Even at the last, Eddie Robinson was a giant

A day after learning of Eddie Robinson’s death, on April 4, 2007, I tried to describe what he had meant to those the Grambling legend held most dearly — and to me:

The final days for Eddie Robinson were an ebb and flow, with good days and bad.

On the worst of them, football became a jumbled mess in his mind. Those were the times when his wife Doris has said she worried most about him, the times when he seemed sickest of all.

In the earliest moments of his illness, which family members blamed on a series of small strokes, Robinson turned to Friday night boxing matches, something his late friend Collie J. Nicholson said was easier to follow. Later, he watched old football movies, but paid little attention.

On the best of days, however, Robinson gripped life like he’d always gripped an out-stretched hand — firmly and completely.

“Once he gets a line on you, he remembers you. He still remembers you,” Nicholson, Grambling’s long-time former sports information director, said as Robinson’s Alzheimer’s-like symptoms began to become noticeable in 2003. “And he keeps that smile, always that smile.”

Still, Robinson was more apt to remember former quarterback Doug Williams’ triumphal Super Bowl win in 1987 than his own final coaching days at Grambling State a decade later.

In the end, he only rarely came to the stadium on campus that bears his name — appearing at the contest against McNeese in 2003, then at 2004’s spring Black and Gold scrimmage but not much thereafter.

Doris Robinson said he was emotionally drained by the experience, and frustrated that he had trouble following the action on the field.

As his failing memory robbed him of so much, he spent more time at home. Doris, his only love, did all she could.

She worked tirelessly in caring for him, only revealing the specifics of Robinson’s deterioration as his career wins record fell in 2004 to a lower division coach. Still, Doris was so protective of him that she didn’t let anyone from the national press talk to her husband.

She said she never told him that the once thought-unassailable 408-win plateau had been reached.

I called, and stopped by, sometimes. When Robinson spoke to me, it was about the classic Wing-T formation, about players like Bell Pepper Anderson from the old days, about his grandchildren.

His trips away from there slowed to a stop. Robinson, in his final public appearances, attended 2004 birthday parties thrown both for himself and his old friend Nicholson — but Nicholson soon joined him in battling health problems and passed late in 2006.

Yet, even inside his modest brick home in Grambling, Robinson remained a source of inspiration.

A never-ending line of well wishers met him, old and young alike. Many were folks turning off the interstate, just because they saw the Grambling sign.

The football team also walked up the hill on Adams Street on more than one occasion to pay tribute to the former coach.

During one memorable visit in 2005, Robinson was animated and friendly, displaying a familiar gusto as he sang along with the school’s alma mater. His eyes lit up at the sight of former players, and he simply refused to let the moment end.

Sammy White, Andre Robinson and Charlie Lewis, all of whom played for Robinson and now coach at Grambling, bracketed Robinson. As the players trickled back onto the street afterward, Robinson asked to sing again — one more blazing moment of remembrance shared, and the last, with GSU’s coaching staff.

“I have had a lot of great things happen to me around football,” said an emotional White, a former GSU great who later helped lead Minnesota to a Super Bowl. “That was one of mine. Right there.”

And for me, someone who got a cherished opportunity to be around Robinson late in his career and, sadly, also late in his life.

Inside their home, Mrs. Doris worked as tour guide through 60 years of magical memory. She might point out the painting the emperor of Japan gave Robinson, or the photo with President Ronald Reagan.

After a hospital bed was brought in, mattresses from a spare room were stacked in Robinson’s treasured study. Slowly, his illness threatened to obscure everything that came before.

So a group of locals furiously attempted to establish a long-overdue museum in his honor. A temporary exhibit of memorabilia and trophies opened in June 2005 on campus, though Robinson never saw it.

An inaugural benefit banquet for the museum project followed in September at GSU, but neither Coach nor Mrs. Robinson could attend. Son Eddie Robinson Jr. spoke in their place.

Grambling resident Doug Porter, an assistant for nine seasons with Robinson and a family friend, was part of those efforts.

“Because he was as constant presence, people might have taken him for granted,” said Porter, who made several other subsequent coaching stops. “Anybody, like me, who has been away from Grambling knows well his mystique around the rest of the country. I guess I didn’t completely appreciate all of it until I left.”

Eddie Jr. could often be seen driving the elder Robinson around town. It was an effort to keep the former coach active and engaged that Eddie Jr. shared with Wilbert Ellis, a long-time former GSU baseball coach and athletic administrator.

Robinson fought until the very end, spending time in a Ruston nursing home and, on several occasions, in a Lincoln Parish hospital.

Ellis rushed there to visit on Dec. 12, for instance, days after his old Grambling football team won the 2005 Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.

“He said: ‘Boy, where you been?’” Ellis remembered. “I said, ‘I’ve been down there trying to win a game for you.’”

There were these moments of shimmering clarity.

Just weeks before he succumbed, Robinson had been hospitalized, only to rouse himself once again. He asked for a cheeseburger on the way out the door.

But finally, Robinson suffered a damaging heart attack on Tuesday afternoon and Ellis returned, desperately fighting back emotion, to read a family plea for privacy.

Robinson would pass later that night.

Ellis was overcome with the thought, as if a corner in the very foundation of Grambling had crumbled.

“Coach is gone,” Ellis kept saying. “Coach is gone.”

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