Friday, December 08, 2006

Remembering: 'Grambling's White Tiger'

TV spotlight was on change
Issue of integration in college football hit the small screen 25 years ago with 'Grambling's White Tiger'

September 24, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Twenty-five years ago, a film crew descended on the town of Grambling to retell a turning-point moment in the history of its football team.

Coach Eddie Robinson's decision to integrate his then-all black college football team — and a book detailing the transition — had come in the turbulence of the late 1960s.

But the story had always struck former Olympian Bruce Jenner as one that would connect with a mainstream audience — and, more than a decade later, Jenner turned it into his first movie project.

"This was a true story of integration," Jenner said, "but it was going in the opposite direction."

Standing at the center of the book — "My Little Brother is Coming Tomorrow" by Bruce Behrenberg — and subsequent film was Jim Gregory. He became known forever by the 1981 TV movie's title: "Grambling's White Tiger."

"The experience itself was something that I would never want to do away with," said Gregory, who has since worked for 30 years as a teacher and coach at California's Reedley High. "It was a great experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat."

Parts of it, anyway.

Gregory's memories of his time at Grambling — he warmly describes the towering leadership of Robinson, and an enduring friendship with teammates like Monroe's Charles "Tank" Smith — have been forever changed by the media maelstrom that surrounded his presence.

He unwittingly contributed to that whirlwind when, as youngster, he signed the deal that led to Behrenberg's book.

But in the end, Gregory says that publication and the subsequent, more widely seen film stand as testament to the times more so than to his own story.

"It's not my life," Gregory likes to say. "It was only a semester."


Robinson had met Gregory when he spoke at the high schooler's football banquet.

Two of Cocoran High's coaches had Grambling connections: Its head coach played for Robinson and an assistant, Ed Stevens (pictured above), later joined his staff.

Robinson, who is in failing health today, once said the times dictated his decision to integrate the team. He insisted that Grambling's players would have to live their lives around white people, and that segregation in school only prolonged that acclimation process.

In the end, he felt that no other player could have handled the adversity as well as Gregory did.

"I knew that I had learned something from 'Greg,' and he from us," Robinson said. "We all taught others some things in the process."

Gregory didn't see much playing time, beginning his career as a freshman on a team led by James "Shack" Harris and ending it behind Matt Reed, another Monroe native. But Robinson always stressed that football was just one small part of the journey.

"Eddie was looking for someone who would make it through and graduate; that was one of Eddie's goals all along — whether you became a star player or not," Gregory said. "He wanted us to go out into society and contribute."

Though he says he endured his share of curious looks as the only white person on the team, Gregory said he was greeted on campus with open arms.

"That was one thing about Eddie Robinson, he was going to make sure that anybody who came here was going to be treated equally," said Douglas Porter, then the offensive coordinator. "That was almost like a religion. It was going to be the same for everybody."

Players like Harris, then fighting to become the first black quarterback to be drafted at his true position, saw in Gregory a kindred spirit.

"It took a unique guy to go through that," said Harris, now an NFL personnel executive. "He had to accept some critical circumstances. But I think during that time, it may have been easier for Jim than it was to do it in the reverse."

Gregory, for his part, was introduced to a whole new world of Southern hospitality, soul food surprises and funky good times.

"I was put into the dorm with guys like James Harris and Charlie Joiner, and they had a lot of questions," Gregory said. "I can remember guys who didn't like me, because they had never been around a white guy before. Those people became some of my better friends as time went on."


The novelty of the situation soon drew nationwide attention. Grambling, becoming known as the cradle of the pros, suddenly had a sideshow.

"There was too much hype surrounding it," Gregory said. "It (the color barrier) was being broken, whether I did it or not. I just wanted to play football."

Still, Gregory signed the book deal that eventually became the basis for Jenner's movie while he was still enrolled at Grambling.

"I was a young kid and we jumped into it," Gregory said. "There were times I wished it had never come about. I was having trouble with the fact that I was stabbing my buddies in the back, as the white kid getting all the notoriety. It was really a tough time."

Grambling, through the brilliance of Robinson and sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, was coming into its own as a national presence.

The founding of the Urban League Classic, played at a sold-out Yankee Stadium in 1968, coincided with Gregory's arrival. Hundreds of Grambling products were flooding into the NFL.

Yet a cluster of reporters greeted the white quarterback at every GSU stop — cruelly ironic to the others in that he wasn't a starter.

"They were always trying to pull things from you that didn't have anything to do with what was going on, or put me at a higher standing than I was," Gregory said. "I was a freshman, after all. I was only traveling with the team because I could kick."

Through it all, Porter said Gregory deftly avoided becoming a disruptive force.

"We used to go a lot of places and reporters would try to draw him into making a remark about not getting a chance to play," Porter said. "He wouldn't do it. He never let them make that an issue."

Gregory earned his teammates' respect with that fair-minded attitude — not to mention gutty practice-yard play, even if that never transferred to all-conference stats.

"Jim Gregory was a real tough competitor," Harris said. "He just didn't have the ability that (former Grambling passers) Frank Holmes and Matthew Reed had. He won over some guys because when he practiced on the freshman team, he competed and took his hits."

He also learned a lot in those times of dramatic change in America.

Gregory said a scene from "Grambling's White Tiger" where a black co-ed is reluctant to go on a shopping trip with him accurately depicts the struggles between races at the time.

"Just my walking downtown in Ruston or Monroe with 'Tank,' we'd get dirty looks," Gregory said. "There were some tough times, but we hung through it. Over the five years I was there, I saw great change. There were still people who didn't like each other, but the overall relationship had become a lot better."


While Gregory was toiling away in graduate school when work on Jenner's film began, his teammates and coach had become national figures.

Robinson was within sight of Paul "Bear" Bryant's once-thought unassailable all-time record for wins. Harris and Joiner were playing for the San Diego Chargers, while Smith was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles' roster.

So, the project — boosted, too, perhaps Jenner's involvement — drew some notable talents.

Harry Belafonte made his television acting debut as a tribute to his regard for Robinson. Harris would be played by Dennis Haysbert, who has since starred as President David Palmer in TV's "24" and in a series of Allstate commercials.

Smith was portrayed by LeVar Burton, best known for the ground-breaking miniseries "Roots" and later for his work on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

The film was directed by Georg Stanford Brown, who worked on TV's "Hill Street Blues" and won an Emmy for an episode of "Cagney and Lacey."

Yet, despite getting largely good notices for "Grambling's White Tiger" — the only quibble was, in fact, with the star's sometimes-wooden delivery as Gregory — Jenner's fledgling production company didn't take off.

He has worked on various television and movie projects since, but devotes most of his time now to a corporate coaching company that works on staff development, leadership programs and crafting sales programs.

"It was certainly the high point of my acting career," Jenner said. "It was very well received and it was an important movie, I thought."

As time passed, Gregory's perspective on the book and the movie subtly changed.

He eventually integrated them into his classroom curriculum. Both are on file in his school library.

"It's a great history lesson on segregation and desegregation," he said. "I eventually had a better feeling about the movie, because I'd come to think of it as a learning tool."

Seeing his life story through the eyes of successive generations of young people continues to teach Gregory new things about those times.

"Whether I like it or not, my coming to Grambling had an effect on society," Gregory said. "As I finished up, other schools were just starting to beginning to integrate. We were part of something."

g g g

Lights, camera, Grambling!
September 24, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Bruce Jenner's 1981 film stands as historical artifact not just because of its dramatic portrayal of the integration of Eddie Robinson's football team but also because it was shot on location in Grambling.

Jenner and his crew spent a month on campus that summer shooting "Grambling's White Tiger," using members of the current GSU football team as extras to portray events from 12 years before.

"We had to do it at Grambling, just because it was such a unique place and had such a rich history," said Jenner. "To give the storyline any credibility, it had to be done there."

Of course, that meant the whole town got to share in the experience.

Jenner, a former Olympic decathlon champion, shot a football game actually held in Marshall, Texas, against Wiley College at GSU's old Memorial Stadium.

As always, locals filled the background for crowd shots.

"They painted the press box on the visitors side purple and white," said Grambling alum Kenn Rashad, then a 13-year-old. "At the top of that press box was a sign that read 'Wylie College.' The movie producers misspelled the name of the school."

Pretty soon, everyone was angling for their big Hollywood moment.

"I begged the crew a number of times to get me into the movie," said John Barabin, who grew up in Baton Rouge but used to spend summers in Grambling with relatives. "They finally obliged by having me run down Grambling's Main Street sidewalk and do a double take at Bruce Jenner. I hung out with stars, ate from their catering truck — and, best of all, I received a paycheck for it!"

The television film originally aired Oct. 4, 1981, and has been rerun countless times since. Highlights include now-poignant glimpses into former coach Eddie Robinson's office and inside the Memorial Stadium locker rooms — neither of which are still used by the GSU football team.

There was at least one interruption of filming, after a student government representative objected to something in the script. But Jenner said even that turned into a moment of discovery.

"They thought it put the school in a bad light," Jenner said. "Coach Robinson said: 'Let's meet with the students and hear what they have to say, but let the process play out. Let them learn from the experience.' We made some minor changes, and kept going."

No comments: