Dawson still helping grow the game through Florida A&M, HBCUs

February 23rd, 2024

From a very young age, Andre Dawson knew he wanted to be a Florida A&M Rattler.

In elementary school, the future member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame attended the Orange Blossom Classic, where the Rattlers football team played annually in his hometown of Miami.

The games were intoxicating to Dawson. Head coach Jake Gaither's teams were dominant on the gridiron. The Marching 100 played music and danced like he'd never seen. His uncle, Bob Hayes, even played cornerback for Florida A&M.

"It's in my blood," Dawson said. "It was instilled very early on."

Dawson didn't play the drums and hurt his knee playing football in high school. His true calling was baseball, and he earned a scholarship after walking on to Florida A&M's team in 1973.

Although FAMU had previously produced such MLB All-Stars as Mudcat Grant and Hal McRae, Dawson didn't know much about the Rattlers baseball team. But in time, he impacted the program -- during his three years in Tallahassee, Florida, and continuing on afterward -- as it became one of the nation's most competitive among Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The commitment of the dynamic player known as "The Hawk" remains clutch in promoting African-American participation in baseball. Dawson was honored when MLB named its annual HBCU Classic after him, and he prides himself on building relationships and being able to give career advice to Florida A&M players and other participating schools. This year's tourney starts Friday at the famed Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla.

Florida A&M has long been known as one of the most prestigious academic HBCUs -- according to U.S. News and World Report, it ranks third behind only Spelman and Howard. With a hotbed of talent in Florida, it's been able to remain competitive athletically as well.

The football team continues to be a window for the university, having won the only Division II title among HBCUs (1978) as well as 16 Black College Football National Championships. The baseball program, however, has played in its shadow.

While developing five multi-time All-Stars -- Marquis Grissom and Vince Coleman followed Dawson in the '80s -- the Rattlers won six Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships between 1987 and '94 on the heels of 14 D-II titles. But because of the size and format of the NCAA Tournament, smaller schools like Florida A&M were rarely included.

Florida A&M won the SWAC and made its third NCAA Tournament in 2023.Florida A&M Athletics

It wasn't until the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999 and gave automatic bids to each conference champion that FAMU made a regional. Under head coach Jamey Shouppe, who arrived from neighboring Florida State, the Rattlers have won three conference crowns in the past nine seasons, the most recent of which was a Southwestern Athletic Conference title in just their second year after moving up to the premier HBCU level.

With limited scholarships, Florida A&M has trouble attracting many players with professional futures -- in a decade with the school, only two of Shouppe's players have been drafted. But by coaching with a soft touch, he uses that as an opportunity to prepare players for life outside of baseball.

He's not big on early-morning workouts or overbearing conditioning. Instead, Shouppe focuses on the skills he believes help teams win most -- pitching, hitting, catching and throwing. Through his long pedigree of coaching at FSU and for USA Baseball, he's come to understand fun practices make for better camaraderie, no matter the level.

"We look like what America looks like," said Shouppe, whose team consists of players from various backgrounds. "America is diverse, but America is united. Our kids are united, man. They love each other. They treat each other with respect. They hang out on and off the field together. We would be so much better as a country if our country, which is diverse like our team, was as united as our team."

Jamey Shouppe (on left on the fence) has led FAMU to three regionals appearances.Florida A&M Athletics

That's not to say that Florida A&M, like many HBCUs, doesn't still face many challenges. A lack of funding for the athletic department led Shouppe to fundraise for such basic equipment as bats, balls, gloves and helmets. Facilities trail behind several high schools in Tallahassee, and the program depends on generous alumni like Dawson donating both time and money as well as MLB running events like the RBI Program and the Hank Aaron Invitational to increase investment in Black participation.

"Major League Baseball, through its initiatives, are starting to get a lot of the kids to go through the programs and then go to the HBCU programs," Dawson said. "I think the quality of talent is starting to get a lot better. Thanks to the initiatives, that's one of the reasons why we're starting to get a better quality of player."

Dawson was back on the Florida A&M campus in the fall when he was named the homecoming parade's grand marshal. He was overjoyed to watch the players get their gaudy conference championship rings and made a point to speak with them one-on-one. And he hopes that -- whether the students have a 21-year Major League career like him or not -- Florida A&M provides a life-changing experience for each one of them.

"Like I said, it was in my blood, instilled in me, very early on," Dawson said. "Once I was there and able to experience the whole culture of college and meet new people, that experience I wouldn't trade."