Monday, April 09, 2007

"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" ---- 4-14-07

Remembering: Eddie Robinson

He worked for 25 cents an hour at a feed mill, but knew deep inside he had a much higher calling; he had to teach young men. And a challenging start it would be--coaching football at the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, mostly a teacher's college for girls, where only 70 men were enrolled. Against a background of brutal segregation set in the town of Grambling, LA--later to be synonymous with his name--the legend of Eddie G. Robinson Sr. began its wonderful journey.

No, it didn't always APPEAR so wonderful for Eddie. He had little football equipment due to a tiny budget--SO small, in fact, that he lined the fields on his own. He hardly complained, knowing he was given an opportunity to do what he HAD to do. He couldn't pay any assistant coaches; hell, he could barely make ends meet himself based on the low wages given to a new, unproven employee. He'd personally make sandwiches for his players when they played on the road; you see, Eddie Robinson and his squad had the "wrong" skin color when it came to eating at the "white only" restaurants dotting the deep South. There were the insults, the denial of amenities, and the hardships so familiar with segregation; however, Eddie Robinson felt little bitterness because he simply didn't have the time; he had too much work to do.

Fast forward over a half-century later and the numbers are staggering: 408 wins at ONE school (second all-time in all divisions), 17 SWAC titles, only eight losing seasons in a storied 57-year career.
It was Eddie Robinson who put black college football/Grambling on the map--barnstorming throughout the country in order to build his program and showcase its collective ability. He'd develop a following--perhaps due to his bravery and unwillingness to compromise--that filled stadiums and opened people's eyes. Yes, Eddie Robinson would be the one who believed that a black college football "classic" COULD be played yearly, one that would bring great athletic talent to the eyes of NFL scouts--REGARDLESS of the color of one's skin. One wonders where the current game--both college AND pro--would be had the individual known simply as "Coach Rob" enjoyed the feed mill work just a little more than teaching.

For all his success on the gridiron, Mr. Robinson's influence was most felt off the field; any of his ex-players would attest to that. Quite simply, Eddie Robinson always felt that his MAIN job was to help transform young boys into men--and to mold those same individuals into even better PEOPLE than football players. He once estimated that he had coached more than 4,500 athletes during his time with an 85% graduation rate--by far, his proudest accomplishment. Not that Eddie didn't develop great football players, mind you; he sent a mind-boggling total of over 200 players to the NFL--seven of them first-round draft picks and four who'd be enshrined into the Hall of Fame in Canton (Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner). He also coached Tank Younger (the first NFL player from a predominantly black school), James Harris (the first black QB to play in a Pro Bowl), and Doug Williams (the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl). Yeah, you just get the feeling that the majority of those who played under Eddie Robinson during his tenure at Grambling would have been successful in almost ANY field/endeavor they had chosen; I guess that was Eddie's plan all along.

We lost the great Eddie Robinson last week to complications from Alzheimer's disease at the age of 88; he had been ill for the past several years. Looking back, it seems that when he retired from coaching in 1997, he had sadly exhausted his effectiveness due to the sociological factors and new athlete so familiar to college athletics. "You're dealing with a new person now....they don't want to work," Eddie would say toward the end of his tremendous reign as Grambling's coach. "They want to go straight to the NFL and they don't even have the grades to stay in's a different breed." A breed that even the greatest of them all--Eddie Robinson--may not have been able to impact.

When taking into consideration both on AND off-the field success, Mr. Robinson may well be remembered as perhaps one of the greatest coaches of all-time, if not THE greatest--in ANY sport. He's received honorary degrees from numerous universities, including Yale; shame on those institutions that never considered honoring the great "Coach Rob." Yes, Eddie Robinson--a man who had every right to despise America after once experiencing the worst it had to offer. Instead, he always remained pleasant and FAR from bitter--in fact, constantly remaining immensely patriotic throughout his amazing life. "I don't believe anybody can 'out-American' me," he once said. Truthfully, I don't believe anyone DID, Eddie. Perhaps Grambling President Dr. Horace Judson said it best when he recently remarked the following on the school's website: "As long as Grambling State University exists, as long as football is played, as long as Americans remain patriotic, 'Coach Rob's' spirit will live. That is a special kind of immortality only very special people can attain."

And none more special than a former feed mill worker turned legend named Eddie Robinson.


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