WASHINGTON (AP) -Antoine Bethea's Super Bowl ring looks pretty good to Geoff Pope. And not just because they're close friends.
Bethea is an inspirational story for any NFL prospect at a historically black school. Chosen late in the sixth round last year by Indianapolis, the safety from Howard University became a starter as a rookie, had two interceptions in the playoffs and helped the Colts win the NFL title.
Now Pope has a chance to be the next Howard player headed for the pros. His speed alone - 4.29 in the 40-yard dash - has him projected as a late-round pick at this weekend's draft.
``Seeing Bethea go through that, it doesn't get any better than that,'' Pope said. ``He had a lot of people saying he couldn't play at that level, and to go on and star like that throughout the playoffs and the Super Bowl and get raves, that's huge - not only for me, but for anybody else at a small school that's trying to make it big.''
Howard also had safety Ron Bartell selected by St. Louis in the second round in 2005, and tackle Marques Ogden went to Jacksonville in sixth round in 2003. Not bad for a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school that isn't exactly piling up the trophies - Ray Petty's contract wasn't renewed at the end of last season after a 25-30 record over five years.
But Howard's modest draft success doesn't even touch what's happening this year at Hampton, a MEAC school in Virginia and also one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Pirates had five players invited to the NFL combine, a record for a Division I-AA school and one more than the number invited from Southern Cal.
``I think it's probably a testament to what you are seeing in HBCU - the staffs are a lot more organized,'' said Hampton coach Joseph Taylor, whose team has won three straight MEAC titles. ``They go out and do a great job of recruiting and then, of course, the actual development, the teaching, the film study. You put that with a real good strength and conditioning program, it shows that we are developing young men and if they have aspirations for going on, then that opportunity can come at the HBCU.''
nd pick from an HBCU since Sylvester Morris (Kansas City) and Rashard Anderson (Carolina) were both taken from Jackson State in 2000.
``It's always good to see those schools get players,'' Brandt said, ``but the odds are dwindling.''
The heyday for black schools in the draft came in mid-1970s. Ed ``Too Tall'' Jones and Waymond Bryant, both from Tennessee State, were the Nos. 1 and 4 overall picks in 1974, and Walter Payton (Jackson State), Robert Brazile (Jackson State), Gary Johnson (Grambling) and Thomas Henderson (Langston) were in the top 20 in 1975.
But that was at the tail end of a different social era. The gradual end of segregation slowly eroded the top talent from the black schools.
``These guys that used to go to those type of schools are now all at the LSUs and Texases and so forth,'' Brandt said. ``Walter Payton wouldn't be at Jackson State today.''
Now the best players on black college teams are more or less in the same boat as those at the other small schools, hoping to get noticed by scouts who have been more and more thorough with their research. Some weren't good enough to be recruited by a bigger school, while others have come from those bigger schools in search of more playing time. Two of Hampton's prospects transferred from Miami, while Pope transferred to Howard from Eastern Michigan.
``There's a lot of players in the league that come from small black schools,'' Bethea said. ``And for us to be successful it's going to help the people who come behind us. It's a big deal to come from a black college - and a small school.''

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