Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Passing of a Legend

Eddie Robinson isn’t a name that many people know. Among sports fans, Robinson’s name is not a household word, despite the fact that he was the head football coach at Grambling State University for 57 years and was, at the time of his retirement in 1997, the winningest head coach in the history of college football.

People should know who Eddie Robinson was. I submit that he might have been the most important African American in sports. And by that, I mean more so than another Robinson – Jackie. For it was Eddie Robinson who was there first, built a program frfom the very dirt up, and did so was grace and class.

Robinson died late Tuesday night in Louisiana at the age of 88. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for almost a decade.

As the tributes begin to pour in, you see the scope of this man’s accomplishments: 408 wins, over 200 players made the NFL, largely trouble-free career (until the end, which was admittedly ugly). He coached the man who would become his successor and the first African American to win a Super Bowl at the quarterback position, Doug Williams. He coached multiple NFL hall of fame legends. And again, he did so in a way that was not flashy. He was just a humble leader.

Consider when he took over as the head coach at the school, it was known as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Can you imagine that? Thankfully the name would change to Grambling State University. In the early years, Coach Robinson would do it all himself. Put the lines on the field. Make sandwiches for his players, who could not eat in “white only” restaurants in the South. If a player got banged up, there was no trainer to come to the rescue. It was all up to the coach.

Here’s some more for you to ponder. Robinson came from an uneducated house. His parents didn’t finish high school, and his father worked as a cotton sharecropper. It was everything that speaks of a stereotype, but Robinson’s parents wanted more. They encouraged young Eddie to get his education, which he did, at Leland College. As a quarterback there, Robinson began studying to be a coach. He would take over the eventual Grambling program in 1941.

I discovered a quote while reading up on Coach Robinson today, and it speaks volumes about him, and the way he dealt with the obvious inequalities that our world works to overcome:

"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. Blacks have had a hard time, but not many Americans haven't."

There was more:

"The framers of this Constitution, now they did some things. "If you aren't lazy, they fixed it for you. You've got to understand the system. It's just like in football, if you don't understand the system, you haven't got a chance."

Pretty eloquent, eh? No feeling sorry for anybody. Just accepting that things are wrong, and we need to do things about it.

How about this great story, courtesy of Marty Mulè in the New Orleans Times-Picayune : In 1945 the father of two Tigers, (“Our best running backs,” Robinson recalled,) pulled his sons off the team, explaining he needed them to pick cotton. “So I got all the boys on the team, we packed up and we went out there and picked the cotton.”

As their popularity grew, Robinson would take the Tigers on the road, placing them in the country’s biggest stadiums. Grambling would visit the LA Coliseum, the Astrodome, Tokyo and Yankee Stadium. I can remember Grambling making an annual New York-area appearance for a long time. Of course to many, our only real exposure to Grambling occurred every year when the Bayou Classic is shown on TV, pitting the Tigers against Southern University at the Louisiana Superdome. The game would be as famous for the performance of the two schools awesome marching bands at halftime as it would be for the game itself.

Initially, Robinson’s team was not successful, winning just three games in 1941. In his second year, the Tigers went 9-0 and did not allow a point. That’s right. Zero points against.

Championships and more football acclaim would follow, but Robinson would not go out gracefully. His players would graduate, and become great men themselves. But as the 1990’s moved along, Grambling would hit the skids. The team would have consecutive losing seasons, and off the field problems would include an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations, and rape charges against four players. Many called for Robinson’s dismissal. He was given one more season, when even the governor of Louisiana intervened, asking for a chance to let Coach Robinson depart gracefully. It was not a happy ending as the Tigers won just three games, just like they did in 1941.

Don’t let these missteps dim your view of this man. Eddie Robinson did it right, but perhaps because he was a modest man, didn’t get the total acclaim that he was worthy of. In fact his passing isn’t even the top story on many sportscasts today. Even I would admit that it should be reported before mentioning the Yankees being rained out against the Devil Rays. The impact that Eddie Robinson had on blacks, on the South, on football, and on America and the world should not be minimized. He should be celebrated, and discussed with the great people of the 20th century.

I thought you should know.

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