This chapter appears in “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg: A Collection Of Interviews With The Legendary Columnist.” The paperback edition was published on Dec. 31, 2020.
Chapter 13: Encounters with Eddie Robinson and Recollections of His First Trip to Grambling
Taking the road less traveled transported Jerry Izenberg to new heights, to the top of his profession.
There were great stories. Everywhere. Including Grambling, Louisiana (pop: 3,144 in 1960).
But first, he had to arrive there to find that out.
Izenberg’s first trip to Grambling, and the story behind the story, remains crystal clear in his mind more than 50 years later.
It was 1963, and Roger Kahn, who wrote a critically acclaimed book, “The Boys of Summer,” about the Brooklyn Dodgers, worked as sports editor at The Saturday Evening Post. Kahn wanted Izenberg to visit Florida A&M to report on its college football team.
Izenberg had another idea.
“I didn’t want to go to Florida A&M because everybody knew that story,” Izenberg revealed, “and I was beginning to find out more and more stuff about Grambling.”
This was the historically black college where Robinson first coached the football team from 1941-42, then returned in ’45 and led the program, uninterrupted, until 1997.
“And nobody even heard of Grambling,” Izenberg said, explaining the reality of mainstream America’s collective knowledge in the mid-1960s. “So I said, ‘Let me go there.’ ”
“I was,” he said, “the first white reporter on the Grambling campus.”
He said the university may have had a white teacher then, but he doesn’t believe so. The student body didn’t have whites.
Which meant he was in a completely different environment than his upbringing in Newark, New Jersey, or in New York City.
“I learned a lot watching Eddie,” said Izenberg.
“Eddie was very mistrustful of me when we met. But little things began to happen, and apparently I passed every test.”
“I was the first guest to stay overnight in the Grambling student center,” he said, adding, “When I came down to breakfast the next morning, this whole trip was worthwhile.
“I look at these kids looking at me and I’m saying, ‘Now I know what it can feel like.’ That’s important.”
Robinson created and maintained an important pipeline from Grambling to professional football. He proved the critics wrong and, in time, opened America’s eyes to the talent, athleticism and intelligence of African-American football players. More than 200 of his players were later employed as NFL, AFL and CFL players. He coached future Super Bowl XXII-winning (and MVP) quarterback Doug Williams and Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, as well as wide receiver Charlie Joiner and defensive tackle Buck Buchanan before they launched their distinguished pro careers en route to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
But before Williams, Brown, Joiner, Buchanan and so many others, Robinson needed a trailblazer to pave the way.
Paul “Tank” Younger signed a contract with the Los Angeles Rams in 1949, making him the first player from a historically black college to sign with an NFL team. Younger played fullback and linebacker for the Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers in a 10-year NFL career. He was selected as an All-Pro four times.
Robinson compiled a record of 408 wins, 165 losses and 15 ties. He amassed 45 winning seasons there. He is No. 2 on the NCAA Division list for coaching victories, trailing only Joe Paterno. Since 1987, the Eddie Robinson Award has been presented annually by The Sports Network to a Division I-AA (now known as the Division I Football Championship Subdivision) top coach.
After the coaching legend’s death in 2007 at age 88, the Eddie G. Robinson Museum curated a number of poignant statements about his life and legacy on its website.
Here are two of them:
“Eddie Robinson is a coach’s coach. As the son of a legendary coach myself, I saw the greatness in Coach Robinson the minute I shook his hand. When I saw him with his student-athletes, I saw their enormous love and respect for him. When I saw him and Doris together, I saw a lifetime love affair. Coach Robinson is a great leader, father figure, coach, friend, husband, American, and above all, a great human being.”
-Richard Lapchick, who co-authored Robinson’s autobiography, scholar and civil rights activist
“The coaching profession has lost one of its true legends. Though he was best known for winning more football games than any other coach when he retired, Eddie Robinson’s impact on coaching and the game of football went far beyond wins and losses. He brought a small school in northern Louisiana from obscurity to nationwide, if not worldwide, acclaim and touched the lives of hundreds and hundreds of young men in his 57 years at Grambling. That will be his greatest legacy.”
-Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association
In a 2004 column about his final visit in Louisiana to see his friend Robinson, who was battling Alzheimer’s disease, Izenberg wrote in part: “Eddie had gotten the Rams to sign Younger, but he had to make the team or the contract was void. If successful, he would be the first player from an all-black school in NFL history. The year was 1949. As they waited there, Robinson put his hands on Tank’s shoulders and looked him dead in the eye before he spoke. Then he said: ‘Tank, you got to make that team. Not just for you, but for all the young black men we can send after you. If you can do that, the door is open to every player in every black college in America. You got to make it. Can you?’ And the younger man looked back at him and responded with:
“ ‘They playin’ football, ain’t they? If they playin’ volleyball, I don’t know, coach. But if it’s football,’ and then he grinned, ‘you know I’ll make it.’
“He did. All-Pro offense. All-Pro defense … and hundreds came after him.”
In another poignant look at Robinson’s legacy from the same column, Izenberg observed: “I thought about the man who always did what was right, who over the years played two white quarterbacks at this all-black college and had a white graduate assistant from New Jersey named Scott Manhoff and didn’t give a damn what anybody said because he was a man who never saw color. He is what America should be all about.”
Postscript: Izenberg’s piece on Grambling was rejected by one of the higher-ups at The Saturday Evening Post.
But he didn’t give up. He knew he had an important story to tell. So he looked for another outlet to showcase the reporting.
Persistence paid off. True magazine agreed to run it, and the feature (“A Whistle-Stop School with BigTime Talent”), published September 1967, was well-received. E.P. Dutton’s annual Best Sports Stories anthology included Izenberg’s article.
What’s more, Izenberg developed a strong rapport with Robinson, which helped him plant the seeds to write and direct the ABC documentary “Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory.”
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