The Allstate Sugar Bowl Believes in Champions – Wayne Messam
Champions have long defined the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The list of Hall of Fame athletes who have competed in the annual contest is staggering. Heisman Trophy winners, future NFL Super Bowl champions and national championship coaches have made their mark in the annual game that brings in thousands of fans and millions of television viewers to New Orleans. But the list of Sugar Bowl champions extends well past the gridiron. There is a long list of distinguished individuals who have proven themselves to be champions in life as well – the Sugar Bowl’s current series highlights these lesser known success stories.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl Believes in Champions
Florida State has produced numerous big-time wide receivers, many of whom have gone on to impressive NFL careers and several who have appeared in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. But Wayne Messam, who played in Tallahassee from 1993-96, likely isn’t the first former Seminole wideout college football fans list when thinking of former Florida State pass catchers.
“Wayne was a very steady football player; he didn’t have great speed, but he was tall, had good reach and could catch the ball well,” legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. “Number one, he had a good knack for football, but number two, I thought he was a better citizen.”
His steadiness and his cool under pressure, as well as his work ethic and ability to see past the gridiron to his future, has served him – and the town of Miramar, Florida, where he is the mayor – well.
And, who knows, those qualities may even one day bring him into a higher office. He ran a long-shot campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President. Though he came up short this time, some of his teammates say not to count him out down the line.
“That’s Wayne,” former FSU teammate Kevin Knox said. “I thought he was going to go the route of the governor first but he decided to go ahead and just skip that and go straight to the top.”
Messam isn’t afraid to take chances. In his days at Florida State, he took some unconventional routes in establishing himself as more than just a Seminole football player. He wanted to be more involved, have his voice heard, in a myriad of social justice platforms.
He wasn’t afraid as a businessman or politician, running for mayor of Miramar in 2015 against a 20-year incumbent and winning after a stint as a city commissioner of the southern Broward County city located near Miami.
Messam credits his days at Florida State for molding him and preparing him for his future.
“I owe my current life as a successful business owner, a successful mayor, a successful family man to football,” he said. “It provided an opportunity for me to get an education, provided an opportunity to make life-long friends, and the sport provided me amazing experiences. It has also allowed me an opportunity to give back. I just finished a nine-year tenure on the FSU Board of Trustees. I helped raise dollars to help educate the next generation of Seminoles. That’s a legacy that I’m proud of.”
WHERE THE LEGACY BEGAN
The 1995 and 1997 Sugar Bowls between Florida State and Florida featured top-end talent at every position on the field – as well as a pair of Hall of Fame coaches in Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier. Those two Sunshine State Sugar Bowls produced more than 30 NFL players.
Messam was a key wide receiver for the Seminoles. In his four-year career at Florida State, he recorded 62 catches for 793 yards. He also proved himself to be a big-game player, leading the Seminoles in receptions in both the 1996 Orange Bowl, against Notre Dame, and the 1997 Sugar Bowl against the Gators.
“Coach Bowden genuinely cared for his players; it wasn’t all about football,” Messam said. “Winning was a priority, but he really cared about the well-being of his players; he wanted us go through the full college experience and be successful after football.”
Messam pledged the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity upon his arrival in Tallahassee. Alpha Phi Alpha was the first collegiate fraternity for African Americans and boasts a legendary list of alumni including Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes and Jesse Owens.
“Even with the demands of being a student athlete I was always engaged politically,” Messam said. “A lot of members of our fraternity were campus leaders, so I decided to run for vice president with a law student running for president. We were the first minority ticket elected at Florida State.”
Messam’s off-the-field interests tested Bowden’s commitment to the overall development of his players as evidenced by one little known story from the receiver’s junior year. The Million Man March was being organized in Washington, D.C., an event focused on a call for unity and the revitalization of African American communities. It is still recognized as one of the largest demonstrations in Washington history. For a young African American engaged in the community and political activism, the March was a milestone event – however, it happened in the middle of football season.
“My fraternity and the Black Student Union chartered buses to take students to D.C. to take part in the event,” Messam recalled. “But I would have missed a mandatory Monday night practice. I wrote Coach Bowden a letter to explain why I was going – what an opportunity it was for a young African American man to be a part of this, to be a part of history. Ms. Sue [Hall], coach’s secretary, called me and said Coach wanted to see me in his office immediately. I’m 20 years old and had no idea what might happen. But he wanted to learn more about it. I explained what it meant to me. He listened to what I had to say and he had questions for me. And he gave me permission to go.”
Unfortunately, the trip ran into a bigger snag than Bowden. On the day before the buses were headed to D.C., Florida State rolled to its 28th consecutive ACC victory, a dominating 72-13 decision against Wake Forest. Messam snagged a 33-yard pass but went down hard on the play, suffering a grade-three separated shoulder. There would be no long bus trip for the junior.
“It didn’t work out, but that meeting with Coach Bowden could have gone many ways,” Messam said. “It could have been a national story with the coach not allowing a young African American man to take part in an event. It speaks to Coach Bowden and his ability to look beyond the football field. I will always have a lot of respect for Coach Bowden.”
Even with his other activities, football remained the main focus for Messam. During his career, Florida State registered 43 wins with just five losses. And following the 1994 and 1996 seasons, the Seminoles capped their years with trips to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl.
“Both of my Sugar Bowl trips were memorable because we played our archrival – Florida,” Messam remembered. “Playing the Gators is always a highlight. To have the opportunity to play against our archrival in a historic franchise like the Sugar Bowl? There’s nothing like that.”
The 1995 Sugar Bowl was billed as the Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter after the two rivals battled to a 31-31 tie in their regular season finale in Tallahassee.
As expected, the game was a hard-fought contest from start-to-finish. One of the more memorable plays was when Louisiana native Warrick Dunn caught a short flare from Danny Kanell just behind the line of scrimmage and stopped quick, looking down the field for a receiver.
“I remember [’Omar] Ellison running down the sideline and Warrick throwing his only pass of the year,” Messam said. “That was a Bobby Bowden trick play. You always know something’s coming, but you still can’t stop it.”
Ellison made an acrobatic catch around two Gator defenders and danced into the end zone to put the Seminoles on top, 10-3. Kanell threw a touchdown of his own and Dan Mowrey booted a pair of field goals, but the Gators battled. Danny Wuerrfel connected with Ike Hilliard for an 82-yard score and Wuerffel also ran for a late score with 3:47 remaining, but the Seminoles ran out the clock for the 23-17 victory.
Two years later, the rivals were back in New Orleans. This time, the Seminoles were looking to cap a perfect season. They had held off the Gators, 24-21, in their regular season meeting and were the likely national champs with a Sugar Bowl victory.
However, it was the Gators that captured the crown as they rolled to a 52-20 victory. Combined with the dominos falling around the country, Florida, with its 12-1 record, was recognized as the national champion.
Messam tallied five catches in the 1997 game, including a leaping catch over Florida cornerback Anthone Lott for an 11-yard gain.
“To this day, I have a picture of me making that catch,” Messam said. “I still use it to get on some of my Gator friends. [Gator running back] Fred Taylor and I played at the same high school – Glades Central in Miami – and we’re still good friends.”
While the Sugar Bowl football memories remain prominent in Messam’s mind, he also remembers a quintessential New Orleans moment for his family.
“My whole family came up for the game. My late father was a huge wrestling fan and one of his favorite wrestlers to hate was Ric Flair. My family was out on Bourbon Street, and my dad saw Ric Flair and had the chance to take pictures with him; it just made his day.”
While it took Messam some time to let go of football after graduation, his well-rounded background launched him into a successful business career in Florida.
“I had opportunities for the next two or three seasons to go to NFL training camps,” Messam said. “One part of me wanted to control my own destiny, but I also wanted to pursue my passion, a sport I had played since I was 10 years old. Severing ties [with football] and moving on wasn’t easy.
“I think my involvement in student life prepared me, exposed me, to give me skill sets beyond football. At the same time, my experiences performing on the football field at a high level and playing against the best competition were critical. There’s never been a scenario or challenge that I felt like I couldn’t handle because of those types of high-stakes pressure situations that I experienced as a Seminole.”
His business success led to involvement in local politics as a city commissioner in Miramar. After a successful term in that role, Messam decided to challenge a 20-year incumbent in the city’s mayoral race in 2015.
“Many thought I was crazy, but I thought the community wanted to go in a different direction,” Messam said. “I wanted to make the city more progressive, more family oriented. We weren’t just a bedroom community anymore – I knew we could do even more. We’re now the 13th largest city in Florida with more Fortune 500 companies than any other city in the state.”
Messam was elected to a second term as mayor in 2019, but he also put his toe in the water on an even larger stage – in March of 2019, he announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
“Mayors are closer to the people,” Messam said. “I wanted to bring a new fresh lens of leadership to Washington. The student debt crisis was a campaign priority – I was the first candidate to propose a student loan debt forgiveness program. Being a scholarship athlete, I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to depend on student loans, but many friends, classmates and fraternity brothers, many graduated with student-loan debt that some are still paying to this day.”
While the Presidency was not to be for Messam, at least in 2020, the former Sugar Bowl standout has a wide range of options.
“Being an entrepreneur, I will always have business ventures in mind,” he said. “I also have options politically; I haven’t decided what I might do. I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in to help my community in Miramar and I can work with mayors throughout the country so every person we represent can have a chance at the American dream.”
And football gave him the foundation for his success.
“Wayne is reaching for something most people could never reach and he’s not afraid of it,” Bowden said. “I wish him all the success in the world because I feel like whatever he applies for, he wouldn’t do it unless he felt like he could be successful.”
The Allstate Sugar Bowl has established itself as one of the premier college football bowl games, having hosted 28 national champions, 96 Hall of Fame players, 50 Hall of Fame coaches and 18 Heisman Trophy winners in its 86-year history. The 87th Allstate Sugar Bowl Football Classic, which will double as a College Football Playoff Semifinal, is scheduled to be played on January 1, 2021. In addition to football, the Sugar Bowl Committee annually invests over $1.6 million into the community through the hosting and sponsorship of sporting events, awards and clinics. Through these efforts, the organization supports and honors over 100,000 student-athletes each year, while injecting over $2.7 billion into the local economy in the last decade.