How’s this for a Musial twist on “Southern” hospitality − from the truest of rivals?

The annual football matchup between Southern and Grambling State universities dates back to 1932, when the two teams vied for the best Black football players in Louisiana and the winner first claimed state bragging rights. Since being dubbed the Bayou Classic a half-century ago, the annual meeting has staked its claim as the most celebrated rivalry among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The teams meet each year at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, in the only NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision game to be regularly televised by a major network.

The series can’t get much closer. Before this year’s game, scheduled for the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Southern holds a 25-24 advantage at the Superdome. Even the bands duke it out. Grambling’s “World Famed” Tiger Marching Band and Southern’s Human Jukebox try to one-up each other with music and choreography. But this year’s edition has added an extra layer: Southern upped the ante on sportsmanship by visiting a seriously injured Grambling player in the hospital – as a surprise for his birthday.

Southern is located in Baton Rouge, not far from Louisiana State University, whom Grambling faced in early September. About halfway through the third quarter of the LSU game, Grambling linebacker JaQuavis Richmond collided with a teammate on a punt return, breaking his neck and spine in five places. Unable to move, JaQuavis was rushed to the hospital and underwent surgery. The feeling returned to his extremities, but JaQuavis had to receive his initial treatment and therapy in Baton Rouge, a four-hour drive from the Grambling campus.

To provide companionship and promote unity among HBCUs, members of Southern’s football team and university staff visited JaQuavis for his birthday celebration, 10 days after he was injured. Southern deputy athletic director Rodney Kirschner told HBCU Sports, “Even though we are competitors, the HBCU spirit is just as big.”

JaQuavis, in turn, surprised the Southern delegation by rising from his wheelchair and taking a few steps. “You just love that, just to see all these people here from Southern,” JaQuavis told reporters at the visit. “Even though I don’t like them at all,” he began jokingly, “they just had a love (coming) from them. It means a lot. It warms my heart.”

Southern University tight end Dupree Fuller, who visited JaQuavis, agrees that this situation was bigger than football.

“You never want to hear about a football player falling,” Dupree says. “Even if you might not know him or know what really happened. We all feel that way because we’re all players, and you never know when it could be your last snap.”

While JaQuavis’s football future remains unclear, his powers of recuperation are impressive. He returned to Grambling in time for the Tigers’ homecoming game in mid-October. Dressed in his uniform and wearing a neck brace, he ran, jumped and encouraged his teammates from the sidelines. “It’s not about football anymore,” he says. “It’s about me living. I could’ve lost my life. Breaking your neck in five different places, you think God has a calling for me. I just thank God that I’m here.”

With the Bayou Classic at hand, the rivalry will heat up on the field. But after the final play, both teams will remember the kindness, empathy and class that Southern players and staff showed to JaQuavis. And he plans to be there as a reminder.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re Grambling, Southern, Florida A&M, Jackson State,” Southern’s Dupree Fuller says. “We’re all football players … we’re family.”