⇒ Also this weekend: “Playoff run: Carolina RailHawks vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

It’s a football game some Durham sports fans have dreamed about for a long time. New York has the Giants and the Jets, and Texas has the Cowboys and the Texans.

Now the Bull City is going to see Duke play Central. It’s easy to envision an odd cultural experience on the Duke campus this Saturday, as a mostly African-American and mostly native Durhamite crowd of N.C. Central supporters travels to Wallace Wade Stadium.

The Bull City Gridiron Classic will be more than a local rivalry, of course. It’s also a contest between two schools that came to exemplifyrightly or wronglythe class and racial chasm of a single town. When Crystal Gail Mangum, a part-time N.C. Central student, who worked as a stripper after hours, accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her at a team bacchanal, the national spotlight turned to Durham. The ugly incidentugly even as Mangum’s accusations turned out to be unfoundedcast Durham as a Southern city that, just below the veneer of modernity, still existed in the age of Jim Crow.

Three and a half years later, the existence of this high-profile football game seems like a miracle. Not surprisingly, city and university officials are happy to hail it as a sign of partnership and progress, without directly naming the elephant in the room.

“It’s another example of partnership and cooperation on the part of both universities,” Durham Mayor Bill Bell said. “It’s an opportunity to bring all of the community togetherEagle fans and Blue Devil fansand it’s good any time that can happen inside or outside of athletics. I certainly plan to be there.”

Although Duke, with one victory and two losses thus far this season, has had hard times in football for a generation, it has a rich and storied gridiron history, including appearances in all four of the traditional major bowlsthe Rose, Orange, Cotton and Sugar. NCCU, winless on the season and currently in transition from NCAA Division II to Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision, has won Black National Championships.

The universities’ teams have met in other sports, with a long history of cooperation in track and field. The men’s basketball teams began playing exhibition games in 2004some 60 years after some Duke medical students and North Carolina College violated the Jim Crow laws by playing “The Secret Game” in the Eagles’ tiny campus gymwith NCCU’s first official Division I game in 2007 a visit to Duke.

This time, just about anybody who wants to buy a ticket can get in. One wonders, however, if all the high-minded bridge-building will get in the way of a good pitched battle with supporters in full, passionate and even profane cry.

“At one time, when Duke and NCCU played each other, we had to do it in secret,” NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms said. “Now we’re looking forward to developing a great crosstown rivalry to complement the valuable collaboration that currently exists in other areas.”

And Richard Brodhead, Duke president, says, “This game is a long time in the making and will be an important and historic moment for Duke, NCCU and the City of Durham.”

Both schools can claim successes on the gridiron in the past. In fact, each has played in a bowl game at Wallace Wade. Duke took on Oregon State in the 1942 Rose Bowl (moved to Durham in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor), while NCCU faced Grambling in the 1972 Pelican Bowl. Still, this contest is very much between two humble squads. Although Duke will be the favorite to win, that seems to be beside the point.

Still, a number of the players from both teams socialize together, and they will be plenty motivated for local bragging rights. “This is an exciting game,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “The players know each other. They’re friends, and they see each other a good bit.

“It’s going to be a great experience for both teams, and hopefully it will be standing-room-only. Both teams deserve that, and Durham deserves that.”

The two teams collaborated last Christmas, wrapping presents for underprivileged children in a project organized by the head coaches’ wives, Marilynn Rison and Karen Cutcliffe.

“For us to line up in this wonderful city, two crosstown neighbors, it’s truly going to be a classic event,” NCCU coach Mose Rison said. “We’ll be excited. And we’re thankful that [Duke athletic director] Kevin White, who like [Cutcliffe] is a good friend of mine, is giving us the opportunity to play this game.”

Festivities include the Bull City Football Fest Thursday at 5:30 p.m., at historic Durham Athletic Park. Sponsored by the universities’ student unions, it will have speeches from Bell and both head coaches, and feature bands, cheerleaders, mascots and student performance groups from both universities.

And on Saturday at 7 p.m., the game will start, and one Durham school will win and the other will lose. With luck, an annual derby between the two could emerge; but, with the fun, friendlier aspects of a rivalry comes the harder stuffthe insults and disrespectand it’ll be fascinating to see how Durham copes with that, too.

Tickets are still available for the Duke-N.C. Central game. Visit www.goduke.com.