A man named Robinson left this country forever changed, opening minds and then doors for generations of black athletes.
For many, Jackie Robinson, the pioneering baseball player who broke the Major League color barrier more than 60 seasons ago, comes to mind.
Grambling’s late longtime former coach Eddie Robinson belongs in the conversation.
“Two men named Robinson changed America,” agrees Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport and author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card.
Eddie Robinson, who retired in 1997 having coached 57 seasons at GSU, died in 2007 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. He would have been 90 years old today.
“The breakthroughs provided by the work of Coach Robinson might have been less dramatic than the day Jackie Robinson donned the Dodger uniform,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “However, they were no less meaningful.”
Those thoughts have been echoed throughout the ensuing years since Robinson’s passing. Many focus on Robinson’s contributions outside of sports, calling him a deeply underappreciated civil rights activist.
“He knew the climate and could bridge that gap,” said Curtis Armand, a Louisiana-based school administrator and coach who played for Robinson in the 1940s. “The man was ahead of his time.”
Grambling’s Robinson suceeded in a fashion remarkably similar to baseball’s Robinson, quietly excelling and, in so doing, altering sensibilities.
“None of my players or coaches were seen at demonstrations in the 1960s. We made our own,” Robinson told Lapchick for the biography “Never Before, Never Again.” “The civil rights movement was helping to change the laws. Our goal was to help to change attitudes.”
By the time he’d finished, Robinson’s tiny college program had sold out Yankee Stadium, become the first to play overseas, established an annual football game on national broadcast television and sent hundreds of players toward groundbreaking roles in the pro game.
This Robinson’s coaching career reached back into pre-war 1941, through the upheaval of the 1950s and ‘60s, past integration in the ’70s and into widespread acceptance, even celebrity.
“The contributions Eddie Robinson made changed the color of football in America,” Grambling’s late longtime publicist Collie J. Nicholson once said. “He made his impact in an inobtrusive way. That helped to break down barriers in other areas.”
Along the way, Eddie Robinson’s life ran parallel to — and, in many ways, helped propel — momentous changes in the way people look at black America.
That included the people who played for him.
“He made a difference for rich and poor, for black and white,” said former Robinson player Joseph B. Johnson, who later served as president at Grambling for 14 years through 1991. “He had a mission that did not include hate. He used his education and status in athletics not for personal gain, but for progress.”
Lapchick rightly noted that Robinson would one day lie in state at the Louisiana capitol, just across town from the state-run Louisiana State University that once refused to sell him a ticket to a football game.
“He used the gridiron to bring us together,” then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco said in 2007, “and became one of the most important civil rights leaders in Louisiana history.”
Her comments came during that remarkable memorial service in Baton Rouge. Only five others had ever been so honored at the capitol’s Memorial Hall.
“He tore down barriers to open the door for all players,” Blanco said. “He always said, in America, anything is possible.”
That would, however, take some time.
‘STARTING FROM SCRATCH’
“I’ve seen a lot,” Robinson once said. “I have ridden on the back of the bus. I’ve drunk at segregated fountains. But I’m not trying to make anybody pay. All I wanted was an opportunity to prove that I can do what other people can do. I got that at Grambling.”
In his earliest days as a coach in the Jim Crow-era, Robinson would have to map out friendly places along the route between games. That included minority-owned business and even other historically black colleges.
“You had to figure out where you could buy sandwiches, where you might be able to use the facilities,” said former Grambling assistant coach Douglas Porter, himself an eventual College Football Hall of Fame.
Lighter-skinned players and coaches, those who could pass as white, were sent on emergency runs for supplies.
Even into the 1960s, as Grambling began its national barnstorming football tours, the team still traveled to conference games in a Bluebird school bus — and was forced to stay and eat on the opposing team’s campus, since many local establishments wouldn’t have them.
“With what he accomplished — and the way he accomplished it, starting from scratch — there are very few that have done it any better,” said James “Shack” Harris, a quarterback on those mid-’60s teams under Robinson now working as a high-ranking NFL executive. “Even with what he had to go through, there was no one more dedicated — and no one who enjoyed it more along the way.”
Robinson, who at the time might have just finished leading his team into signature sports venues in major metropolitan areas, was once again reduced to second-class citizenship.
“You played, then you got on the bus and tried to make it back to Grambling before breakfast,” Porter said. “You might make one stop, so guys could use the bathroom.”
Sometimes, that meant a trip into a wooded area, if no safe haven could be found.
Later generations were surprised to learn that the Robinson legend was first established not on a brightly lit Bayou Classic dais but with leftovers and friendly handouts.
“Rob never grumbled,” Porter said. “He might take a light-hearted approach, rather than finding negativity in the situation. He knew that in the final analysis, if we won, that was the main thing. He stayed focused.”
Robinson’s passion for his job, and for this country, never wavered. As a consequence, his players’ never did, either.
“The fervor that he had for America endured, even though the playing field wasn’t level,” Rev. Jackson said.
‘HE CAN NEVER BE REPLACED’
Jackie Robinson, as important as he was to baseball, didn’t solve all of its problems. The same could be said of Eddie Robinson, despite his sweeping influence in the game he loved.
Lapchick noted, when Robinson passed, that there were fewer black college coaches then than when he began work on “Never Before, Never Again” with Robinson, in 1997.
Some wonder if there ever will be another like the steel-willed Robinson, who coached so long at one place and did so much for so many. His patient pursuit of excellence would eventually convince the masses, one winning season at a time.
“He came to Grambling, in the middle of nowhere, and produced quality people,” Larry Metevia, a 1966 all-conference center for Robinson who later played four seasons for the Houston Oilers, told me. “That’s all because of him. He was a leader in the civil rights struggles, as well as a great coach. He can never be replaced.”
Lapchick would like to encourage others to try.
He has called on the NCAA to create a rule which would require that blacks be part of the interview process for prospective college football coaches — similar to the so-called Rooney Rule in the NFL.
He said it should be called the Robinson Rule, and others said it would be a fitting tribute.
Though its unclear if he would have considered such a thing, it’s startling to think that Robinson — even as he established a Division I record for career wins that still stands — never got another college job offer, and barely a sniff from the NFL.
“He is a man that would have been special in any endeavor,” Harris said. “We were just fortunate he ended up as a football coach at Grambling.”
The field is still not level, despite the gains made by Robinson and his many former players.
“But it’s levelling more,” said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who presented a special proclamation honoring Robinson at his funeral, “thanks to him.”
NICK’S NOTE: The image above was taken during a 2004 visit by the Grambling football team to Eddie Robinson’s home, the story of which later earned first-place honors from the Associated Press Managing Editors of Louisiana-Mississippi for featuring writing. For photos of Coach Rob on the sidelines, check out Volume 1 of TheDerisoReport.com’s new Legacy in Pictures series.