New event in town reconfirms Atlanta’s college football passion

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. warms up before the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game between Washington and Michigan Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. warms up before the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game between Washington and Michigan Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Friday night found Falcons great and all-around good person Warrick Dunn at the College Football Hall of Fame dressed in a handsome suit. The Falcons minority owner was there to receive an honor for his years of charitable work, but not to share any opinions about which quarterback the Falcons should acquire.

“No, because I’m a partner, I’m just going to stay quiet,” Dunn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a laugh.

Dunn was among the notables for the Maxwell Football Club’s annual awards ceremony, held for the first time in Atlanta. He mixed in with about 200 attendees at the black-tie optional affair, many of whom had paid $450 per head to rub shoulders with the likes of Dunn and former Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr., the winner of the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top player in 2023.

“It’s always good to meet people and see other people,” Dunn said. “Me, I’m trying to lay back. I just like to just chill.”

Other award winners in attendance included former N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson (winner of the Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player) and Ohio State safety and Mill Creek High grad Caleb Downs (winner of the Shaun Alexander Award as the nation’s top freshman for his play while he was still at Alabama). Two pillars of the state’s football community, John Grant, executive director of the Celebration Bowl (the unofficial HBCU national championship played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium) and Claude Felton, the recently retired sports information director at Georgia, also were on hand to be honored.

That the event has moved to the Hall of Fame speaks again to Atlanta’s standing as a focal point of college football. Boosters love to call it the capital of college football, what with the Hall of Fame, the SEC Championship game, the Aflac Kickoff game (formerly the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game), the Peach Bowl and, on a recurring basis, the College Football Playoff Championship game, all based here, to say nothing of the multitude of fandoms represented in metro Atlanta.

Such interest held obvious appeal for the Maxwell Football Club, which had held its annual awards event in or near the Philadelphia area for the past 86 years. (The Maxwell Award is only two years younger than the Heisman Trophy.) Club executive director Mark Wolpert told the AJC that the pandemic reduced local appetite for events like the club’s and that the club couldn’t find a home for it. Further, the Northeast is more focused on the NFL than on the college game.

Wolpert called it a difficult but necessary move to shift the event.

“When you leave your home and you leave your support clientele of what we do, it’s ripping the band-aid off,” he said. “But we knew long term, the move is to be down here. There’s much more interest down here.”

Securing an awards dinner does not make the same waves as landing the CFP Championship game, obviously. But this says something about Atlanta and its passion for college football. A club that had held its prized event for more than eight decades in its backyard picked it up and moved it about 700 miles to a city where it has little name recognition, simply banking on Atlanta’s love of college football.

It’s important for this to work. The dinner is a fundraiser for the club, which Wolpert said runs programs like leadership seminars for high school football players and combine-type events for athletes in underserved communities.

“We have a three-year deal here, and we’re going to stay down here,” Wolpert said. “This is going to be our home.”

The Hall is well-suited and experienced in holding events like Friday’s. Before the awards presentation, the main entry space was dotted with football greatness during the cocktail hour. Aside from the aforementioned award winners, College Football Hall of Famers Don McPherson, Hugh Green and Matt Stinchcomb were in attendance, as was Alabama great Shaun Alexander, there to present Downs with his award. (Stinchcomb, a Georgia great, presented Felton, who humbly and predictably used some of his acceptance speech to hail Stinchcomb as the greatest combination of football, academic and community service excellence in team history.)

Hall of Fame president and CEO Kimberly Beaudin told the AJC that it’s her goal to have the Maxwell event at the Hall on a permanent basis. The Hall hosted a college football awards show in December 2015-19, bringing the season’s biggest stars to Atlanta, but that event is now conducted at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.

“To be able to host the greatest players and coaches and the influencers and people that have shaped the game, that’s why we’re here,” Beaudin said. “It’s wonderful.”

The club would be wise to abbreviate the awards presentation, which dragged. The event, which was livestreamed, was filled with pauses and elements that slowed the pace. For instance, before Lions coach Dan Campbell was recognized as the pro football coach of the year, a video was played in which the names of every past winner were scrolled and read, 34 in total. That was followed by a video tribute to the Lions’ season. The two segments took up about seven minutes. And Campbell wasn’t actually in attendance, sending along a statement of thanks in his stead. Over the course of the night, the audience slowly dwindled.

There will be kinks to work out, more invitations to be handed out and introductions to be made. But the Maxwell Football Club would seem to be in the right location.