Memories, tears flowed during emotional reunion of ex-players

As we continue to mark the second anniversary of Eddie Robinson’s passing on April 3, 2007, here are two legacy pieces I filed live from emotional ceremonies in which Grambling’s former football coach laid in state at Louisiana’s capitol rotunda — a hero’s farewell held two days later that he so richly deserved. Included are comments from signature alums, and photos by Gramblinite Michael Dunlap.

ROBINSON’S PLAYERS HUDDLE FOR LAST GOODBYE

Former players made a gathering to mark Eddie Robinson’s legendary 57-year career at Grambling into a lively reunion that crossed generations.

Members of Robinson teams from 1941-97 met for a private event before the general public was allowed into the state capitol for an all-day memorial, something typically reserved for heads of state.

“I’m so happy this happened for Coach,” said Frank Lewis, a wide receiver and running back at Grambling in the late 1960s. “Coach was so special. He deserves it.”

The day was marked by stark emotional contrasts — beginning as the players, wearing white gloves and standing in parallel lines, passed Robinson’s cherry-wood casket up the imposing steps of one of Louisiana’s most iconic buildings.

GSU standouts Albert Lewis and Doug Williams, the lead pallbearers, were joined by more than 100 Robinson protégés in that solemn task, which led inside to Memorial Hall, the ornate, two-story space between the state’s Senate and House chambers.

Director Larry Pannell led the Tiger Marching Band through a sad, but swinging rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” from the top of the steps.

“There’s no topping this legacy,” said Lewis, a Grambling defensive back in the early 1980s. “I consider Coach Robinson one of the greatest individuals — not coaches, individuals — in this country’s history.”

The 88-year-old Robinson, who still holds the record for Division I wins, died April 3 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. But not before shaping the lives of generations, said Williams, a former GSU quarterback who succeeded Robinson as coach.

“We’re all an extension of Coach Eddie Robinson,” Williams said. “He lives on through each of us. We are part of what Coach Robinson was, and what he will always be.”

Quiet sorrow turned to open grieving as the casket was opened.

A trio of state troopers presented the colors — the United States, Louisiana and Grambling flags — and placed them behind Robinson. Wreaths from the university and the state were also placed by former players, including Adolph Byrd, a tackle on Robinson’s first 1940s teams.

Robinson’s family sat at the feet of the former coach, while his ex-players lined up again to pass a football, hand to hand, from the back of the group to the waiting hands of Williams — who held the ball aloft before handing it to Doris and son Eddie Robinson Jr. They then placed it in the casket with Robinson.

Robinson Jr. stood behind the GSU flag as more tributes followed, including a powerful speech by Williams, famous even now for his 1988 Super Bowl MVP performance.

“This is such a showing of support for what he did,” said Robinson Jr. “Just to know that so many people admired him, it’s an honor for the whole family.”

Personal touches surrounded the casket, including a painting by Ruston artist Reggie McLeroy, previously hanging in the Robinson family living room.

Next to it was a newer creation by McLeroy that featured the former coach, wearing his familiar red suspenders and carrying his briefcase, walking across a football field. A shimmering image of Robinson rises in the clouds above.

“It’s a testament to him, when you get this kind of representation,” said Michael Haynes, a late 1970s-era defensive back. “He was charismatic. I will say this, the world lost a great one — and heaven has truly gotten better.”

The team event’s finale included an emotional singing of the Grambling alma mater, and several players were overcome — including Williams, who had to briefly leave the hall.

That somber moment turned to celebration with the Tiger Marching Band’s segue into the GSU fight song. Players and family members alike, tears still in their eyes, suddenly filled the Memorial Hall with ringing joy.

“This isn’t just what he taught us about football,” said Darrius Matthews, a defender on Robinson’s final black college national championship team in 1992. “It was about what he taught us about life.”

The players poured out on the capitol steps once more, where team mates from every decade gathered for what quickly became raucous group photos.

More than one player, when there was an unexpected hitch in the proceedings, reused Robinson’s well-worn practice mantra: “Run it again!”

Melvin Lee, a 1950s-era player for Robinson, later coached alongside him for 40 seasons. He ended up in nearly every photo.

“To see people come back and pay tribute to Coach Robinson like this, it’s sad but great at the same time,” said Lee, who still lives in Grambling. “It’s great to share stories and relive the memories.”

Henry Dyer, a running back for Robinson in the early 1960s, stepped out to take his own picture of former teammates.

“It was a great day for a great man,” Dyer said. “It was a celebration of a great life.”

Even as the band filed past the players on the capitol steps, a group of well wishers and fans had begun lining up for the public viewing of Robinson that followed. Back inside, many gathered around an exhibit of memorabilia, including a series of photos taken by James Terry.

Robinson’s casket remained under the towering brass doors that lead to the Senate until 4:30 p.m., when his body was moved into the House chambers for a memorial service. More than 3,000 passed in the first few hours of viewing.

Players lingered for a while, reminiscing about their time with Robinson and sharing tall tales.

“There’s a million words you can say,” said Larry Metevia, a center for Robinson in the early 1960s. “But, mostly, I’d like to say: Thank you.”

OUTPOURING OVERWHELMS SUCCESSOR DOUG WILLIAMS

Former Grambling standout Doug Williams stood in the Louisiana House chamber and took stock of a powerful day.

He had spent the balance of Monday in the towering Memorial Hall that connects this room with the state Senate, overseeing the public memorial to his late college coach, Eddie Robinson.

More than 1,000 people an hour had entered the Capitol for the public viewing of Robinson, who died April 3 at 88 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Williams was overwhelmed.

“I can honestly say that today we’ve had some heavy hearts, but it was a great day,” Williams told the packed House chamber. “So many people passed by, took pictures, shook hands. We saw parents bringing kids — and the only way they are going to know who Eddie Robinson is, what Eddie Robinson was, and what he will always be, is if we tell them.”

Williams appeared as part of a Monday night memorial service that featured Gov. Kathleen Blanco as the keynote speaker. State Sen. Bob Kostelka R-Monroe, and state Rep. Rick Gallot, D-Grambling, two area legislators, were also featured — along with state Sen. Charles Jones D-Monroe of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Guests included LSU coach Les Miles, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, former Alcorn State and Southern University administrator Marino Casem, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and former GSU coach Melvin Spears, among others.

Blanco presented Doris, Eddie Robinson’s wife of more than 65 years, the American flag that had flown over the Capitol building on Monday.

Williams began the day overseeing a private event for players. More than 100 former teammates shared the duty of carrying Robinson up the steps and into the Capitol’s Memorial Hall earlier that morning.

“To see so many former players come and pay tribute to Coach Robinson made me feel good,” Williams said. “Only Eddie Robinson could have done what happened today.”

Williams immediately followed Jones, who had given an animated tribute sprinkled with poetic verse and snippets of Shakespeare.

But Williams, still flush from that morning event, said he remained undaunted — even if he couldn’t match the poetry of Jones’ speech.

“Ordinarily, I would want to wave the white flag, coming in after Senator Jones,” Williams said. “But I was fortunate to be coached by Eddie Robinson, and he said if you are going to lose, lose trying to win.”

Williams played quarterback for Robinson from 1974-77 before an NFL career that included Super Bowl MVP honors in 1988. He then succeeded Robinson as coach at Grambling, winning a trio of league championships between 2000-02.

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