GRAMBLING, La. – A new white plywood sign with black lettering that popped up at the exit off Interstate 20 marked Grambling State University. It simply read, “Eddie Robinson, La.”
There were also signs on the four-mile stretch of R.W.E. Jones Drive pointing the way to the new 7,000-seat Assembly Center in this little city. This is the way the hearse carrying the body of Grambling’s Hall of Fame football coach, Eddie Robinson, came home for a final reunion.
By 9:30 in the morning, the road was crowded with cars, many with black-and-gold Grambling flags fluttering in the breeze on a sunny, 78-degree day.
The road that leads to the Assembly Center passes by the new 19,600-seat Eddie Robinson Stadium, across the street from the main campus and the old stadium, where he made history. The field itself is tucked into a valley. At the top of the hill behind one end zone is a retired jersey with the number “408.”
That was the number of games Robinson won in his 57-year career – more than Bobby Bowden, more than Joe Paterno. It is a number Gramblingites will always cherish. But there was so much more to the man.
Some 5,000 people – including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson and close to 400 of Robinson’s former players – made their way to this out-of-the-way town 65 miles east of Shreveport to pay their respects to a man from humble beginnings who helped tear down racial barriers in the deep South before integration kicked in, building a dynasty in modest settings at this historically black college and sending more than 200 of his players to the NFL. He was pictured in the commemorative program given out by the school with Presidents Ford, Reagan and Clinton and the late Bear Bryant.
Robinson, who died last week at age 88, walked with giants.
He was a gentle man who had such a strong will to win on the field, but was so compassionate off it. He could have been bitter, but never was.
“He loves this America,” said Richard Lapchick, who wrote Robinson’s autobiography, “Never Before, Never Again.” “He loves an America when LSU wouldn’t let him buy a ticket to one of their games in Baton Rouge as a young boy, yet let him lie in state in honor in the Rotunda of the Louisiana State Capitol.”
That honor was bestowed on Monday. Yesterday, 26 pallbearers carried Robinson’s coffin to a plot at Memorial Garden, a cemetery two miles from campus.
“It was like coming to your father’s funeral,” said Robert (Big Bird) Smith, who played for Robinson and was an assistant coach during Robinson’s final four years at the helm. “He was like a father to everyone who knew him.”
Mothers brought babies dressed in Grambling colors just so they could say they were there. Many took time to walk by the open casket, which had a football beside the body and huge floral tributes from both the school and the NFL. Many of the players brought cowbells and rang them in memory of Robinson’s trips through the dorms to wake the players for class or church.
Robinson obtained his greatness in these piney woods. He was once offered an interview with the Los Angeles Rams, but never received so much as an interview for a Division I-A job. “Grambling’s gain was LSU’s loss,” Rev. Jackson said. “Down in Baton Rouge, they never gave the best coach in Louisiana a chance to coach at the state university. Thank God for Coach Robinson. When Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith stepped on that Super Bowl field at Miami, they were an extension of Coach Robinson.”
Robinson was indeed a pioneer, sending his players out like missionaries to prove blacks could indeed compete at the highest level.
“When I was in my first week in the NFL, it seems like the only question I received from the other players was ‘Where’s Grambling?'” former Green Bay Packers great and Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis recalled. “That’s all I heard. So I called Coach Rob and told him. He told me, ‘They’ll know. They will know.'”
Robinson knew about the extraordinary talents he was coaching in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. “Everybody talks about the 200 players who made it in the NFL,” NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Willie Brown said. “And then there were another 200 guys who should have been here.”
One was James (Shack) Harris, the son of a Baptist preacher and the first black quarterback to play in the NFL. When Harris was a rookie trying to make the Buffalo Bills’ roster, he was tormented by loneliness. Robinson would call him every night during preseason camp to keep his spirits up.
“He would always call on the pay phone,” Harris said. “I don’t know how he got the number. He had a team to prepare, had to win games. But he’d always say the same thing: ‘James, you can’t feel sorry for yourself. Don’t worry about the snaps you’re going to get. When they call your number, just throw it. Hell, Shack, throw it like you threw it for dear old Grambling.”
There was genuine affection in the voices of the friends and players who spoke at the podium, eulogizing Coach Rob by comparing him to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
“When he walked onto that field in 1941,” said Robinson’s widow, Doris, “it was slanted up sharply. It’s not level yet, but because of his life it’s getting there, and we are all beneficiaries of that.”
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