North Carolina Central freshman and Scarborough resident Jayden Flaker (42) celebrates after blocking a punt against Norfolk State. North Carolina Central won the game to clinch the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title, which earned the Eagles a spot in the Cricket Celebration Bowl that they won to claim the Black college football national championship. Courtesy of North Carolina Central athletics

Two days removed from helping North Carolina Central University win the Black college football national championship, Jayden Flaker was back in a classroom.

A fourth-grade classroom, that is. He was volunteering at Wentworth School, a Scarborough elementary school for grades 3-5. Flaker attended the school as a child and later volunteered routinely while establishing himself as a football standout and state champion hurdler at Scarborough High.

Scarborough’s Jayden Flaker blocked two punts and made 12 tackles in his freshman season at North Carolina Central University.

“Some of the kids were saying things like, ‘You’re famous. We saw you on TV,’ “ Flaker said with a light chuckle. “I just remember being in that school myself, walking around, looking up to older kids. I just like to let kids know they can accomplish anything if they work hard enough.”

As a freshman linebacker and key special teams contributor, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Flaker accomplished plenty in his first college semester at North Carolina Central, which is located in Durham. He may not be famous, but Flaker’s first college football season started and finished with nationally televised games.

Last Saturday, North Carolina Central won the Cricket Celebration Bowl, shown on ABC. The underdog Eagles (10-2) beat Deion Sanders’ coached and previously unbeaten Jackson State (12-1) in overtime, 41-34, before a sold-out crowd of 49,670 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons. Flaker played on special teams and had several second-half snaps on defense as North Carolina Central sought to pressure Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son.

Flaker did not make a tackle in the game but he said he twice got close to Sanders, including once when Flaker lost his shoe.


“It was on a blitz and my shoe came off and I chased him down and I tackled him, but he let the ball go and it was incomplete,” Flaker said.

The Celebration Bowl serves as the national championship for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), pitting the conference champions from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, two leagues that compete at the Division I Football Championship Subdivision level.

“I feel like I really didn’t understand the importance when I went down here. They seem to take it real seriously and it’s nice to see a bunch of people coming together to celebrate the HBCUs,” Flaker said.

In his first college football game, freshman Jayden Flaker (42) blocked a punt for North Carolina Central against rival North Carolina A&T. Doug Burt photo

North Carolina Central appealed to Flaker because of the team’s tight-knit chemistry, the coaches’ long-range plan for his development, and a chance to play at the Division I level.

“The coach definitely mentioned (the Celebration Bowl) as an end-of-season goal, and how you would play in front of a national TV audience, and that was one of my goals as a kid, to play on national TV,” Flaker said. “But my decision to go there was really about how it seemed like one brotherhood and the potential the coaches saw in me. And going to a warmer place.”

Flaker, who has 4.39 speed in the 40-yard dash, quickly impressed the coaches, said assistant Pete Bennett, who served as the top special teams coach.


Early in preseason, Flaker was on the scout punt return team while North Carolina Central worked on its own punting mechanics. Bennett said Flaker was “just randomly selected” for the grunt task. Then coaches noticed on the field and in film review that Flaker’s burst off the line and size had him in position where he could have been blocking the practice punts.

“At first, I was questioning myself. Is our operation too slow? Do we need to change our blocking scheme?” Bennett said. “No, it turned out we were fine with what we were doing, we just basically had a freak athlete who clearly needs to be on our punt block team.”

Flaker blocked a punt in his first game, the season opening Duke’s Mayo Classic against rival North Carolina A&T. It came with 1:31 left in the first half and set up a touchdown that gave North Carolina Central a 21-10 halftime lead on its way to a 28-13 victory. The game was played in front of 35,798 fans at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, and aired on ESPN.

Flaker blocked another punt in the Eagles’ 10th game, a 48-14 win against Norfolk State that clinched the MEAC bid for the Celebration Bowl. For the season, he had 10 solo tackles and two assisted tackles.

“The blocked punts make the highlights, but he made a bunch of tackles on kickoff cover this season,” Bennett said. “The very first play of the season in his true freshman year, he made the opening tackle on the kickoff, and I had never seen that before in 15 years of coaching.”

Flaker, who played safety in high school, gradually began to supplement his special teams action with a few snaps in third-down passing situations on defense.

“I didn’t have much football IQ. I had to learn all the terms and had never played linebacker,” Flaker said. “So it was learning the techniques and the playbook, and at the end of the season they started trusting me.”

When the Celebration Bowl was over, Flaker said it hit home what he and his team had accomplished.

“I feel like I did my role and played it pretty well,” he said. “When we won, it was a good feeling knowing that I helped to get us there.”

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