Remember Eddie Robinson’s America, too

[5 April 2007]

By David J. Neal

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI - Racism limited Eddie Robinson’s opportunities to coach his beloved football. Racism told many of his players where they could and couldn’t play football, just as it tried to tell them what they could and couldn’t do in life. Racism outlived Eddie Robinson, the former Grambling State University coach who died Tuesday night at age 88.

That might be the only way racism ever beat Eddie Robinson.

See, racism beats you when you let it define you, let it corrode your soul, turn your attitude acidic and pass all that on to future generations.

If anybody had a right to let that happen to him, it would be a black man born in Louisiana in 1919. Just four years earlier, the nation had rejoiced at the dethroning of Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, and thrilled to the “Yay, KKK!” climax of the era’s most popular movie, Birth of a Nation.

Robinson refused to give in to the anger felt on some level, even today, by every black American. He never lost faith in the high ideals laid down by the Founding Fathers, no matter how often he was smacked in the face with the ways our nation fell short of them.

“He always told us one thing: that nobody, no matter who it was, would `out-American’ him,” former quarterback Doug Williams said. “He was a firm believer that America is the greatest country that you can live in, that would give you the opportunity to do the things that you’re capable of doing.

“We all know that he probably went through more things than we can imagine, but not one time did he put forward those types of things that he went through on us because he was sure that we would find a way to overcome them - and we did that.”

When Robinson began at Grambling State, the NFL didn’t have a black player. Besides, it paid so poorly, offseason jobs were a necessity just to make ends meet. So when Robinson talked to recruits about using college for its intended purpose, he was speaking from a pre-professional sports boom philosophy about opportunity in America.

“The players he coaches, he coached them to not only win football games, but to win in the game of life,” said former Grambling quarterback James Harris, today the Jacksonville Jaguars’ vice president of player personnel. “Most of his players graduated, and, at a time when it is fashionable to say that, he was always there on registration day, concerned about his players and their classes. When he recruited you he promised your parents his players would go to church and get a degree, and he worked hard to keep his promises.”

Williams said Wednesday that everyone will mention the 200-plus players who went to the NFL. “But nobody talks about the guys who didn’t make the pros - over fifty-something years of lives that he’s touched,” he said. “I think that is probably the most important thing - if you sit back and think about the real numbers. Because just like myself and James Harris and Everson Walls, there were a whole lot of guys in other arenas - lawyers, doctors and others - who were successful because they went by Eddie Robinson.”

Differences in skin color or background often blind others to possibilities and role models. Little is more irritating than hearing a minority kid say he didn’t pursue an interest because he didn’t have a role model of his ethnicity. It’s a disgustingly limiting outlook.

How ironic, then, that a man looked at as a black male role model had among his coaching role models Pop Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant.

Think about that last name. A chunk of Bryant’s popularity in Alabama came from not just winning national titles, but doing so with all-white rosters in the early 1960s. That was a rallying point in a state that generally supported Governor George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” stance against the civil rights movement. While Bryant never gave an “amen!” to Wallace, he never used his considerable juice to fight the power, either.

Yet, as far as Robinson was concerned, Bryant was a great football coach from whom there was much to learn about the game. The two shared a fondness and respect. The Grambling staff worked under an autographed drawing of Bryant.

For breaking Bryant’s career victories record with No. 324 in 1985, Robinson gained perhaps his broadest national fame, including the cover of Sports Illustrated. (The issue’s lead article, on a Dolphins-Pittsburgh game, complimented the Steelers’ 30-year-old defensive coordinator: Tony Dungy.)

Robinson told the magazine, “All I want is for my story to be an American story. Not black and not white. Just American. I want it to belong to everybody.”

That’s a view too broad to be defeated by narrow minds.

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