Thursday, November 09, 2006

Remembering: Grambling's 1980 team

Looking for a little love
Unjustly overlooked, Grambling's Class of 1980 was one for the ages
June 11, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Don't mind Grambling State's Class of 1980 if they feel a bit overlooked.

Forgive them, even in the long shadow of this 2005 football squad's stunning success, if they are defensive.

That includes the guys who played offense.

"This year's team was good," said former quarterback Mike Williams, "but you couldn't mess with the 1980 team."

Their accomplishments, even today, rank amongst the best ever at GSU. Two roster members — linebacker Andre Robinson and lineman Charlie Lewis — also continue that legacy as assistant coaches with the program.

And that season, well, it was one for the ages.

Yet, coming as it did at the end of a decade of dominance for former coach Eddie Robinson, the 1980 campaign tends to be ignored.

The players from that year — quirky, quietly successful and fiercely loyal to one another — say they still don't know why.


The Tigers were coming off a fourth straight Southwestern Athletic Conference championship from the previous fall, yet the 1981 NFL Draft only saw two players taken from Grambling. Running back Robert Parham and defensive tackle Mike Barker were both selected, but as disappointing 10th rounders.

"Look at our team — with Mike Williams, Parham, (flamboyant SWAC offensive player of the year) Trumaine Johnson. Those were great players," said defensive back Everson Walls (pictured above), an eventual free agent signing for Dallas who would become the only player to lead the NFL in picks three times.

"I was successful because of those guys," Walls said. "I heard them in my head whenever I got down."

That NFL snub was, sadly, a sign of things to come. GSU football under Robinson was never quite the same again.

Grambling had 47 players drafted (and five in the first round) between 1970-80, but only 28 over the rest of Robinson's career through 1997 — and none in the first round.

That end-of-an-era draft, held 25 springs back, still stings. Both Walls and Andre Robinson mention it often.

"That was something that got all of us, that more didn't get drafted," said Robinson, the '80 Bayou Classic MVP.

This season was historic in other ways.

The Tigers were finishing a nearly perfect run: Over the 10 years beginning in '71 Grambling had claimed or shared eight league titles.

GSU had actually been on probation in 1976, meaning there was only a single campaign over that span where the Tigers competed for a championship and didn't win it. Even then, they finished second in 1975.

Beginning in 1981, this striking period of success ended.

Grambling didn't win consecutive titles again until 2000-02, and that was after Doug Williams — quarterback from 1974-77, and Mike Williams' older brother — returned to coach the Tigers.

In fact, Grambling would claim just four more conference championships in the final 17 seasons with Robinson on the sidelines — and one was in 1983, with a smattering of youngsters (like Robert "Big Bird" Smith) from the 1980 roster.

"When Doug Williams left in 1977, NFL scouts for some reason didn't think we had any talent left," Walls said. "There was no media concentrated on Grambling after Doug left. Nobody knew about us. But we didn't need anybody to; we challenged ourselves."


Grambling's exclamation point season of 1980 was shot through with highlights.

GSU players occupied four of the top five spots for scorers in the Southwestern Athletic Conference that year. The leader was that startling talent Trumaine Johnson with 96 points — 30 more than the Grambling teammate that followed at No. 2, Jerry Gordon.

"The 1980s began with one of our best wingbacks ever leading Grambling's offense," Coach Robinson has said. "Trumaine Johnson was beautiful to watch. He caught 16 touchdown passes in 1980 alone."

That he played with such abandon only added to Johnson's lore.

Cornerbacks Walls, Robert Salter and Mike Haynes combined for 24 picks that season, more than the rest of the SWAC's Top 10 combined in 1980.

There were tough-guy attributes about this team that remained from the old days. But they had a different attitude.

The team pulled together, even shedding some of the traditional hazing rituals for younger players — called, even today, "crabs."

"We wanted to lift them up," Walls said. "We would stay after Coach Rob to work with them, even without asking."

Haynes pushed Walls, and they both got better.

"He believed in himself," Walls said of Haynes, a former walk-on. "But he also believed in me, more than I did. He wanted me to be better, because if we were better, everybody would improve."

Mike Williams was the SWAC's top passer in '80 with 2,716 yards, while Parham was its No. 2 rusher with 1,004. Johnson led all punt returners, while Andre Robinson's 106 tackles was tied for seventh in the league.

The 1980 squad was also the first to participate in the NCAA's fledgling Division I-AA playoffs, though the Tigers were sent to Boise State, despite the fact that the opposing team had a worse overall record. GSU fell 14-9.


Even in the first hints of twilight, Grambling's young players still recognized what their coach meant — and just what he had created at this country school.

This being a special group, though, these guys weren't afraid to challenge him.

"How great a man Eddie Robinson was, and with what he had to work with?" Haynes said. "When you take the measure of him, you have to think about his faith in what this place could be, in what we could be. To make all of this out of nothing? You know when you come upon greatness."

If Robinson — entering his fifth decade of coaching — had softened some, he hadn't completely abandoned those familiar, fiery ways.

"Coach Rob challenged us within the system," Walls said. "He knew who his starters were, but challenged the backups, too. He didn't want us to be satisfied. That had a lot to do with our success."

Still, they could do nothing to stop the beginning of the end for his reign.

Grambling scored 415 points in 1980, a figured only topped three more times in the Robinson era. The '80 defense also limited opponents to 166 points, a mark that would be bested just twice in Robinson's final 17 campaigns (in 1983 and '95).

GSU won 11 games twice in the 1970s, but never again under Robinson. The Tigers had a 10-win season in 1980, but only managed that once more under Robinson (in 1992). Seven of GSU's 13 total invites to the Senior Bowl came during the period of 1970-80, with only three more following.

Somehow, the final contributors to that mythical run aren't always part of the conversation. Yet, they'll tell you that they challenged the league, and even their mentor.

This talented but precocious group had been so bold as to go on strike in 1979 — skipping a pair of practices after the school president decided to cut the travel budget by mandating bus rides to away games.


Perhaps, and Eddie Robinson has said this, the pressure of those coaching milestones that loomed in the early 1980s was too much for the youngsters charged with winning the games.

After all, this was the beginning of a period in which Robinson — who ended up with a then-record 408 wins — was stalking Pop Warner's 313 career victories, then Paul "Bear" Bryant's signature 323 mark.

And, maybe, 10 years after the desegregation of Southern football powers like Alabama and LSU, the talent pool was finally beginning to visibly ebb.

Robinson himself was also growing older, becoming perhaps more tolerant.

A player strike? At Grambling? And who could imagine him encouraging the new-wave flash of a Trumaine Johnson in those by-gone eras?

Whatever lay ahead, though, there would be one bright, final blast: The 1980 squad remains in GSU's all-time Top 10 across nearly every statistical standard — even a quarter century later.

The players credit Robinson, of course, but also their buddies.

"I wasn't known for being fast," said Walls, "but I used to run just a little bit faster when I lined up against my teammates in the calisthenics line."

Mike Williams is still No. 6 in the GSU annals for career passing TDs, and is also ranked for single-season passing touchdowns (No. 7); career completion percentage (tied at No. 8, with older brother Doug); and single season completion percentage (tied at No. 6, again with Doug).

"Mike Williams threw a pretty ball," Walls said. "When he was on, even more so than Doug."

Trumaine Johnson is at No. 9 all-time at Grambling in single-season receptions, No. 7 for single-season receiving yards and tied at No. 4 for single-season touchdowns. Parham sits at No. 8 for single-season rushing yards.

The players from back then say facing each other is what spurred them to those numbers.

"We were always challenged," Walls said, "not just by the coaches but by the other players."

Mike Williams remembers practices being tougher sometimes than the games that loomed each weekend.

"We used to beat the heck out of those guys," Williams said, "when we went down the hill to the old stadium. Practice was just like on a Saturday afternoon."

In the end, Walls' 11 interceptions in 1980 remain a school record, as does "Big Bird" Smith's 48½ career sacks — a streak that began in 1980 and continued through '83. Walls is also at No. 4 for single-season interception return yardage.

"With all due respect to Sammy White, we went up against some of the greatest receivers who ever played here — and we played them physically," Walls said. "Coach Rob would never let you leave the practice field until they scored a touchdown. We didn't care. We'd keep them out there all night."

For all the recognition they didn't get, the 1980 team held its own back then.

It does even today.

Mike Williams was still selling their legacy this week, speaking passionately during a reception preceding his older brother's benefit golf tournament with fellow former Grambling quarterback James "Shack" Harris.

"We were a different bunch," he said.

Williams paused then, before adding: "We were different, but we were family. And we believed in each other. We were pigs who could fly."

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GSU greats visiting Spears' camp

Defensive backs Everson Walls and Albert Lewis — members of those overlooked 1980-81 Grambling teams — are scheduled to return to assist with this week's Melvin Spears Football Camp.

"Both of them will bring highlight tapes and a great knowledge of the game to show the kids," said former teammate Andre Robinson, now GSU's linebackers coach. "Those were lock-down corners."

The camp begins today, with registration from 2-6 p.m. at the Robinson Support Facility next to the stadium on campus. Call 274-7416.

Walls, selected to the Kodak Division I-AA All-America team in 1980, went on to a 14-season NFL career that included four Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl title with the New York Giants.

Lewis, a four-time Pro Bowler, played cornerback and safety for 16 seasons with Kansas City and Oakland after being named first-team All-SWAC in 1981-82.

— Nick Deriso

Overall: 10-2; SWAC: 5-1
Morgan State W 34-13
Alcorn State L 29-27*
Florida A&M W 27-10
Prairie View W 68-0*
Tennessee State W 52-27
Mississippi Valley W 34-24*
Jackson State W 24-14*
Texas Southern W 43-14*
Alabama State W 28-12
South Carolina State W 26-3
Southern W 43-6
Boise State L 14-9%

* - SWAC game
% - I-AA playoffs

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