Former Players, Fans, Admirers Gather To Honor Robinson

Monday, April 9th 2007, 9:55 am
By: News On 6

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) _ Pallbearers carried the dark wooden casket of longtime Grambling State football coach Eddie Robinson up the granite steps of Louisiana's Capitol on Monday as more than 50 of his former players looked on.

The ex-players, ranging in age from 30 to 85 and clad in dark suits and white gloves, formed lines on either side as the casket was carried up the steps to the somber strains of ``Just a Closer Walk with Thee'' played by the Grambling State University band.

It was the beginning of a grand tribute to Robinson, who was a feed mill worker making 25 cents an hour in Baton Rouge when he heard about the vacancy in the coaching position at Grambling, a small black college in the rural, piney hills of northern Louisiana.

That was more than six decades ago. It was a time when Robinson and fellow blacks lived in segregation, forbidden to patronize restaurants that catered exclusively to whites or to sit anywhere on a public bus but in the back.

When Robinson died last week at 88, state officials immediately made plans for him to lie in state, an honor more often bestowed upon political leaders such as Huey Long, the former governor and U.S. senator whose days in power coincided with Robinson's youth.

All former Grambling players were invited to a players-only service at the Capitol on Monday. The casket was to be placed in the Capitol's cavernous Memorial Hall for public viewing. Robinson's body will be brought to Grambling for a wake Tuesday evening and burial Wednesday.

W.C. Gordon, a former Jackson State coach and Southwestern Athletic Conference rival, called Robinson the ``Martin Luther King of football.''

``I don't think you can describe him any better than that,'' said former Grambling and NFL quarterback Doug Williams, who has been invited to speak during a memorial service in the state House of Representatives chambers.

``There were so many young black men, in a time when segregation was strong, that coach steered in the right direction so they could go out in America and make way for their family. He preached being able to thrive in America _ to go out and be whatever to be what you want to be,'' Williams said.

Gordon remembered Robinson as a gentleman who never uttered a derogatory word about an opponent.

``He carried the attitude that he loved everybody.''

By the time Robinson retired in 1997, with 57 years of coaching and 408 victories to his name, it seemed everybody loved him as well.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco called Robinson a ``true American hero ... and one of the greatest civil rights pioneers in our history.''

It turned out that Robinson, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about 10 years ago, would live just long enough to see the first Super Bowl involving two black head coaches when Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts defeated Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears little more than two months ago.

Robinson never coached either of them, but his success at Grambling laid the groundwork for players of Dungy's and Smith's generation to thrive at larger college programs before moving on to playing and coaching careers in the NFL.

Paul ``Tank'' Younger, the first NFL player to come out of an all-black university, played for Robinson at Grambling. More than 200 of Robinson's players would go on to play in the NFL, four of them later being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And their success went beyond the field to the front office.

James Harris, a former Grambling and NFL quarterback, is now vice president for player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Williams, a Super Bowl MVP with the Washington Redskins, became a player personnel executive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following a stint as Grambling's coach after Robinson retired.

When Robinson started coaching Grambling in 1941, he had no paid assistants and cared for the field himself. His salary was $63.75 a month.

During his career, he began scheduling Grambling for games before big crowds in large cities. Like Notre Dame, Grambling enjoyed fan support far beyond its alumni. The school won admirers for the way Robinson had turned an obscure, historically black college into an internationally known institution.

In doing so, Robinson gave Grambling the chance to showcase more than athletes. It was also a chance to share the pageantry and richness of black culture. Grambling's Tiger Marching Band became about as famous as the football team. The band played at the 1968 Super Bowl and drew invitations for parades across the country and performances in foreign countries.

``Do you know, in all my days in the NFL, how many guys have told me, 'Man, I wish I could have gone to Grambling?''' Williams said. ``And I always tell them, 'You missed a treat.'''