Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Eddie Robinson Museum project

This dream also lives on
Attempts to build a Robinson museum have made for saga
January 18, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Everyone agrees that a museum dedicated to Eddie Robinson would be a good thing. What some haven't been able to agree upon is where it should be. Location was once again the center of conversation when a group of interested locals met last week at Grambling State in an attempt to revisit the now-dormant project.

"We had more or less settled on having it on campus," Doug Porter of Grambling, an original ex-officio Robinson museum board member, recalled during Friday's meeting. "The original plan had it near the stadium."

But, when potential sponsorship money popped up in Shreveport, the state of Louisiana's support for the museum went soft. Proposed funding out of Baton Rouge was cut last May, and the museum commission stopped convening.

That didn't sit well with some Grambling supporters, who call the unrealized museum one of the parish's most important economic opportunities.

That led to Friday's meeting in the conference room of GSU President Horace Judson. Among those in attendance were two representatives from Secretary of State W. Fox McKeithen's office - museum program director Stacy Sharpe and archivist Louis Morris - who said they were ready to jumpstart a new initiative.

Letters are to be sent out this week from Sharpe's office, polling past members about their interest in rejoining the effort. Then, she said, a new commission would be put together as soon as possible.

That would be a dramatic resurrection for a project that board members like Porter feared had been left for dead.

The museum was originally mentioned during the Louisiana Legislature's 1999 session, when then-Sen. Randy Ewing introduced Senate Bill No. 919.

The bill, co-sponsored by the late Rep. Pinky Wilkerson of Grambling and several others, created a commission that would develop a Robinson museum. The project was to be a part of the Department of State Museums Program, administered by the secretary of state.

Robinson - who has since limited his public appearances because of health issues - attended the board's first meeting, held Sept. 7, 2001, in Ruston. McKeithen spoke briefly to the assembled supporters, and addressed praise for the former coach's commitment to America's youth directly to Robinson.

Former Gov. Mike Foster had appointed four members to the board: John Belton, James Davison, Lottie Green - who was the group's leader - and Johnny Maxwell.

Others in attendance for that first meeting were Deputy Secretary of State Al Ater; Robert Wiley, then-president of Grambling Chamber of Commerce; Florent Hardy, Jr., Louisiana State Archivist; former GSU trainer Eugene "Doc" Harvey; James Bradford, president of the GSU Alumni Association; and Porter, president of the GSU Athletic Foundation.

"This first meeting of the Board of Governors earmarks the beginning of a long and exciting journey towards fruition of a dream long held by many people in our state and across the nation," McKeithen said that day in 2001.

The project sought to pull into tight focus both Robinson's achievements on the gridiron and in America. Head coach at Grambling from 1941-97, Robinson retired as the winningest coach in college history with 408 wins - leading the Tigers to 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.

But Green would fall ill. Then a series of ex-officio commission members also left the school - including acting president Neari Warner, athletics director Albert Dennis III and football coach Doug Williams.

The project was already grinding to a halt by then.

While the secretary of state's office moved forward with a Grambling location, another proposal was broached that would locate the museum in Caddo Parish.

In February 2002, Shreveport officials even announced that outside sponsorship meant the museum could one day open on "one of two sites along the city's riverfront," according to news reports.

Supporters saw sponsorship dollars from Harrah's Casino as a foundation that would help ensure the museum's eventual reality.

The Caddo Parish location was linked to support from Harrah's Casino, where Robinson's 83rd birthday party was held in 2002. A Shreveport-based architectural firm was reportedly contacted to design the new building.

One of the possible locations, owned by the city of Shreveport, was between sites for an amphitheater and convention center that were proposed in 2002 on Cross Bayou. The other location, according to news reports, was a privately-owned parcel across Cross Bayou and north of the former Harrah's Casino on the banks of Red River.

Robinson has always been well loved in nearby Shreveport, where GSU plays regularly. He's a member of both the Greater Shreveport Chamber's Walk of Stars as well as the Northwest Louisiana Hall of Fame, which is on display at the Louisiana State Exhibit Building.

Even so, Robinson reportedly spoke before the museum commission and asked that the facility remain in Grambling.

"Everything that I accomplished and most of the service I rendered to the state and nation originated right here on this campus," Robinson is quoted as saying in separate releases from McKeithen's office and Grambling State.

That commission meeting, according to school documents, took place on April 12, 2002.

McKeithen's office quickly moved to rebuff the Shreveport option, issuing a contradictory news release on May 2, 2002. The museum would, the release said, be located in the town of Grambling - "in accordance with Coach Robinson's wishes."

McKeithen, in that same 2002 release, said: "It makes sense that a tribute to this legendary coach should be located in the area which was most directly affected by his excellent work."

Harrah's has since divested the downtown casino, which is now called Sam's Town, to avoid problems with regulators when it sought to buy Caesar's gaming operations.

Still, the confusion had a chilling effect on the proposed state funding.

Louisiana's financial commitment was wavering anyway. The state intended to allocate $600,000 to the project in the 2000-01 fiscal year, according to legislative documents, with another $3.9 million promised over the next two to five years.

But, even as the Louisiana State Archives collected truckloads of memorabilia from Robinson's career, funding didn't follow.

McKeithen's staff was instructed to begin cataloging and taking inventory of these items, which would then return to the museum once the facility was ready to open. The collection - which includes awards won by Robinson, as well as playbooks, equipment and a large stockpile of videotape from Grambling's football history - remains in storage, state archivist Louis Morris said during the Friday meeting at GSU.

Yet, like so many hoped-for projects in Louisiana, budget constraints had slowed the project - and probably led to the Shreveport proposal.

"The (new basketball and physical education) building was on the budget for 17 or 18 years, I understand," Judson said on Friday. "So sometimes, I am not so optimistic about state funding. I suggest we develop a Plan B that involves fund raising."

Perhaps the museum's closest brush with funding came as Foster prepared to leave office, when he approved a wide variety of favored projects. His final state budget for fiscal year 2004 included $5.5 million dollars earmarked for the Grambling facility.

But the Robinson museum was part of nearly $700 million in projects slashed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco last May in an effort to balance the teetering state budget.

Even so, the Robinson museum was not technically rejected. Two legislators listed all of those deleted projects, for the record, in House Concurrent Resolution 194 during the last session.

The museum was also mentioned on Aug. 25, 2004, by the Board of Regents facilities and property committee. But that was only to recommend that the project be made part of the next fiscal year's capital outlay budget requests.

In the end, however, there was no money. There was no one meeting to talk about the project. There wasn't even a consensus on where the museum should be.

Until last week, when Belton made an impassioned plea to get the museum back on track.

Wilkerson's son John Barabin Jr. attended Friday's informal talk - and opened another conversation about location.

Barabin had flown in from Philadelphia to encourage the group of interested locals to put the museum in Grambling's downtown area, and offered to contact legislators and help with land acquisition. He was greeted with excited approval by everyone from Judson to Ora Sampson, the current head of Grambling's chamber.

Judson spoke at length about how the museum could, if located off campus, helped spark tourism that would ultimately help both the city and the university. Year-round programming - including, perhaps, a Grambling Hall of Fame - ought to provide a more consistent level of interest, he said.

"You could put this in the context of African-American history, and how that played out in athletics," said Judson, who took office last July.

The group on Friday agreed that it would like to supplement whatever funding the state might provide, specifically through the formation of Friends of the Eddie Robinson Museum group - answering Judson's call for a "Plan B."

Belton, the only original governor-appointed board member to attend last week's organizational meeting, said he hoped to gather again in early February. His said the goal was to present a new outline for the museum to the Louisiana Legislature, scheduled to reconvene this spring in Baton Rouge.

This renewed enthusiasm - and a tight focus on establishing the museum in Grambling - could lead to seed money, said Morris, one of those two representatives from McKeithen's office.

Morris mentioned possible funds "that could produce a study on feasibility and land funding. Then, down the road, there might be other money for a building and exhibits."

Porter - an assistant on Robinson's staff in the late 1960s and early 1970s - was jubilant afterward.

"It might really happen," he said, as a big smile curled up his face. "It just might happen, after all."

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Exhibit to offer taste of museum to come
June 10, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - It may only be a short stroll through his towering legacy, but organizers hope a peek at some Eddie Robinson memorabilia will jumpstart the long-delayed project to honor him with a museum.

Members of the Eddie Robinson Museum Commission, as first reported at www.thenewsstar.com, on Thursday put the finishing touches to plans for a temporary exhibit that would open as part of the city of Grambling's Juneteenth celebration next week.

That represents a small but important breakthrough for an idea that's stalled since first being approved by the Louisiana Legislature back in 1999. While the larger project has been delayed by budget cuts and indecision on where to put the proposed museum, the temporary exhibit idea has come together quickly.

"It's not everything we want it to be," said governor-appointed board member John Belton, a Ruston attorney. "But at least we are moving forward."

Robinson retired after the 1997 season, having spent almost 60 seasons as head coach at Grambling State University. He held the record for most wins in all of college football, with 408, from 1984 through 2003. It still stands as the record in Division I.

The temporary exhibit honoring him, featuring selected pieces of memorabilia from GSU's in-house collection, will open at 9 a.m. June 17 in the Stadium Support Facility next to Robinson Stadium.

Several local and university officials are expected to attend, as well as members of the Robinson family. Former Robinson assistant Douglas Porter, who is still a close family friend, also will speak.

"It's very satisfying to see that at last we've got some positive movement," said Porter, an ex-officio member of the board who, like Belton, was at the original commission meeting in 2001. "I hope and pray that we can get this done while Coach is still alive."

GSU athletics director Willie Jeffries on Thursday suggested the addition of a multimedia presentation, designed to highlight Robinson's accomplishments not just as a coach, but also as a great American.

"When you talk about Eddie Robinson and what he stands for, it's fitting," said GSU coach Melvin Spears, who was a driving force behind the idea to establish a temporary exhibit in the already-existing trophy cases that line the walls of the support facility where his office is located.

"I'm elated we are so close to getting it done," Spears said. "It's a way to honor one of this country's most important individuals - and to talk about the way he influenced so many people."

Belton also thanked the group on Thursday for its hard work on the project, which Belton said directly led to his receiving the Tourism Service Award last month from the Ruston-Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Ruston Main Street Commission.

To go
A temporary exhibit will debut next week featuring memorabilia to be included in a proposed museum to honor former Grambling State University coach Eddie Robinson. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 17-18, then noon to 5 p.m. June 19, at the Stadium Support Facility next to Robinson Stadium in Grambling. For details, call 274-2542.

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Coach's legacy plays out at exhibit
Grambling `has a treasure within its midst' - Eddie Robinson
June 18, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Emotion shot through the Friday morning opening of an exhibit of memorabilia from Eddie Robinson's storied career at Grambling State University.

Doris Robinson entered to a standing ovation, then brought the house down with her touching memories of a life spent around husband Eddie Robinson - the football-coaching legend who she knows as a childhood sweetheart.

"It's been a great adventure," said Doris Robinson, who attended with son Eddie Robinson Jr. "I don't know what it would have been like if he didn't get this job. My years here have been great, and that's to say nothing of Eddie's years."

The exhibit, presented in conjunction with the city of Grambling's on-going Juneteenth celebrations, represents a long stride forward in a sometimes-bumpy six-year journey to honor Robinson with a museum.

The Louisiana Legislature first approved the project in 1999. Former Gov. Mike Foster named a four-member commission, with ex-officio membership from throughout the GSU administration, which first met in 2001.

But a series of budget cuts and disagreements over where the museum would be located stalled the project - until Ruston attorney John Belton and others reconvened in January, after nearly a year of inactivity. They vowed to jumpstart the museum by opening a display that was smaller in scope.

The artifacts are presented exclusively from the collection of Grambling State University. Robinson, who is suffering from Alzheimer's-like symptoms, was unable to attend. But a succession of friends and admirers reminisced about his legacy.

"I think he would have been very appreciative," said former GSU assistant coach Douglas Porter, a long-time family friend. "He would have been humbled - because that's the nature of the man. He would be moved, emotionally, to know that Grambling has finally awakened to the fact that it has a treasure within its midst."

Both Doris Robinson and Porter were nearly moved to tears as they spoke. Several local dignitaries mixed with Grambling alumni - including the mayors of Grambling, Ruston and Arcadia, who each paid tribute to Robinson. Grambling Mayor Martha Andrus read a proclamation dedicated to "A Tiger in Winter."

Athletics director Willie Jeffries closed out the ceremony with a series of humorous memories about Robinson, who he faced a number of times during his own 44-year career in coaching - mainly at South Carolina State.

"To have known him, to have had a chance to play against him, it's just amazing," said Jeffries, who joined the GSU administration late last year.

"Everybody wanted to beat him; that would've been a star in your crown," said Jeffries, with a hearty chuckle. "Of course, you're looking at one of Coach Rob's victims."

About Robinson
Eddie Robinson was hired as a coach and teacher in 1941 by what was then the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, which would later become Grambling. By 1995, he had become the first coach to win 400 games. Robinson eventually amassed 408 victories before retiring in 1997, a mark that stood as the best in college football until the 2003 season. A member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, he led Grambling to 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.

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Ater backs Robinson museum
Secretary of state lauds legend at project's inaugural banquet
November 12, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater gave a stirring speech in support of a proposed Eddie Robinson Museum during the project's inaugural banquet on the campus of Grambling State University.

"We need to make sure that not just this generation, but future generations know that there was a man at this small school who did whatever it took to build this legacy," Ater said before about 250 museum supporters. "With commitment, anything is possible. He epitomizes that."

The Robinson Museum Board and Community Trust Bank presented the event, which also included remarks by Grambling State University President Horace Judson, Grambling Mayor Martha Andrus, Ruston Mayor Dan Hollingsworth and former longtime GSU baseball coach Wilbert Ellis, among others.

"This is a project whose time came a long time ago," Judson said. "We're building momentum."

The museum board opened a temporary exhibit site on campus that coincided with the town of Grambling's Juneteenth festival. That stirred new hopes to rejuvenate a project that had been bogged down through a series of budget cuts at the state level.

Ater, whose office would oversee the proposed museum, pledged to see the funding through.

"We'll do what it takes to make it happen," said Ater, who took over in the summer after the death of Fox McKeithen. "We do truly have a national treasure in Coach Rob."

Andrus presented a key to the city of Grambling to Eddie Robinson Jr., who attended in place of his ailing parents. Museum board chairman John Belton recognized key supporters with plaques, including Ruston businessman Johnny Maxwell and several other local banks. He also made special mention of Lottie Green, the board's original chairwoman.

The master of ceremonies was Santoria Black, who broadcasts GSU's football games. In a tip of the hat to Robinson, Black wrote his speech on the back of an envelope - drawing laughs of appreciation from the audience.

"This is an historic occasion, one that's a long time coming," Black said. "It's great for Grambling, and it's great for America."

There also was a video presentation featured a recorded interview with Robinson, as well as remarks by Judson, Belton and GSU football coach Melvin Spears.

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Obstacle of location appears to be solved
Sunday, May 7, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — The ninth item on last Thursday's agenda might have been the single most important development in seven years of struggles to construct a museum honoring legendary former Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson.

The Louisiana Legislature passed a resolution authorizing the project in 1999, but it has never had a home. That is, until the museum board's building and grounds committee suggested, and got unanimous approval for, converting Grambling State's soon-to-be-vacant Women's Memorial Gym into exhibit space this week.

GSU president Horace Judson has signed off on the idea, as long as logistics can be worked out, said museum board chair John Belton.

"This is huge," enthused Belton, a Ruston attorney. "Everybody is on board; there were no dissensions. All we have to do now is raise the money for renovations."

Retired GSU baseball coach and family friend Wilbert Ellis, named to lead the Friends of the Eddie Robinson Museum fundraising group last month, played a key role.

He met with Judson, along with Belton and longtime faculty member David Lewis, on Monday to lay out the proposal. He then sold the idea to Doris Robinson, the ailing former coach's wife, who attended Thursday's meeting in a show of support.

"I'm excited because of the history; that would be an ideal place for it," said Ellis, who worked as an assistant to former coach and school president R.W.E. Jones and then led the baseball team for a staggering 43 combined years.

"It's exciting and encouraging," Ellis said, "and Coach would love it."

Mrs. Robinson pledged to return for every board gathering until the project was complete. Alumni — including D'Wayne Priestley, an active supporter from Dallas — quickly warmed to the idea, as well.

Priestley, in an e-mail of support to Judson on Friday, said: "If the women's gym can be used in this capacity and renovated to a representative facility, this site appears to be a win-win situation. This may ensure some degree of continuous funding and maintenance from the state of Louisiana, by having the museum on the GSU campus."

Indeed, re-energized state officials, along with prospective sponsors and potential museum designers, could be found this week in prominent seats on the bandwagon — which continued to pick up speed.

Representatives from the Secretary of State's office agreed to work on funding for maintenance and staffing. Two exhibit companies out of Tennessee made pitches to work on the project. Chase Bank is considering a major underwriting initiative.

That flurry of activity was particularly meaningful for former Robinson assistant coach Doug Porter. He and Belton are the only members to attend every museum board meeting over these seven long years.

"For me, there was never a question of feeling like it wouldn't happen," said Porter, the board's vice chair. "Some people said we were underdogs. But when I was coaching at Grambling, we always felt we could win. That's the same way I felt about this. I knew there were enough people who had a sincere desire to do something for Coach that it wouldn't die."

The 8,000-square-foot gymnasium, which was being used as practice space by GSU spirit groups, is certainly large enough to accommodate even the most grandiose exhibit plan.

"That's three times larger than the (former Alabama coach Paul) 'Bear' Bryant Museum," Belton said. "You have enough space to build an museum exhibit — and to expand in the future. The space is not limited. Even with (the originally appropriated but never administered) $5 million in state money, we couldn't build a museum space that large."

The gym, set to become vacant with the opening of a new Health, Physical Education and Recreation facility, would have to be retrofitted to provide adequate climate control and security. But, it's a prime location: on the village side of Grambling and in a visible spot on campus next to GSU's administration building, Long-Jones Hall.

Locating the museum there, and in this renovated historical setting, would work as a critical tool in recruiting, Priestley said.

"A possible by-product is the visitors to the museum may consider GSU for their child's higher educational needs," he said. "This will give alums, friends and others another reason to visit the campus and bring others. Hopefully, the exposure will generate more funding towards GSU."

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Proposed Eddie Robinson Museum gaining momentum
August 4, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — The proposed Eddie Robinson Museum received $63,500 in funding on Thursday as the long-delayed project gained surprising momentum.

"All I can say is God is good," enthused Wilbert Ellis, who heads up the project's fundraising arm. "Things are just falling into place."

Robinson led the football program at Grambling State for nearly 60 years, retiring in 1997 as the winningest coach in college history with 408 wins. He also mentored four future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees and won 17 conference titles along the way.

A bill to fund a museum that would honor those storied accomplishments was passed in 1999, but the plans hit a series of snags before its oversight board was reconstituted in 2005. A proposal to house the proposed exhibits in the former women's basketball gym on campus followed earlier this year.

That led to the Louisiana Secretary of State office's Thursday pledge of $50,000 in start-up funding for the next fiscal year, money that will be used for utilities and hiring a staff member. The funds are contingent on approval by the University of Louisiana System board to use the gymnasium as the museum site.

John Belton, a governor-appointed museum commission member, said the group was working with GSU school officials to present the idea for preliminary approval at the ULS' regular meeting later this month.

Secretary of State Al Ater confirmed the funding in an open letter presented at the Thursday museum commission meeting. Kyle Edmiston of the Ruston-Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau also presented $13,500 in funds earmarked for promoting the museum.

"This museum could have a huge impact on tourism in Lincoln Parish," Edmiston said. "We feel it could be one of the top, if not the top, site in the area."

Edmiston said he had also met with members of the local legislative contingency to discuss their continued support. The CVB has already provided office materials and clerical help.

"The convention and visitors' bureau has been there supporting this project from the beginning," Ellis said. "It's been a good marriage."

Belton said the Robinson family attorney was at work on a letter backing the project. The document, he said, would protect their rights through future licensing efforts, as well.

"This family is very, very happy about how everything is going," said Eddie Robinson Jr., son of the legendary former coach. "We are just excited about it."

The commission is continuing to iron out its contract with a national fundraising group. A brochure detailing these efforts is also being prepared for distribution to local supporters, chamber members and residents.

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Efforts to honor Grambling's Eddie Robinson continue to gain traction in year following his death
April 4, 2008

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Eddie Robinson's family spent the anniversary of his death in quiet reflection, even as efforts to build a museum in his honor continued at an ever-quickening pace.

Robinson, who coached at Grambling State University for 57 years, died from complications related to Alzheimer's on April 3, 2007. He was 88.

"I'm doing OK," Doris Robinson, the football legend's wife for 67 seasons, said Thursday. "Eddie Jr. and I are spending the day together. We've been so lucky to have each other."

Junior, who played for and then coached with his father at Grambling, became deeply involved with the museum project late in Robinson Sr.'s life. He's witnessed firsthand how the coach's passing helped push the initiative along.
"It has taken off," Robinson Jr. said. "That's so great for the family. It's an inspiration to all of us. We're all so very happy about that."

Help flowed in both from Grambling graduates and from faraway fans. Museum organizers, for instance, set up an informational table during the emotional day that saw Robinson's body lay in respose a year ago in the Capitol rotunda in Baton Rouge — only to run out of brochures in a flurry of activity.

Donations began showering down within days, from strangers and from familiar supporters alike. By June, two of Robinson's most famous former quarterbacks, Doug Williams and James "Shack" Harris, had given $10,000 to the project.

The Louisiana Legislature promised funding, then, later in the year, upped the pledge to $2 million for restoration of an on-campus gymnasium and grounds, as well as the museum's primary exhibit.

Donated memorabilia and other signature items then began flowing in from across the Grambling community.

"We are seeing so many people working on the same page, working as a team," said John Belton, the governor-appointed board chairman of the Robinson Museum commission. "Coach was all about that kind of effort, never about 'I.' This project has always been about uplifting that message, from Day 1."

That it took Robinson's passing to achieve this momentum is no small irony, in particular to longtime friends like Wilbert Ellis, who coached baseball at Grambling for more than 40 years.

"We wanted this to happen so badly in Coach's lifetime," said Ellis, now working as a fundraiser and spokesman for the proposed museum. "That didn't happen, but the time did finally come. Donations and offerings of help started happening right away after this death. There's no question, it was a rallying point. Eddie Robinson touched the lives of so many people."

A museum in Robinson's honor was first proposed nine years ago — two seasons after Robinson's retirement at Grambling and several before the onset of his final illness.

One of the points of contention for years was where the museum would be located, though that was resolved when GSU and its oversight board agreed to make room for exhibit space in the school's former women's gymnasium — where Robinson had once coached basketball early in his career, as well.

"What better thing can happen than for that museum to be housed on campus?" Ellis said.

A temporary exhibit of Robinson-related items opened in the lobby of the Grambling Stadium Support Facility in June 2005. But Hurricane Katrina's devastation sapped promised state dollars to build on that momentum.

Robinson's passing, organizers say, quickly refocused attention on the museum. The funds followed.

"We've been overwhelmed, and we continue to be," said Belton, his voice coloring with emotion. "I can only say that it's almost like he has his hands on the project from up in heaven. That's the best way I can put it."

A year later, Eddie Robinson's son said he finds solace on this somber anniversary within the ongoing efforts to honor Grambling's fallen coach.

They've kept his father's contributions in people's thoughts, he said, and helped ease the pain associated with losing a loved one — not to mention other subsequent health issues within his immediate family.

"You have special days in your life, even if they are sad ones, and this would have to be one of ours," Robinson Jr. said on Thursday. "In our own little way, we respect this date. We're not doing a whole lot. Just spending it quietly, together, and thinking of him."

SEE MORE of The News-Star's award-winning coverage of Eddie Robinson's passing, including staff-written stories, fan memories, more photo galleries, audio and video here: http://www.thenewsstar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/99999999/SPORTS/70404008&theme=EDDIEROB&template=theme

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