of her walking by on the way to the campus shuttle bus.

The sweatshirt transaction finally allowed for some conversation, and Watkins discovered they were both in Howard’s School of Business. Over the next summer, when both stayed in the Washington area, Watkins finally asked Gilliam out for a date to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The next school year began with Watkins and Gilliam as a confirmed couple.

The Watkins’ wedding photo.

So it puzzled Watkins during the fall of 1989 when Gilliam told him she was going to Nashville, Tennessee, for a weekend to see a football game. Why go all the way there, he wanted to know, when there was plenty of football close by? “Well,” Gilliam answered, “my grandfather’s head coach at Tennessee State.” (Merritt had retired by then, and Joe Gilliam was starting a four-year stint as head coach.)

Gilliam met her future in-laws for the first time at the Bayou Classic in 1989. She and Watkins also discovered they were connected not only by their grandfathers but by her father, Craig Gilliam, and his uncle, Eddie Robinson Jr. Each worked as an assistant coach to their fathers and were best friends.

The parallels between Watkins’ and Gilliam’s young lives, though, do make one wonder about destiny or providence. Watkins and his sister Cherie were largely raised by Robinson Sr. and his wife Doris as their mother Rose struggled with substance abuse. Gilliam grew up in Atlanta with her sister Tamara and mother Geraldine after her parents got divorced, and spent every summer in Nashville with her father and her paternal grandparents. The men who were illustrious coaches for most sports fans – Robinson Sr. racked up 408 victories, second-highest among major college coaches, and Gilliam Sr. produced such future NFL stars as Humphrey, Richard Dent and James Marsalis – were to their grandkids “Papa” and “Grandaddy Joe.”

Michael Watkins (center) at his Howard graduation with grandparents Doris (left) and Eddie Robinson (right) in 1990.

Michael Watkins

As fierce as each patriarch was on the practice field and the game-day sideline, off the field they were models of domesticity. Gilliam Sr. may have particularly cherished family because of what he had lost. His daughter Sonia took her own life during a stellar academic career at Tennessee State and his namesake son, unfairly deprived of his starting quarterback position with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, spiraled down into drug addiction. (He did become sober before dying in 2000.)

“One of the main life lessons was their marriage and their relationship,” Stacey Watkins said of Gilliam Sr. and his wife Ruth. “The way that he was with his family and how he so valued family, how he was with my father Craig and the great relationship they had, how he was with my mother and how they remained connected and close. So the value of family was an important lesson.”

At another point in the Zoom interview, Stacey Watkins recalled, “It was just amazing to be a part of growing up with he and my grandmother, Grandma Ruth. He called her Honey. I just remember being there at the house and just hearing the way that they talked to each other and how much they were friends and how much they joked and said funny things with each other.”

Robinson famously described his goals as “One wife, one job, one school,” and Michael Watkins credits the example of him and Miss Doris (as everyone who knew her called her) for the longevity in his own marriage. He also vividly recalled the day during his childhood when Papa took him to a wooded ravine near the Grambling campus and began to talk about the stadium that would be built there:

Stacey Watkins (left) with her sister Tamara (right), grandad Craig Gilliam (center) and children Brittni and Michael II.

Michael Watkins

“He said, ‘Imagine a stadium down below and you’ve got the seats going around.’ I said something like, ‘How do you remember all of this?’ He told me that a man without vision is not worth a damn. That always stayed with me.”

For the royal couple of HBCU football, the legacies of Papa Eddie Robinson and Grandaddy Joe Gilliam have played out through a 30-year marriage, their children Brittni and Michael II, and their accomplished careers in human resources for Stacey Watkins and information technology and electronic gaming for her husband Michael. In the stands at Canton, Ohio, on Sunday, though, the king from Grambling and the queen from Tennessee State will for one of the rare times be having a family feud.

Samuel G. Freedman, a regular contributor to The Undefeated, is the author of nine books, including Breaking The Line, about Black college football and the Civil Rights Movement.