The Commercial Appeal

Time to get vaccinated for Deion, George and SHC

- Mark Giannotto Columnist Memphis Commercial Appeal USA TODAY NETWORK – TENN.

Right before Eddie George stepped on stage in Nashville and officially became the new Tennessee State football coach Tuesday, the phone rang again in Memphis.

“Everybody is calling me everywhere. It’s completely off the chain,” Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones said. “I’m hearing from people everywhere who want to come to Memphis, and I can’t give them an answer yet. If the world was perfect, this would be the biggest Classic in a lot of different ways.”

But the world isn’t perfect yet, and herein lies the latest dilemma presented by the pandemic that’s not quite over. It comes with a request from Jones.

The city’s biggest events are starting to come back, which means one of the country’s most compelling sports stories is suddenly scheduled to descend on Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Sept. 11.

The 32nd Jackson State-tennessee State football game that the Southern Heritage Classic was built around will not be like the 31 before it.

It is now the first time Deion Sanders and George face one another as head coaches, a collision of two NFL legends and two bold decisions made by two HBCUS trying to transform and elevate their image.

So the landmark cultural event that annually brings these two schools together in Memphis, an event that hasn’t taken place two of the past three years

because of the pandemic and poor weather, is returning with a captive national audience in tow.

And if ever there was a year when the Southern Heritage Classic needed exposure to more people than ever before, if ever there was a year it deserved an easy sellout at the Liberty Bowl, this was it.

If only Jones knew how many people can actually attend this year. The football game, the days-long tailgate, the parade through Orange Mound, the concerts and fundraisin­g events, it's all still to be determined based on consultati­on with the Shelby County Health Department. Jones said he's hopeful to be able to put tickets on sale by May 1.

So here's his request, on the day George and Tennessee State added even more intrigue to this year's football game:

“The more people who get vaccinatio­ns, the better it is for all of us,” Jones said. “That will bring these events back better than anything.”

If you haven't noticed, the best events Memphis has to offer are emerging from their pandemic-induced hibernatio­n. Slowly but surely, and maybe not quite like they used to be, but better than the empty calendar of 2020.

And these big events may be the best way to incentiviz­e the community to get vaccinated. Better than a Mempop, or a Krispy Kreme donut, or a gift card.

This week, the Memphis football team will allow tailgating outside of the Liberty Bowl for the first time since the pandemic began ahead of its Friday Night Stripes spring game. Next month, the Memphis Redbirds will play a baseball game at Autozone Park for the first time in more than 500 days, and an abbreviate­d Memphis in May and the World Championsh­ip Barbecue Cooking Contest will happen.

There could be some Grizzlies playoff games to go to and the Levitt Shell is back and the World Golf Championsh­ips-fedex St. Jude Invitation­al announced last week it's going to allow fans in August. Then comes the fall, when Memphis football gets a marquee home game against Mississipp­i State.

How many people get to be there, how close to normal it seems in the stands, could and probably should depend on how many of us are vaccinated.

If you're on the fence about it, think about getting the shot in those terms.

Think about how it would feel like to be in a Fedexforum that sounds more like Fedexforum when Ja Morant plays his first home NBA playoff game. Think about what the 18th green at TPC Southwind could look like on Sunday afternoon, when so many in this community congregate for a global golf tournament in celebratio­n of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Think of what the Liberty Bowl could look like on Sept. 11 when “Coach Prime” and a Heisman Trophy winner are roaming the sidelines with a national spotlight shining on the entire city.

“We got Eddie George and Deion Sanders,” Jones said Tuesday, almost in disbelief. “This is going to be a big deal for Memphis.”

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto

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