I’m often fascinated by the process of personal evolution an individual undergoes throughout the various stages of life. Though biology certainly has something to do with who we become, experiences and influences impact the personality that an individual carries through life. A lot of times, that comes from our immediate family.
For instance, my mother is a lifelong ultra-liberal Democrat who drilled into me the need to accept people of all ages, races, religions and nationalities — to be sensitive to those who face obstacles and to work to improve the lot of life for those in my community. My father is an avid sports fan, but convinced me of the importance of carrying dignity whether you win or lose, and to admire people who participate in sports “the right way.”
Which is why I’m so affected by the recent passing of Eddie Robinson.
Robinson was the head football coach at Grambling University for 57 years, before retiring in 1998. He stepped down with 408 wins in his career — the most for any college coach on any level at that time. More than 200 players matriculated from his tiny, mostly-black, college into the NFL, and his former quarterback, Doug Williams, became the first black man to lead an NFL team to a Super Bowl title when he quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to a championship in 1987. Paul “Tank” Younger, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1949 to become the first player from an all-black college to play in the NFL, played for Robinson at Grambling.
Throughout his career, Robinson won nine national black college championships and 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles, and the national college football coach of the year award is now named after him.
His credentials are beyond reproach, and command respect. His character was something bordering on mythical.
According to an Associated Press story, Robinson said that he tried to coach each player as if he wanted him to marry his daughter. His class and performance earned him honorary degrees from several universities, including Yale, and his former players still orbited around Robinson, even after the effects of Alzheimer’s limited him to brief stays at home surrounding time spent in nursing homes. He impacted people that were close to him.
And he impacted me.
I can remember watching a movie on television when I was a kid called “White Tiger.” Bruce Jenner portrayed a white quarterback who went to Grambling to play for Robinson and faced a wall of racism. One of the actors who played a teammate of Jenner’s was Dennis Haysbert, the current star of “The Unit” and previously seen as President David Palmer in “24.”
But it was Robinson who caught my eye. He appeared to be too good to be true. He was fair with Jenner’s character, brilliant in strategies, honest and tough to the kids on the team ... but displayed love and affection, as well. I realized even then that it was a movie, but my father kept drilling into me that Robinson was how a coach should be, and that Robinson was how a man should be.
As coach of an all-black school in Louisiana, Robinson faced the sting of racism. He made sandwiches for his players to take on road trips because many of the restaurants in the south were still segregated. He faced catcalls and racist threats as he surpassed Paul “Bear” Bryant on the all-time coaching victories list. His team often couldn’t schedule the kind of big-time games that can impact the national scene because other coaches refused to play the black schools.
Oh, it affected Robinson, to be sure. But he consistently rose above the disgusting vibes of racism and stood proudly as a man.
“The best way to enjoy life in America is to first be an American, and I don’t think you have to be white to do so,” Robinson was quoted as saying in the Associated Press story. “Blacks have had a hard time, but not many Americans haven’t.”
Always coaching. Always teaching.
Grambling canceled football during the 1943 and 1944 seasons because of World War II. During that break, Robinson went to coach at Grambling High School, where he won a championship.
According to Robinson, one of his player’s fathers pulled his sons off the team because they had to pick cotton. Robinson then got the rest of the team together, went and helped the kids pick cotton, and they then continued on to win the championship. Yes, he was a coach trying to get some of his best players back on the team, but he was also teaching about teamwork and bonding.
He was brilliant. He was driven. And he had his priorities.
“The real record I have set for over 50 years is the fact that I have had one job and one wife,” he told the Associated Press.
A great life for a great man. Coach Robinson, you’ll be missed.