Visions Of America At Heart Of His Game

By David Steele
Updated: April 7, 2007

BALTIMORE — On a day on which he fielded endless phone calls about the passing of Eddie Robinson, Doug Williams called himself “fortunate” to be recognized so widely as one of the spokesmen for the legacy of his former college coach.

“I wish I could sit here and tell you in one or two sentences who Eddie Robinson was,” Williams, the one-time Grambling State quarterback and Robinson’s successor there as head coach, said Wednesday, “because he was whatever he had to be. He’d do whatever he had to do in order to help a kid get what he needed.”

That, Williams said, was hardly limited to football, and absolutely not limited to making money as a pro athlete. “You didn’t just go there to get rich playing football; you went there to be a productive citizen,” he said. “He coached young men to be men, to send them out into the world and be able to survive and support your family.”

Robinson’s many obituaries have mentioned very high that he won 408 games in his 57 seasons at Grambling, for many years the most wins in college football history. They’ve also mentioned the 210 players he sent to the NFL, starting with Tank Younger in 1949 and including Williams, the first black quarterback ever drafted in the first round, in 1978.

But you don’t have to go much further down to see and hear the tales of how he raised six decades worth of “productive citizens,” many during a time when men like him and his players were not considered real citizens of this country.

To be black in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s in America, particularly where Grambling is located in Louisiana, generally meant settling for less than what this country promised. Robinson taught his followers not to settle for anything less.

The word “taught” is not used lightly here. Robinson was a teacher the way all college coaches at every level say they are, but too few actually manage to be. Grambling began as a teachers’ college.

Teaching classes was part of Robinson’s job requirement, and teacher is probably the school’s – and the football team’s – most important product. “Or coach,” Williams quickly added.

What he taught was the American dream. Talk to him for any length of time and his vision of America as the land of opportunity – for everybody, no matter the skin color or previous social condition – surfaced quickly and dominated conversation from then on.

It made the one conversation I had with him unforgettable. Some 20 years ago, he was helping promote a game named in his honor, at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, between two black colleges, the next evolution of the pioneering game two decades before at Yankee Stadium between Grambling and Morgan.

He responded to an interview request by inviting me to his hotel room, where we sat for more than an hour – at the end of a long day of schmoozing and in his late 60s – and talked about everything except his football records.

Mostly, he talked about kids growing up at that time, how the challenges of getting them interested in education and life after football never changed. He asked me questions about what I saw happening to them and the direction they were taking, then told me that he was sure that they could be made to understand the entire world of options available to them if they just took the time to look.

“I’m proud to be an American,” he said. “I’m an American, you’re an American, they’re Americans. It’s the land of opportunity, but there are opportunities for everybody. They’re entitled to that. As a coach, we have to make sure they get that.”

He didn’t talk about wins and losses unless he was talking about lives saved and, unfortunately, lost, literally and figuratively. He didn’t talk about the unique honor of being a black coach whose name graced a game played in an NFL stadium in the country’s largest market, or of the nationwide attention paid to this.

Most notably, he didn’t talk about what he had not been allowed to be: an NFL coach and a major college coach. In the same way Buck O’Neil left this world last year without regret over never playing baseball in the majors, Robinson left it never wishing he could have gone further than Grambling, La.

Having stayed there and done what he did was more than enough, and more than what others who have been in those places could ever have done.

In the end, that’s how his life was measured, and it’s how the legacy Williams and the others represent will be passed along.

Oh, there are other honors that will live on: the Coach of the Year award in his honor, the fact that the annual rivalry between his school and Southern, the Bayou Classic, has been on network TV for 16 years now, the fact that only one man at any level of college ball has surpassed his win total so far, the fact that the tiny school in the bayous is world famous.

And he’ll be remembered with the great coaches of all time, of any sport, of any gender, of any race. This has been a great week to honor coaching. Billy Donovan matching Mike Krzyzewski’s repeat feat. Pat Summitt adding to her championship total against C. Vivian Stringer’s third different Final Four program. John Thompson III walking in the footsteps of John Thompson Jr. An HBO documentary lionizing John Wooden and the UCLA dynasty.

Few coaches inspire their players to spread their gospel as far and wide as Wooden’s have, the documentary has reminded us.

Eddie Robinson is one of the few.