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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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A coach for a lifetime
By RICK STROUD
Published April 5, 2007
Doug Williams, left, is one of hundreds who went on to the NFL during Eddie Robinson's more than 50 years at Grambling State University.
[AP photo (1977)]
[AP photo (1971)]
Grambling State football coach Eddie Robinson, right, talks with some players during a game against Mississippi Valley in Grambling, La., in 1971.
TAMPA - The only promise that coach Eddie Robinson made to Doug Williams' family was that the young quarterback would "go to church on Sundays and graduate."
For Williams, who went on to be the Super Bowl MVP, and hundreds of other players at Grambling State University, Mr. Robinson accomplished much more than he promised.
Hours after he publicly announced the death of his mentor, Williams talked about the need to preserve the legacy of the first college football coach to win more than 400 games.
Mr. Robinson, who coached 55 seasons at Grambling State University, died Tuesday night (April 3, 2007) in Ruston, La. He was 88.
"You don't expect these young guys walking in the facility now to know who Eddie Robinson was," Williams said. "You have to understand, 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds are not going to do it on their own. Somebody has to set them down. You may be able to lock them up in a room and tell them you're not leaving until you watch this, or listen to this before they understand."
Mr. Robinson transformed a lot of poor, black young men in the segregated South into great football players. But what Williams remembered Wednesday is how he did a better job at preparing them to be successful in life.
"You talk about the 200 or so guys that have gone to the pros - the lives that he has touched," Williams said. "But nobody talks about the guys who didn't make the pros - over 50-something years of lives that he's touched. I think that is probably the most important thing, if you sit back and think about the real numbers. Because just like myself and James Harris and Everson Walls, there was a whole lot of guys in other arenas - lawyers, doctors and others - who were successful because they went by Eddie Robinson."
Able to smile
Williams, now a personnel assistant with the Bucs, was as close to Mr. Robinson as any player.
Williams, a quarterback at Grambling State, went on to play for the Bucs and then won the Most Valuable Player award in the Washington Redskins' victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. Williams eventually succeeded Mr. Robinson as the coach at Grambling.
Early Wednesday morning, Williams received a phone call informing him that Mr. Robinson had died and confirmed the news to the Associated Press. Though calling it a "sad day," Williams said he was able to smile remembering the life of his coach and mentor.
"One thing he taught us was that it wasn't about the color of your skin," Williams said. "He always told us that nobody, no matter who it was, would 'out-American' him. He was a firm believer that America is the greatest country that you can live in, that would give you the opportunity to do the things that you're capable of doing."
The son of a sharecropper, Mr. Robinson began coaching football, baseball and basketball in 1941 at the black university known then as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. The school had no teams in 1944 and '45 because of World War II.
Operating on a shoestring budget with inferior facilities, Robinson won 408 games, sent more than 200 players to the NFL, including four Hall of Famers, and inspired thousands of players to graduate.
When Williams became the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, Mr. Robinson met him after the game and tried to put the feat in a historical perspective.
"The first thing he told me was I wasn't old enough to understand the impact and it was probably going to take me some time to understand what had just taken place," Williams said. "He kind of likened it to (boxers) Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. He said that's what it was for him. It did take me a little time to understand the impact and I think this year, with Tony (Dungy) and Lovie (Smith) going to the Super Bowl, it kind of put everything Coach Robinson talked about into perspective."
But because Mr. Robinson coached a lower level of competition, some insisted it cheapened his victories against white football coaching legends like Alabama's Paul "Bear" Bryant.
"They put Bobby Bowden and (Joe) Paterno and Bear (Bryant) in a different class than Eddie Robinson because he coached at a lower level," Williams said. "But at the end of the day, if you measure every athlete who coach Robinson has coached against every guy the other coaches coached, you would find out that his players probably fared as well or better in the National Football League.
"But he didn't complain. That was the bottom line. He did what he had to do and the reason he did was he realized who he was helping. He was helping a lot of young African-American men to go to college and eventually get a degree and go out and support their family. That's one of the things he always talked about. To be a good American and support you family."
Preserving a legacy
The cause of Mr. Robinson's death was not disclosed, but he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years. He is survived by his wife, Doris; son, Eddie Robinson Jr.; daughter, Lillian Rose Robinson; five grandchildren; and four great grandchildren.
Williams began to cry when he recalled his last meeting with the coach several years ago.
"The last time I visited coach, when I walked in the door, he immediately knew who I was and his memory kind of faded," Williams said between sobs.
Now Williams is committed to making sure the life of Mr. Robinson never fades from memory.
Born: Feb. 13, 1919, in Jackson, La.
Coaching: In 57 years at Grambling State (it was called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute when he began his career with no paid staff members and little equipment), Robinson was 408-165-15, retiring after the 1997 season as the winningest college football coach. (John Gagliardi of St. John's, Minn., topped the mark four years ago.) His teams won 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and nine national black college championships.
First salary as a head coach: $63.75 a month.
Honors: He was inducted into every hall of fame for which he was eligible and received honorary degrees from several universities, including Yale.
Philosophy: Robinson said he tried to coach each player as if he wanted him to marry his daughter.
Quote: "The real record I have set for over 50 years is the fact that I have had one job and one wife." - Robinson in 1985 after surpassing Bear Bryant for most victories
"Eddie Robinson's name is synonymous with the sport of football. We will be forever grateful for the more than 200 young men he developed at Grambling who starred in the NFL and those who later coached the next generation of NFL players. He always focused on coaching his players to be better men as well as better football players." - Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner
"First time I met Eddie was around 1968 up at Uniontown, Pa. I was an assistant coach at West Virginia and he was the head coach at Grambling and very successful. He came up there and spoke at a banquet. I heard him speak and he's the kind of guy that you get close to immediately - he was that way. He was a people's person. You can't help but like him." - Bobby Bowden, FSU coach