Friday, September 22, 2006
GSU prepares new logo after trademark lapse
May 25, 2005
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Grambling State University plans to introduce a new logo design for the first time in decades - and fans are angry over losing the familiar "G" on the Tigers' football helmets.
The conflict has roots in the complicated world of trademark law: GSU's trademark rights on its logos have lapsed, meaning outside vendors can produce and sell items with the school logo, and the Lincoln Parish institution doesn't get a dime.
"We've got to (change the design), based on revenue," said GSU football coach Melvin Spears. "Grambling paraphernalia sells all over the country. We're losing money hand over fist."
GSU athletics director Willie Jeffries confirmed the logo change, and said an unveiling could come as early as this week.
"We want to standardize the product, like LSU where all those goods and services come from our school and the revenue comes back here," Spears said.
There's still work to do in selling a new look to school supporters.
"Brand identity is not something to play with," said 1990 Grambling graduate Kenn Rashad, who operates a Web site devoted to the Southwestern Athletic Conference called SWACPage.
"Establishing a successful brand isn't something that can happen overnight. It takes time and careful planning," he said. "Even though there are some legal issues that have come up in all of this, that `G' is worth fighting for."
Grambling has, since the 1980s, used an oval-shaped "G" on its football helmets similar to that of the NFL's Green Bay Packers and the NCAA's Georgia Bulldogs, except in color scheme. GSU's featured a black-and-gold palette, sometimes circled with an accent of red.
A U.S. government Web site devoted to registered trademarks shows Grambling lost the copyright on that logo almost seven years ago, as well as protection for its school seal.
Grambling's signature "G" was first granted protection in 1974. But that copyright, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office site, expired Aug. 26, 1998.
The school seal was authorized for copyright protection the same day, only to expire April 15, 1998. Grambling's previous logo - a more angular "G" with a Tiger and the celebrated school motto ("Where Everybody Is Somebody") - have also been unprotected since March 5, 1998.
Once the lapse was discovered by new GSU president Horace Judson, plans apparently coalesced to make a change, according to Jeffries.
E-mails from outraged fans followed - including one sent to Judson late Tuesday by Texas alum D'Wayne L. Priestly Sr. that asked "whether the GSU administrators have explored every prudent avenue available to regain the expired copyrights."
Repeated calls, with messages referencing the logo change, to Judson and vice president of finance Billy Owens on Monday and again on Tuesday were unreturned. That means details were unavailable about who designed the new logo and at what cost - as well as answers about efforts to renew the school's lapsed trademarks.
"It's a sad day," said GSU booster John Wilborn. "I know that some individuals think we are too close to the Green Bay and Georgia 'G.' The color, however, is the difference."
The new concept doesn't eliminate the "G," but builds upon it, said Jeffries. A tiger - the school's mascot - will prowl out of the logo, he said.
"The big 'G' will still be in play," Spears said. "But we've got to do some things that make sure our logo is identified only with us, not with Green Bay or Georgia, as well. The 'G' will still be on the helmet. It will be a form of that, with a tiger as well."
Jeffries said updated helmets will be ready in time for football season, and the design will be standardized across all university-sponsored sports.
Still, fans cling to the familiarity of Grambling's traditional logo. Its own sports information releases routinely refer to the players as the "G-men."
"I am fully aware that change is inevitable," Rashad said. "Sometimes change is needed, whether one likes it or not. But I also feel that there are some things you just don't change. The 'G' logo is one of those you just don't change. That logo has become part of our tradition."
The change comes amid a series of makeovers over the past few seasons in GSU's home conference, with several schools changing their helmets and jerseys. Yet, the look at Grambling State has, with only slight uniform modifications, remained steadfast.
Jeffries said that actually could have worked against the university, since complacency could eventually set in among consumers. He pointed to the burst of interest in recent uniform design changes across the sports landscape, including those by professional franchises.
A trademark, as defined by the U.S. government, is "... words, phrases, symbols or designs that identify and distinguish the source of the goods of one party from those of others."
Grambling's signature "G" logo was registered in 1974. Under the law in effect until 1978, in the final year of the trademark, it was eligible for renewal.
GSU's trademarks were not renewed under the administrations of former presidents Raymond Hicks, who served from July 1, 1995, through June 30, 1998; and Steve Favors, who served through 2001. Each trademark expired in 1998.
SOURCE: the United States Patent and Trademark Office site, www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.html#hlc
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Hasn't always been a 'G' thing
By Nick Deriso
Grambling State University didn't always feature the familiar "G" on its helmet. As recently as the late 1970s, during the playing days of future coach Doug Williams, the Tigers sported completely black helmets with a single red stripe.
"It was just simple," said Williams, the one-time quarterback who succeeded Eddie Robinson after the 1997 season. "Back in the day, Grambling was known as the black Notre Dame. We didn't have anything on our helmets. Everybody knew who we were."
William made his own slight modifications when he took over the program - the most notable being the elimination of what had been an increasing use of red within the black-and-gold scheme under Robinson. In fact, during Robinson's final seasons, Grambling wore crimson pants and then jerseys.
"We took the red out of everything," Williams said. "We wanted to get back to basics."
He also switched the facemasks from gold to black.
Nearly all of Grambling State's conference foes have followed with their own changes - though most were far more radical.
Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern University are the two most recent Southwestern Athletic Conference schools to add a new helmet design, both in 2004.
Southern switched from a gold helmet to purple before the 2002 season - and some think the GSU redesign is a direct response to Southern's new logo, which features a jaguar emerging over the school's initials.
That doesn't mean Grambling should follow suit, Williams said.
"I hate to see anything on the helmet but a 'G,'" he said. "And the version with a tiger coming out of the 'G,' I absolutely hate."
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Fan questions remain over logo
GSU administrators add tiger to `G' logo
May 26, 2005
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Grambling State supporters are still digesting quick administrative approval for the first new athletic logo in decades.
They have questioned how aggressively GSU worked to regain a lost copyright on the old design - and what the school did to forecast the profits from a new logo.
Perhaps just as importantly, they also would like to know why more boosters weren't brought into the loop.
"I wonder who they consulted with?" said Paul Taylor, who never misses a GSU home game. "I stay in Grambling and have not heard anything about a logo change."
Several supporters, including Taylor, praised an innovative online poll being conducted by Marquette that will actually allow fans to decide its new nickname. "They had students, alumni and avid supporters vote on the mascot name," Taylor said.
The traditional "G" logo is being replaced, athletics director Willie Jeffries confirmed earlier this week, because GSU's 1974 trademark has lapsed. That has allowed outside vendors to produce and sell Grambling-related items without giving any revenue to the school.
Some fans, including 1983 graduate D'Wayne L. Priestley Sr., want to know why the school doesn't simply renew the trademark - and then aggressively pursue those who are using the old logo unlawfully.
In an e-mail sent to school president Horace Judson on Tuesday night, then forwarded to dozens of GSU boosters, Priestley asked: "If a feasibility study or similar analysis has been conducted that indicates that a modification would be advantageous and will bring significant revenue streams, please present or provide that data."
No official response has come from GSU, because the school hasn't issued an announcement about the new logo - and the top administrators aren't returning phone messages from The News-Star regarding the switch.
But university spokeswoman Vickie Jackson answered Priestley's e-mail later on Tuesday, and Priestley again forwarded it across the country.
In it, Jackson indicated that GSU is at work on a visual standards guide, which will include the university logo, signature, motto, presidential seal, color and the mascot. The logo switch, she wrote, is part of a larger attempt to standardize the school's overall look.
"The modification of the athletic logo is but one part of a total branding process," Jackson wrote. "GSU is a step behind almost every university in the country in branding and standardizing its look. With the name recognition and international renown that it has, Grambling should have been in complete control of its brand, logos and vendor-related activities many years ago."
She added that members of the Office of Alumni Affairs, the president of the alumni association, the athletic department and student representatives were all involved in the project.
Not all fans were outraged, though even they say this new look will take some getting used to.
"Sometimes change is good," said Scott A. Lewis III, a former All-American at Grambling who was selected in the second round of the 1971 draft by Kansas City. "In the commercial side of business, promotions tend to draw more interest than inactivity."
He then laughed, and added: "I am still making the transition from Grambling College to GSU!"
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GSU officials: Helmet design now up in air
May 28, 2005
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Grambling State University officials won't scrap a proposed logo change, but they now say a final helmet design has not yet been approved.
"There is no official athletic logo at this time. It is still in the formulating stage," said GSU spokeswoman Vickie Jackson, the first official comments since she began leading a new wide-ranging effort by President Horace Judson to standardize the school's image.
Athletics officials first mentioned the portion of the plan calling for replacement of the current helmet logo, which isn't trademarked, last week during a visit with boosters in Dallas. That set off a firestorm of controversy among those who didn't want to lose the traditional "G" on the school's football helmets, a design in place for more than 20 years.
"It is unfortunate," Jackson said, "that the process was pre-empted and not allowed to complete its cycle."
Members of the athletic department originally confirmed that a new logo would be in place soon - first at that Dallas meeting with boosters, then to The News-Star.
Jackson now said the school intends to hire external assistance "in helping to craft an athletic logo for which university approval can be gained. At this time, that has not happened. We are still working."
A logo previously published in The News-Star, Jackson said, will be subject to further revision.
She did not commit to inviting input from outside the university staff in this revising process, something fan Paul Taylor of Grambling is hoping will happen. "If you cannot get (the trademark) back, let folks know what is going on," he said.
Taylor's prescription for repairing the situation: "Start looking for a new logo, with alumni input first - and then students and fans," he said. "Gather all your findings about cost and who is doing the new logo. Then bring it to folks' attention instead of hiding what is really going on."
Since the 1980s, Grambling used an oval-shaped "G" on its football helmets similar to that of the NFL's Green Bay Packers and the NCAA's Georgia Bulldogs, except in color scheme.
Grambling's features a black-and-gold palette, sometimes circled with an accent of red.
But government records show no trademark on that design, which is too similar to the NFL's Green Bay logo for protection.
"We cannot trademark this symbol," Jackson said. "Grambling, with its renown and international acclaim, should have its own mark. This administration is taking us to another level. Part of that is standardizing the look."
Jackson said school officials have held on-again, off-again discussions about a new design since an application for trademark was rejected in 1998.
Some fans like the idea of an update.
"In my opinion, the GSU family must go through a transformation in order to rise to the many challenges that are faced by HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) across America," said Mark A. Hunter, a graduate of the high school and university in Grambling.
"What I dislike most are the alumni of the university who dislike change," Hunter added. "GSU is growing and with that change comes growth."
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GSU, in fact, never owned trademark of its logo
May 29, 2005
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - How could Grambling State let its trademark get away?
The answer is surprising.
Though the United States Patent and Trademark Office lists the Grambling "G" as "abandoned," paperwork at the school revealed this week that GSU never had a trademark.
The "G" - a staple at Grambling, according to a school application filed with the USPTO, since July 24, 1974 - was simply used by agreement with the NFL's Green Bay Packers.
"GSU," university spokeswoman Vickie Jackson confirmed, "never owned it. We have only been allowed limited use and privileges."
In fact, Grambling officials didn't make that application for trademark protection until Jan. 14, 1997, as legendary former coach Eddie Robinson was entering his final season at the helm.
When the USPTO denied the institution a trademark on the design, school administrators began struggling with the next step. Over the years, Grambling's "G" had become synonymous with the school and, in particular, the football team - which, by then, was being led by Robinson protégé Doug Williams.
Several possible redesigns have been presented since then, but Williams stood in the way - citing tradition. He remains a sharp critic of any alteration to the familiar logo, but has since left GSU for a job in the NFL.
Williams said his departure opened the door for another round of talks about redesign, which were revealed to the public this week by athletics officials.
"I said 'No,' and that was the end of that," Williams remembered this week. "But now they have come back with it."
Battles lines were drawn, as the news of a planned redesign broke last Wednesday. Some liked it, some didn't. But Grambling's top administrators remained silent - further muddying a situation already roiling with so much history and emotion.
Jackson finally broke that silence on Friday, and with the stunning news that the school had never owned its own 'G' mark.
Gee, that changes everything.
BACK IN BLACK
In the early 1970s, Grambling was at its zenith of influence in sports.
Segregation had not yet led top talents away from black programs - and that played out most famously on the gridiron at GSU.
Over the four seasons before the school says it began using the "G" in 1974, Grambling had been 39-9 in football, shared three conference titles and sent 25 players into the pros through the NFL draft.
Yet there wasn't an easily identifiable icon to associate it with. The helmets, after all, were simply black.
"Back in the day, that wasn't important to us at all," said Williams, who would emerge as a four-year starter at quarterback in 1974. "Uniforms and fanciness were not important. That's basically what made Grambling what it is. We were plain. We just had a good product on the field."
Robinson met with selected GSU leaders to discuss a logo design, according to Wilbert Ellis - then a longtime assistant to R.W.E. Jones, the late school president who also coached the baseball team. Jones, the late basketball coach Fred Hobdy and longtime sports information director Collie J. Nicholson were also there, Ellis said.
"It was during the time when everything was going so well in our sports," Ellis said. "Coach and Collie had some great ideas, and that was one of them. People bought into their ideas because they had so much to offer - and we had a lot to sell."
Ellis, who took over for Jones in 1977 and served until 2003, confirms that the logo was chosen in part to honor the great 1960s teams out of Green Bay - which included Grambling product Willie Davis, the school's first Pro Football Hall of Famer.
"Coach Robinson and Coach Hobdy and I were among those involved in picking it," Ellis said. "Paying tribute to Willie Davis was some of it. We knew that the logo was similar, but there were differences."
The University of Georgia had begun using its own version of the Packers' mark a decade before.
Still, as soon as it was introduced at Grambling, former players said the design took on a near mythic quality - and not just those who played for Robinson.
"They would tell you how important the 'G' was," said men's basketball coach Larry Wright, who starred for Hobdy's squads from 1973-76. "We knew, from then on, we were representing the 'G.' "
SORTING IT OUT
No one could recall the exact details of how Grambling gained permission to use the logo - or why the school waited so long to attempt to gain its own trademark.
Robinson and Nicholson were unavailable this week. Steve Favors, who was serving as school president when the government refused Grambling's belated request for protection, did not return a call for comment.
We know this: The Packers' "G" was invented by Dad Braisher, former coach Vince Lombardi's equipment manager.
Green Bay, which has used some form of oval "G" since 1961, retains the original trademark. Permission for reproduction by Georgia and then Grambling, according to the club, was granted on a limited-use basis, without transfer of trademark.
The Packers could theoretically challenge Grambling - and Georgia, which began using its version of the logo in 1964 - but the NFL club has likely forfeited its right to challenge the school since so many seasons have passed without complaint.
"The black and gold 'G' has become synonymous with Grambling," said 1990 graduate Kenn Rashad. "When people see it they know what it represents. People know it doesn't represent Green Bay and they know it doesn't represent the University of Georgia."
Georgia has certainly enjoyed its own sustained success with the shared image: UGA is currently the No. 3 seller among clients of Collegiate Licensing Company - the oldest and largest licensing representative in the nation.
That's why some fans this week questioned whether aggressive marketing and management of the brand wasn't more advantageous than scrapping the old logo.
DESIGNS ON A REDESIGN
Williams was adamant, from the start. He felt ambushed by the administration - and loyal to Robinson's helmet design.
He insisted that coaches could tinker with the stripes on the jerseys, or change the colors of the pants. The helmet was a different story.
"They proposed that same logo four or five years ago," said Williams, who led the football team from 1998-2003. "I told them back then that you can change it, but we're not going to put in on the helmet."
Some boosters noted this week that LSU's recent updating of its athletics logo received little scrutiny - because it didn't include a change for in the helmet design.
"To me, football is separate and apart from the other athletics," Williams said. "If you want to put polo shirts in the bookstore with that new logo, that's fine. But what's there, let it remain. To me, you are changing the whole history of Grambling."
Neari Warner, who served three years as acting school president before leaving in 2004, held some of the first meetings to discuss a redesign. The idea has picked up steam under her successor, Horace Judson, who has led sweeping changes across campus since taking over last summer.
Judson also noted that the school has also added new image elements over the years without regard for standardization.
"In 2001, with the creation of a centennial logo, the process was begun for a visual identity campaign," Jackson said. "Two years ago, members of the administration first began discussions about the possibility of creating a new athletic logo that the university would own and have exclusive rights to."
At first, the redesign effort was kept in house. Students in the GSU art department were invited to work on the project, and several mockups were considered. None was approved by the university.
Jackson said the school is now seeking outside creative input. Despite the controversy always sparked by change, the image campaign - including a helmet redesign - will move forward, she said.
The reason, Jackson said, is purely economic: People may love the logo but, since it was never protected, the school is effectively giving away untold amounts of revenue to those who profit from unauthorized reproductions - and with no recourse.
That's sunk in with some coaches on campus.
"The 'G' is legendary," said Wright, the basketball coach. "It goes right along with Eddie Robinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, Fred Hobdy. So, when you talk about that and the history of this school, there will have to be some economic decision involved in changing it. And, as I understand it, there is."
Some boosters were relieved to see a widely circulated early mockup that still has the familiar "G," but with the addition of the tiger mascot.
Jackson noted that this design was an attempt to solve some long-held reservations from fans and coaches alike about an update.
"I like the fact that the new logo could incorporate the tiger mascot, and that it does not completely abandon the traditional Grambling 'G,' " said Earling Hunter, a Monroe native who graduated from GSU in 1998. "Although I love the 'G,' and even have tattoo of that emblem on my right arm, I still have no objection to the change."
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Trademark hopes never really had chance in 1990s
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Grambling State's belated trademark application for its familiar "G" logo wasn't made until Jan. 14, 1997 - and it immediately hit a stumbling block.
An examining attorney from the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office, who took over the case on Aug. 15, 1997, mailed a "non-final action" - apparently questioning the uniqueness of the mark - on Sept. 4.
GSU's attorney of record, Simeon B. Reimonenq Jr. of Vial, Hamilton, Koch and Knox in New Orleans, responded. That letter was received, according to the USPTO, on Nov. 4, 1997.
But the logo wasn't judged unique enough to warrant its own trademark. A "final refusal" was mailed on Feb. 25, 1998.
Grambling considered responding, but ultimately did not.
GSU spokeswoman Vickie Jackson said that attorney Tyrone A. Wilson wrote on March 16, 1998 to inform Grambling that "the Patent and Trademark Office has issued an official, final refusal to register the circle 'G' trademark, because it resembles other marks that have been previously registered."
Wilson's opinion was that the school should continue the current content agreement, in which Green Bay granted limited use for merchandising.
"We do have the option of filing an appeal," Wilson wrote. But after consulting with Reimonenq, they decided that "the prospects on appeal are not favorable. ... This notice is indeed final."
The mark was listed as "abandoned" on Dec. 18, 1998 - causing some confusion since GSU never owned it in the first place.
The "final refusal" notice, Jackson said on Friday with some finality, meant that "we can not trademark it."
Reimonenq, now with Lugenbuhl, Weaton, Peck, Rankin and Hubbard, did not respond to requests on Thursday and Friday for an interview for this story.
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GSU fans talk about using throwback helmets
Administrators believe new logo would give school updated image
May 30, 2005
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - A week of contention at Grambling State over a proposed logo change had one clearly positive side effect.
Many fans, looking to reconnect with the school's legacy, have suggested that the football team
Grambling coach Melvin Spears is considering it.
"Perhaps we should look at going retro this season," said Michael Watson, a GSU product who lives in Sicily Island. "I can recall the glory days of Grambling football when the only thing on the helmet was the paint. I would hate to be rushed into selecting an emblem - and that could allow more time for alumni participation."
Administrators are at work on an updated look for athletics as part of a university-wide image campaign. GSU hopes to solve an age-old problem of trademarking its own logo, because the current design is too similar to the Green Bay Packers' original "G" design to be protected.
That means the school can't control who produces Grambling merchandise - and can't always collect revenues from outside vendors.
Still, Spears said he doesn't object to the so-called throwback option, where the Tigers will play without a logo - as Grambling did through the late 1970s.
"I like the throwbacks," said Spears, "but what we can't do is forget what football does for Grambling. We have to remember that it's not aways about football. This is about revenue, as well. We have to take care of the institution."
Athletics director Willie Jeffries said last week that updated helmets with a new logo would be ready in time for football season, and the as-yet unapproved design will be standardized across all university-sponsored sports.
Fans upset about the proposal see a retro look in football as an olive branch.
"These are times of change at Grambling - a rebirth of sorts," said Donavan Simmons, a roster member of former Eddie Robinson's final team at Grambling. "We have brand-new administrators, a brand-new athletics director and a new head coach. While it is necessary to embrace these changes, we must also revere what has made Grambling the icon that it is. A look back to our storied past can help restore the fire that has burned so brightly for the past several generations."
Kelli M. Charles, a 1996 Grambling graduate who wrote her thesis on Robinson, said she is in favor of anything that "represents the tradition, creativity and insight of our beloved Coach Eddie Robinson and President Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones. I am quite sure the former G-Men who wore those helmets will be pleased, as well."
There are those, however, who have concerns over how modern audiences would react to the starkness of a simple black helmet.
"I am not a fan of that endeavor," said Earling M. Hunter, a 1998 Grambling graduate. "I would prefer the new logo, over no logo. Considering that the 'G' wasn't used until 1974, I think that with time, the alumni and fans will embrace a new logo as we did the old one."
Offensive coordinator Sammy White, a former all-conference receiver in the 1970s at Grambling who never played with a logo on his helmet, also said that he doesn't agree with the suggestion of a season-long throwback look.
"A lot of has happened over the past five or 10 years," said White. "It's not time to go back. We need to keep going forward. The new administration is putting their stamp on it, just like those who came before."
Still, the throwback craze has swept through all of sports, fueled by music artists who wear paraphernalia fashioned in a retro style. Jerseys featuring now-defunct uniform designs by the likes of the Chicago White Sox, Houston Oilers and Denver Nuggets have become signature fashion elements in hip-hop culture.
Mention of a redesign for the Grambling football helmet apparently sparked similar nostalgia.
Even former head football coach Doug Williams, a staunch advocate for the current logo design at Grambling, softens his stance when talk turns to the old-school look.
"Why not go plain?" said Williams, who also played his entire career with an all-black helmet. "To me, a black helmet would be fine. That says, `We're Grambling.' "
The school has actually already gotten into the act, participating in a throwback baseball game in Gary, Ind., last season that honored the old Negro League baseball teams.
A retro look for GSU football would most likely be implemented for no more than a single game, Spears said. Even so, boosters say it might help stabilize emotions during a period of transition.
"While our trademark 'G' logo on the football helmets may be the next candidate for change," said Simmons, "we can celebrate our storied history by replacing it with the retro, solid black helmet from our glory days of the '70s - going back to our future."
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Grambling's football team indeed had a throwback night - wearing red jerseys from Robinson's 1996 campaign - on homecoming in 2005, but the familiar "G" helmet design remained.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Jena defensive end put the hurt on Alcorn
December 4, 2005
This column was included in a three-part submission to the Associated Press Managing Editors of Louisiana and Mississippi that ultimately won first place for column writing.
By Nick Deriso
LORMAN, Miss. — As Grambling State defensive end Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher rode through Port Gibson on the way to this game, the team bus passed a city limits sign that quotes General U.S. Grant.
"Too beautiful," it says, "to burn."
Alcorn State's offensive line was another story. Just three minutes in, Hatcher all but won the game Saturday for Grambling.
He stormed in to rattle Tony Hobson as the freshman Alcorn quarterback made a desperate attempt at picking up a bad snap and running it out of the end zone to avoid a safety.
When the play was over, Alcorn State was on the 1-yard line after the 19-yard loss, and Hobson was leaving the field in an ambulance.
Alcorn State never recovered, falling 46-19.
Hatcher, who entered this contest ranked second in the conference for sacks and tackles for a loss, added six more — with two for a loss.
Hatcher rushed Alcorn into an interception by senior Jermaine Mills to end the first half, then forced a fumble that went out of bounds to start the second. Once the game was in hand, coaches let younger players substitute on the line.
The damage was already done.
"That hit on the quarterback was head-to-head," Hatcher said. "I hope he's doing OK. But it changed the game."
A coachable, rangy 6-6, 295-pounder, the Jena product seems to be getting better with every game this season, seems to discover something about himself on every play.
"Learning the position, and making plays, getting a feel for it, that has been exciting," said Hatcher. "I am having a lot of fun out here."
Teams double up on this all-conference first teamer and, despite Grambling's aggressive substitution scheme, Hatcher is so important to the defense that he is the one lineman who almost never leaves the field. That leads wary opponents to cheat, often sending a running back over to chip block Hatcher.
"I feel like my presence keeps everybody going. As the guys rotate in, those guys know I am giving my all — and they will too. That's why they keep me out there."
First-year defensive line coach Darnell Wall even added a new wrinkle over the past couple of weeks, moving Hatcher inside to defensive tackle for a few plays.
"He was less of a talker at first," said Wall. "He had to grow into being more of a vocal leader. That has come later."
Hatcher has also begun to flourish with help from strength and conditioning coach Sam Petitto, who tinkered with Hatcher's pregame routines.
"In the off-season program this year, I was able to get my mind and body a lot stronger," said Hatcher.
Petitto's inventive methods to increase flexibility and speed have also kept Hatcher on the field this season, the first time he's worked through an entire campaign at Grambling without missing time to injury since becoming a regular starter in 2003.
"There's also being lucky," said Petitto, a former strength and conditioning assistant under Hal Mumme at Southeastern Louisiana. "He's been very fortunate. But there's been a commitment from him. He has the right mindset."
That framework was set by a tough childhood.
"Every scout that comes through, comes to see me about Hatcher," Wall said. "They love his attitude. He's a homebody. You won't find him running the street."
Hatcher lost his mother at age 16, leaving him to look after a younger sister. "I had to grow up," he admits, "real fast."
He did. He's a married father when most of his teammates are still trying on different adult personas.
"That made me look at things a lot differently than some of the other guys," said Hatcher.
All opponents have been seeing is stars.
"The stability of family, having folks he has to take care of, that has helped Hatcher along," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "It has not only made him more mature as a person, but also as a player. He's one of our most disciplined players."
What's next is almost certainly a career in the NFL. Hatcher passes the eyeball test for scouts. Better still, he's become a gym rat, working out incessantly.
The game tape that most NFL scouts are requesting is Grambling's Sept. 17 date against Washington State, where Hatcher battled with left tackle Bobby Byrd. His seven-tackle performance against the Pac-10 school impressed WSU coach Bill Doba, who said Hatcher was as good as any lineman he's seen.
DraftShowcase.com has Hatcher listed as the No. 18 prospect in the nation among small school players. Diamond in the Rough, a Web site devoted to black college prospects, calls Hatcher a sleeper.
Even so, Hatcher is pragmatic about the draft: "I never hope for anything," he said. "I'll just let everything fall where it may."
That maturity impresses his coach.
"Hatcher understands now," said Spears, "that his best football, his true greatness, is in front of him."
That's got to worry the offensive guys who find themselves lined up there.
Hatcher is, quite simply, on fire.
NICK DERISO is sports editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. Contact him at 362-0234 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Some showing off will be good thing
Grambling duo earns Combine invites
January 1, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Grambling State will double up on NFL Combine participants in 2006.
GSU coach Melvin Spears says both quarterback Bruce Eugene and defensive end Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher will attend — a year after Kenneth Pettway became the first GSU player since 2001 to garner the coveted invite.
"Not many people get invited; that's a select group. It's quite an honor," said Eugene, who is working at an Arizona off-season program.
The combine, held in Indianapolis each spring, puts NFL hopefuls through several days of speed, strength, agility and intelligence tests for scouts, coaches and executives.
"That opportunity is why I pulled Bruce out of all the all-star games, and why he's working himself so hard right now," Spears said. "He's going three times a day out in Phoenix."
Make Plays is perhaps best known for its work with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. "I'm working on getting my weight down," Eugene said. "I'm just going to keep working, and hope good things happen for me."
The New Orleans native had ballooned up to 300 pounds while recovering from a knee injury last season, but has since lost more than 50 of those pounds. The extra weight and a sore knee meant a loss of agility, so Eugene says that is also a focus in his training.
"He is in good shape; they found that out when he had a stress test when he got there," Spears said. "They couldn't believe the kind of shape he is in. He's just big."
Meanwhile, Spears said Hatcher is in Orlando, Fla., with South Carolina transfer Moe Thompson, an academic casualty last season. "Even tough Moe never played for us, he will still go into the league as a Grambling guy," Spears said.
Diamonds in the Rough, a Web site devoted to black college draft prospects, has Eugene listed at No. 3 with his stock on the rise. Hatcher is also in the Top 10 — along with running back Ab Kuuan, who is expected to return.
Hatcher, a Jena product, was named first-team all-conference after making 71 tackles (49 solo) with 21½ tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 2005. He also had one forced fumble, 16 quarterback hurries, a pass breakup and a blocked kick. Season highlights included eight-tackle performances against both Jackson State and Southern.
Eugene passed for 4,408 yards, 56 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 456 attempts after missing 2004 to a knee injury. He tied the single-season I-AA touchdown mark held by former Mississippi Valley State quarterback Willie Totten, broke Totten's I-AA career mark of 139 career TDs with 140 and finished second to Alcorn State product Steve McNair in I-AA career passing yards with 13,530.
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GSU's Hatcher creating buzz
Grambling defender's size opens eyes at Combine
February 27, 2006
By Nick Deriso
Grambling State defender Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher made an impression even before his scheduled workout for scouts today at the NFL Combine.
At 6-5 7/8, the Jena product measured out as the tallest defensive lineman in Indianapolis, receiving special notice on NFL.com. A married father, Hatcher promised to take the added attention in stride.
"To be honest, there's no pressure on me," said Hatcher, voted All-Southwestern Athletic Conference and All-Louisiana last season. "I'm going in there like I've got nothing to lose. I'm just going to give it my best."
His atypical size could make Hatcher particularly appealing for clubs looking for taller hybrid lineman who can penetrate quickly in the 3-4 scheme. That defense is employed by New England, Dallas, Houston (who drafted former teammate Kenneth Pettway in 2005), Baltimore, Cleveland, San Diego, San Francisco and current champion Pittsburgh.
Other clubs that could be interested include Denver, where one Scout.com mock draft has Hatcher being drafted at No. 117.
"I really don't wish for any team," he said. "I just want the chance to play football. Whichever one likes Jason Hatcher, that's where I'll go."
As evaluators get an up-close look at Hatcher's rare combination of pass-rushing skill with run-stopping strength, his stock has continued to rise.
Scott Wright of NFLDraftCountdown.com noted that Hatcher "has outstanding size and a huge frame. He can penetrate and knows how to get after the quarterback."
ESPN's Mel Kiper listed Hatcher as a "second-day steal," while Glenn Bernardi of DraftDaddy.com has Hatcher among its Elite 20 for small schools.
"He reminds me of current NFL defensive end/tackle Richard Seymour, with a similar body structure and movement within the interior line area," said Ken Becks of FantasyFootballToolbox. "Among their other similarities are an active motor and the ability to beat opponents consistently in one-on-one situations. If he were to add the extra weight, he could really be a force at the next level."
The knock on Hatcher, as it is with so many standout Division I-AA prospects, is that he might have "gotten by on talent, because he was so much better than the competition," according to Wright and others.
Hatcher is hoping that today's performance at Indianapolis puts some of those fears to rest.
"I'm just doing going to do what I do best," said Hatcher. "I think I was born to do this. I feel like somebody will give me a shot."
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GSU to hold pro day for NFL scouts next
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Former Grambling State defender Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher says he pulled up at the end of his 40-yard dash in the NFL Scouting Combine.
So, he's considering another run during GSU's Pro Day this morning on campus, hoping to better the 4.91 mark he set in Indianapolis.
Hatcher, a Jena product, was worried about a nagging hamstring problem — but he added that "it's more mental than physical. I feel fine."
Grambling coach Melvin Spears says a limited slate of seniors will join Hatcher in a 10 a.m. session with NFL scouts today. They are: Quarterback Bruce "The Big Easy" Eugene (GSU's other combine invitee), receiver Moses Harris, defensive tackles Lennard Patton and Moe Thompson, cornerback Marques Binns and offensive tackle Jonathan Banks.
Hatcher is coming off his best season at Grambling, finishing with 71 total tackles — including 21½ for loss and 11 sacks. He put up eight-tackle performances against Jackson State and then Southern, during the nationally televised Bayou Classic, and had three sacks in the season opener alone against Alabama A&M.
Eugene, meanwhile, was named conference player of the year after breaking a 20-year-old Division I-AA mark for touchdowns in a season. Banks earned first-team I-AA All America honors from the Sports Network and joined Eugene and Hatcher on the first-team all-conference squad.
Binns, an Oregon transfer, was invited to the Las Vegas All-American Classic after posting 36 tackles last year. Harris, a perennial all-conference selection, returned after a season lost to injury and finished third on the team for receptions, yards and touchdowns.
But neither Patton nor Thompson played in 2005. Patton missed the year when he apparently signed with an agent, while Thompson was never cleared after transferring from South Carolina.
"Our Pro Day will give the scouts a chance to evaluate the ones they haven't seen individually," Spears said. "And, who knows, Bruce and Hatcher might even improve on their combine performances here in the comforts of home."
Hatcher said attending the NFL's annual scouting event, which he's often compared to a job interview, was a learning experience — and one he will never forget.
"I was really excited," said Hatcher, who posted a 9-foot-5 broad jump and 35½ vertical. "I approached the whole thing like it was a business situation, and I thought it went well."
Hatcher sparked early buzz when, at 6-5 7/8, he measured out as the tallest defensive lineman at the combine — something Hatcher said he is still trying to take in.
"I thought Mario (Williams, a coveted lineman from North Carolina State) was taller," Hatcher said, laughing softly. "We rode the shuttle in to the combine, and we walked in together. I was shocked. It must have been the shoes."
Pro teams have followed up with requests for individual tryouts. Hatcher said Jacksonville has scheduled a session for March 14, with Cincinnati following on March 20. Eugene will work out for the Eagles on March 17.
Other teams that have expressed interest in Hatcher include Kansas City, Baltimore and San Francisco. Eugene has also gotten looks from Jacksonville (where former GSU standout James Harris is an executive), Kansas City and Seattle.
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Jena's Hatcher drafted by Dallas
April 29, 2006
By Nick Deriso
Former Grambling defender Jason Hatcher, a native of nearby Jena, became the highest drafted GSU product since 1993 when Dallas selected him late in the third round of the NFL Draft.
The 6-6, 283-pound converted defensive end was taken with the No. 92 overall pick. An All-State tight end at Jena High, Hatcher flourished despite the belated start on defense at Grambling.
Hatcher tallied 33 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in his first year on defense as a junior. He finished his senior season in 2005 with 71 total tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks.
Receiver Jake Reed was Grambling's last first-day pick, going in the third round of the 1991 draft. The most recent selection was defender Kenneth Pettway, who went in the seventh round by Houston last year.
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NFL comes calling locally
LSU's Whitworth and Wroten, then Grambling's Hatcher are first-day picks
By Nick Deriso
A trio of north Louisiana products found new pro football homes on Saturday, beginning with West Monroe's king-sized Andrew Whitworth.
He became the first area native to be selected in the 2006 NFL Draft when Cincinnati chose the LSU tackle in the second round — and at No. 55 overall.
The 6-7, 334-pound two-time All-SEC lineman admits he's never visited Ohio, though that didn't dampen his enthusiasm. "I'm not worried about that," said Whitworth. "My concern is working hard and getting on the field this year for Coach (Marvin) Lewis."
Meanwhile, LSU teammate Claude Wroten, a Bastrop product, fell all the way to No. 68, where he was picked up as a third-rounder by St. Louis.
The 6-3, 293-pound Wroten was initially predicted for first-round selection in this draft, but became embroiled in off-the-field troubles and saw his stock plummet. He's coming off a senior campaign where he recorded 44 tackles, 10½ tackles for loss, nine QB hurries and 4½ sacks.
Finally, Dallas selected Jena's Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher, a former Grambling defender, with the No. 92 overall pick.
An All-State tight end at Jena High, Hatcher flourished at GSU after switching to defense over his last two seasons. He would tally 33 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in his first year on defense as a junior. Hatcher then finished his all-conference senior season in 2005 with 71 total tackles, 21½ tackles for loss and 11 sacks.
"That's back-to-back draft picks, after (2005 seventh-rounder Houston pick) Kenny Pettway, at Grambling — and it's something to be proud of," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "It couldn't happen to a better guy. He's another in the long line of Grambling greats to go on now."
Receiver Jake Reed was Grambling's last first-day pick, going in the third round of the 1991 draft.
Still waiting are: Northwestern State return Toby Zeigler, a former Neville High School standout at receiver; Ruston product Kyle Williams, another of Whitworth's teammates at LSU; and a host of other standouts from the three area university programs.
Experts like Scout.com and Rivals.com had projected Whitworth for a third-round spot, but he quickly moved up the draft board after an impressive showing at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year.
Whitworth's 9-foot-4 in the broad jump and 30½-inch leap in the vertical jump topped everyone in his group at that event — drawing specific praise from NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. He bench-pressed 225 pounds a total of 28 times to finish tied for fourth among all offensive linemen in Indianapolis
Whitworth also got a chance to meet his future boss.
"I sat down with Coach Lewis at the combine, and I really liked him," Whitworth said. "Just like any other team, they are trying to put together a great team for next year. We talked about what I could bring to the table and what he was looking for from me. We had a good meeting. It's turns out, we were on the same page."
A four-year starter who played in a school-record 52 games with the first team at LSU, Whitworth won three state championships in four years with the Rebels. His tenure in Baton Rouge included multiple postseason bowls and the 2003 BCS Championship.
Whitworth was rated as the nation's third-best offensive tackle going into 2005 by The Sporting News. But he wasn't generating first-day buzz until the combine.
"Watching on film, you don't get the chance to meet me and get a feel for my knowledge of the game — and my passion for the game," Whitworth said. "Sitting down, I got to prove that, to show them how much I care about what I do."
The Rams acquired the Wroten pick through a trade involving San Francisco and Denver.
Wroten had been primarily a basketball player at Bastrop. He followed that up with a two-year stint of junior-college hoops at Mississippi Delta Community College before transferring to LSU.
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An important day
A classic 'tweener, Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher is perfectly suited for the Cowboys, who were looking for taller hybrid lineman that could penetrate quickly in the 3-4 scheme.
Dallas took the Jena product in the third round on Saturday - earning one of just three first-day "best pick" writeups from FOXSports.com's FootballOutsiders.
Hatcher "had 11 sacks last season for Grambling and wowed scouts this off-season by running in the 4.8 range in the 40," writes Nick Eatman, a DallasCowboys.com staff writer.
Hatcher is the highest draft pick out of Grambling since receiver Jake Reed was picked up by Minnesota at No. 68 back in 1993. Before that you have to go back to 1986, when defensive end Leonard Griffin was chosen at No. 63.
He had been variously predicted as a second-day guy.
So this was an important day indeed for Hatcher, and not just because of the rarity of such a high selection for his alma mater. A married father, he's remained tightly focused on what this opportunity could mean for his family and his hometown throughout the process.
He plays football with such fiery intensity because he sees it as a responsibility. There is too much riding on Hatcher to fail.
That's meant a steep incline in his proficiency at defensive end, notable because he only played the position for a couple of years. Even so, Hatcher came to master it well enough to become a first-day pick.
Having a frame like his, of course, doesn't hurt. He famously measured out at 6-5 7/8 at the NFL Scouting Combine, making him the tallest defensive lineman there - something that garnered him special notice on NFL.com.
But you can't measure this guy's heart.
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A joyful return to Grambling
Celebrated lineman honored after being drafted in the third round
May 3, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Former Grambling State defensive lineman Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher is still getting used to the attention.
Moments before entering a school celebration in honor of his third-round selection by Dallas in the NFL Draft, Hatcher ducked into the coaches' offices — and the room exploded with cheers, bear hugs and laughter.
"I'm trying to figure out who this Jason Hatcher is," joked Hatcher, who arrived in a Cowboys' T-shirt with wife Natasha. "I heard he went in the third round!"
Hatcher, the eighth defensive end taken in last weekend's draft, capped a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship season with first-team All-SWAC and then Sports Network All-America honors.
A converted Jena High tight end, Hatcher would amass more than 100 tackles, including 16 sacks, in just two seasons on defense. But the success didn't change this easy-going, mature father of two - ensuring that he'll always be a fan favorite in Grambling.
He returned to GSU on Tuesday for a noon reception in the Robinson Stadium Support Facility as the program's highest draft pick in more than a decade.
"It was an exciting day for me, and for everyone in Grambling as well," said GSU defensive line coach Charlie Lewis. "We all thought he would be taken on the first day. At 6-7, he's a prototype lineman, especially on the end."
Hatcher was honored along with former GSU passer Bruce Eugene, who signed a three-year free-agent contract with his hometown New Orleans Saints, and track coach Bertram Lovell. GSU recently won both the men's and women's titles in the SWAC Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
"I'd like to thank everybody for their support through my seasons here," Hatcher told the assembled group of supporters. "I want everyone to come see me and Bruce after we're gone."
Dr. Robert Dixon, Grambling's provost, attended in place of GSU school president Dr. Horace Judson, who was in Baton Rouge lobbying the Louisiana Legislature.
"I know that everyone who plays this game on Saturdays dreams of playing on Sundays," Dixon said. "You've been legends here and hopefully you'll be legends at the next level."
Somber moments like those were rare.
GSU head coach Melvin Spears, who oversaw Hatcher's move from tight end to the defensive line, offered a quip that illustrated the warmth and humor of this homecoming.
"He's going to be a great addition to America's other team," said Spears, laughing.
The event quickly devolved into an autograph session, as friends and teammates handed Hatcher pictures and mock playing cards to sign. Hatcher shared stories about his roller-coaster ride on draft day — which had been underway for eight hours when Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones rang.
His relief was palpable, even though the Cowboys had hinted at their interest early on.
"I had sat in the same place for hours," Hatcher said. "I told my wife, when Dallas comes up, if they don't pick me, it might be tomorrow (during Sunday's rounds four through seven)."
What came next has already become legend in this good guy's travelogue to the NFL: Jones called Hatcher's cell — and in his dumb-founded excitement, the unthinkable happened.
"He hung up the phone!" said Lewis, a 1979 Bayou Classic MVP from Grambling's famous "Trees of Terror" defensive line.
Hatcher chuckled softly at the memory. "My cheek must have hit the button, I was smiling so big," he said.
Dallas then traded with Jacksonville to get to the No. 92 position, and selected Hatcher.
"Right when I gave up hope," Hatcher said, "it happened."
The news came as Hatcher sat among friends and family in his hometown. Pandemonium ensued.
"Everybody went crazy," Hatcher said. "They just about beat me to death patting me on the back. I just broke down."
Hatcher said Dallas' early interest provides a platform for his commitment to a new team.
"Coach Parcells told me at my tryout that he was going to draft me when they were ready to take a defensive end," Hatcher said. "He kept his promise, so I'm going to keep my promise to him and work to make the team."
Hatcher will play for a defensive staff with Grambling connections.
Todd Bowles, former coach Doug Williams' first defensive coordinator, was hired as the Cowboys' secondary coach before last season. Current defensive coordinator Luther Palmer also interned through several Cowboys training camps, as did the team's late longtime trainer Ricky McCall.
"I grew up loving the Cowboys," Hatcher said. "That's a program that knows how to win. We'll be in the playoffs this year, and I hope to the Super Bowl in the next three years."
And when Dallas gets there, folks in Grambling believe Hatcher will be a cornerstone.
"Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells are two people who know talent, and the Cowboys are known for having a good defensive line," Lewis said. "Think of all the famous people that Dallas has had up front, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Bob Lilly, Randy White. Jason Hatcher's name will be used in the same sentence one day."
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Retired GSU sports promoter will have Robinson Stadium press box named in his honor
May 4, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Long-overdue recognition for former Grambling State sports information director Collie J. Nicholson has drawn emotional praise from those who were touched by him.
The University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees GSU, approved a plan late last week to rename the Robinson Stadium press box on campus after Nicholson, who spent three decades building the school's national reputation.
There was James "Shack" Harris, who played quarterback at Grambling in the 1960s: "He loved Grambling and he loved the players," he said. "We reached a national audience because of his tireless efforts and contacts. He was way ahead of his time in terms of marketing players."
And Doug Williams, whose early career was defined by Nicholson's brilliantly descriptive stories: "It's a great thing. It's a deserving one, too. The fact is, he deserves all the accolades he gets."
The recognition for Nicholson, who has experienced health problems in his early 80s, comes almost three decades after he left Grambling. But time hasn't dulled his impressive resume.
It was Nicholson who conceived of the classic-game concept, where Grambling traveled with its marching band to major American cities — including the ground-breaking 1960s sell-out at Yankee Stadium.
And Nicholson who established the neutral-site Bayou Classic rivalry game against Southern, which remains a cash cow for the university.
And Nicholson who arranged a first-of-its-kind overseas trip for the program, as Grambling played games in Tokyo twice in the late 1970s.
"I would like to be remembered as someone who tried to find a way to fit the Grambling program into the general marketplace," Nicholson told The News-Star in 2003. "I've tried my best to do that."
He did it within the framework of a segregated society, and long before the modem, the fax machine and the all-day cable networks.
"I don't think a school has ever been blessed with a better combination of support than we had in Grambling back then," said Harris, now an NFL executive. "He was a big part of that."
Nobody short of legendary former coach Eddie Robinson himself launched more careers.
"He has given recognition to so many people who wouldn't have received it if not for him and his hard work," Robinson told us three years ago. (Robinson is the one who gave Nicholson, so famous for giving the players memorable nicknames, his own memorable moniker: "The man with the golden pen.")
Paul "Tank" Younger, who Nicholson relentlessly promoted after Younger scored a then-record 60 career college touchdowns, signed with the Rams during Nicholson's initial year on the job as the first black college player ever in the pros.
He helped nurture a host of Grambling greats like Junious "Buck" Buchanan, Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd and Harris, who would be the first black player to be drafted at quarterback.
And not just by writing up game stories.
"When I was coming out (for the draft), I remember working with 'Nick' on what to say. I spent a lot of time with him, critiquing me on doing interviews," said Harris, who played for the Bills, Rams and Chargers. "Not having a lot of experience with public speaking during that time, it was so special to have somebody like that."
But it would be Nicholson's tireless promotion of the young Doug Williams that helped establish Grambling as a widely known football school.
Williams sparked national headlines, thanks to Nicholson, as the first player from a predominantly black college ever chosen as a first-team All-America by the Associated Press, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the first black quarterback to be picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.
"Me being voted fourth overall in the Heisman is because of Collie J.; there are not too many pens greater than his," said Williams, who later coached at Grambling and also works in an NFL front office these days.
"Collie J. is the one who put Eddie Robinson out there in the media and kept all of us out there," Williams said. "Everything got started at Grambling because of Collie J."
Nicholson, who had briefly attended Grambling before a stint in World War II, likes to recall that he only ended up working at the school after a chance meeting with then-president R.W.E. Jones.
Jones, known universally on campus as "Prez," convinced the young Nicholson — who was making a quick visit before enrolling in the University of Wisconsin — to take a newly created job of sports information director.
By the time Nicholson retired, 30 years later, Grambling was a national presence.
Nicholson used trailblazing experience as the first black Marine Corps war reporter during World War II to push Grambling to the national stage. "My time as a combat correspondent gave me the understanding of what editors were interested in," Nicholson told The News-Star in 2003.
While Nicholson "retired" to Shreveport not long after Williams left for the pros, the truth is he continued to write for newspapers across the nation on a range of topics, from boxing to (of course) Grambling football. He received lifetime recognition from the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 and the College Sports Information Directors of America Trailblazer Award 12 years later.
A newly renamed press box at Grambling may be the most appropriate recognition of them all, said Harris and Williams.
"As long as there is a Grambling," Williams said, "Collie J. should be a part of it."
Harris agreed: "It's a tremendous honor for a guy who really made a significant contribution to Grambling's growth and development and long-time tradition. That has withstood the test of time. He was a pioneer, so having his name on the press box is very deserving."
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A grass-roots great
April 28, 2006
By Nick Deriso
Collie J. Nicholson has been given perhaps his most important honor: Recognition at the school that he forever transformed.
The press box at Grambling State's Robinson Stadium will be renamed for Nicholson, after the board that oversees GSU approved the measure on Friday in Baton Rouge.
GSU's sports information director for 30 years beginning in 1948, Nicholson was a Gramblinite of the first order, and a shoe-leather genius - the guy who worked until the school was finally recognized nationally as a football powerhouse. And in the most primitive of conditions.
Later, his flair for event organizing and selling Grambling led to a sold-out contest in Yankee Stadium, the founding of the Bayou Classic - GSU's signature rivalry game against Southern - and a first-of-its-kind trip overseas to play in Japan. So complete was his dedication that Nicholson learned Japanese so he could conduct negotiations.
He's been widely recognized, including the Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association in 1990 and the College Sports Information Directors of America Trailblazer Award in 2002.
As prestigious as they are, I don't think any is as important, overdue - and appropriate - as this one.
In the end, Grambling wouldn't be "Grambling" without Collie J.
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GSU great Nicholson's prestige grows
Press box at Robinson Stadium named for former SID
June 17, 2006
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — As she spoke the words to Grambling State's alma mater, Ophelia Nicholson was moved to tears.
Her husband, former sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, had given 30 years to GSU — and, in so doing, had been largely responsible for its national reputation.
On Friday, the institution recognized his towering contributions by officially renaming the press box at Robinson Stadium in Nicholson's honor. Nicholson, who has experienced health problems in his early 80s, did not attend. But Ophelia and other family members were on hand.
She said Nicholson's abiding passion was promoting and supporting Grambling. "This is the fulfillment of that dream," she said.
She ended her brief acceptance speech with a few words from GSU's school song: "We love thee, dear ole Grambling."
The alma mater was written by former school president R.W.E. Jones, the visionary who hired a young Eddie Robinson to coach the football team and then Nicholson, a former Grambling student, to tell his story.
Nicholson was the Marine Corps' first black correspondent during the war years, a stint so impressive that Jones created the sports information director position for him in 1948.
Nicholson got to work, first by building a grass-roots network of 400 black newspapers nationwide that would carry his Grambling dispatches. He would then drive the 75 miles to Shreveport's Western Union station after every game to wire stories across the U.S.
"He was way ahead of his time in promoting players," said Grambling mayor Martha Andrus, who proclaimed Friday as "Collie J. Nicholson Day." "That resulted in hundreds of players going on to the pros."
The ledger is not limited to the gridiron, however - though, it's worth noting that each of Grambling's Pro Football Hall of Famers played during Nicholson's tenure.
Larry Wright, now the Grambling men's coach, said he would never have been able to make the leap from college to the NBA as a junior in the 1970s without consistent support in the form of press releases by Nicholson.
"He meant," Wright simply said, "everything."
Robinson took to calling Nicholson "the man with the golden pen."
He couldn't be contained by racism, lack of resources or smaller ambitions. Nicholson simply kept knocking until the door finally opened.
That led to a series of contests in Yankee Stadium, the founding of the Bayou Classic — GSU's signature rivalry game against Southern — and a first-of-its-kind trip overseas to play in Japan.
So complete was his dedication that Nicholson learned Japanese so he could conduct those negotiations.
"He made these accomplishments during an era when there were many barriers," current GSU president Horace Judson said. "That's why they rise above accomplishment, to the level of genius. His impact will endure as long as there is a Grambling State University."
Nicholson received the Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association in 1990 and the College Sports Information Directors of America Trailblazer Award in 2002.
But recognition at Grambling took longer. Dr. Joseph Carter from the Shreveport alumni chapter and retired GSU professor Bessie McKinney were two driving forces who had consistently lobbied for this honor.
The measure was finally brought before the University of Louisiana System Board this year, where it was approved earlier this spring.
"It's nice to put closure on this and pay tribute to a great man," said Carter, who wrote a letter on behalf of the chapter to Judson in support of renaming the press box. "We are delighted this was done while the sun still shines on his life and while his family can share in it."
Scores of former teachers, classmates and friends crammed into the meeting room where the rededication was announced — including Ernie Miles, a former Nicholson assistant who later succeeded him as SID.
Miles said Nicholson's savvy leadership style was evident even when the two were children growing up in Winnfield.
"He had a charisma, but even I never knew he'd have such an impact at Grambling," Miles said. "He not only deserves this honor, but the undying respect of every graduate of a black college in this nation."
Several items donated by Ophelia Nicholson — including citations for excellence, a Royal typewriter and, yes, a golden pen — were also unveiled in a trophy case in the lobby of the Support Facility where the temporary Robinson Museum exhibit is now on display.
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Recalling Collie J.
June 16, 2006
By Nick Deriso
Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling's long-time sports information director, had what one observer today called "readable magnetism."
And how. Nicholson, crafter of many a timeless nickname, was recognized this morning on campus with the rechristening of GSU's press box in his honor.
It's fitting tribute for a guy who was the tailwind that pushed Grambling to the national stage. In an emotional outpouring, folks remembered a few of the legends that Nicholson - now ailing - had authored along the way.
"I remember a quarterback who was having trouble completing his passes, because he worried about how they looked," said Ernie Miles, a former assistant to Nicholson who then followed him into the SID chair. Coach told the player to concentrate on completing the pass. "Do that," Miles recalled Robinson saying, "and you'll be surprised how straight and pretty that ball will sound once Collie J. is finished writing about it."The assembled guests roared with laughter.
Later, current Grambling coach Melvin Spears shared a similar thought about defensive end John Mendenhall, a member of our GRAMBLING80 who helped GSU to a league title in 1971."
From reading Collie J.'s stories, I thought John Mendenhall was a giant," Spears said. "Turns out he was really only about 5-10 1/2. Collie J. was just that good."
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More than a game
The 30 years of the Bayou Classic show that early concerns about getting plenty of fans at the game were unfounded.
November 27, 2003
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Back then, even the participants couldn't have imagined how big the Bayou Classic would someday become.
"In 1974, you couldn't see into 2003," said Grambling State coach Doug Williams, a redshirt starting freshman quarterback in the inaugural game. "Playing in the Superdome. Playing for a championship. Playing in front of 75,000. It wasn't like that at that particular time."
Today, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that 200,000 people will visit the Big Easy for the 30th playing of the big game - representing an economic impact of $85 million.
"We just came along at the right time. I tell you, the Lord was in the plan," said Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling State's original sports information director from 1948-78. The Winnfield native and his wife Ophelia make their home in Shreveport.
"It was timing: Coach (Eddie) Robinson was developing all these players for pro football - and we had a marketing plan," Nicholson said. "We didn't know what it was - they didn't call it marketing, back then - but we had a concept."
The anchor for the weekend remains the football game - a 2003 sellout, as Grambling State and Southern fight to represent the Western Division in the Southwestern Athletic Conference's championship in December.
Neck-and-neck in the current standings, the two schools also have fought to a draw in New Orleans.Late in Robinson's long tenure at GSU, Southern began to assemble what would be the Bayou Classic's longest win streak, taking eight in a row in the 1990s. Yet, the all-time record stands at 15-14, with SU now just a game ahead.
A match up so evenly matched can only gather more significance.
But the Bayou Classic is more than Xs and Os. In the three decades since its founding, the game has become a magnet for social events - including a legendary Battle of the Bands and Greek Show, a job fair, elaborate formals, a gospel brunch, countless smaller get-togethers and various sponsored business events.
"The key to this whole thing was Collie J. Nicholson," Williams said. "He had a vision. On the weekend it's played on, with Eddie Robinson and all the great coaches at Southern, it became like a family reunion."
Nicholson - also the creative mind behind successful trips by Grambling State to Yankee Stadium, the Astrodome, Soldier Field and Japan - first presented the idea to GSU President Dr. R.W.E. Jones and Robinson in 1972.
The idea grew out of a trip Nicholson took to New Orleans, where "where he and (Buddy) Young (an assistant to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle) participated in exploratory meetings headed by Dave Dixon - an innovative entrepreneur who almost single-handedly ram-rodded construction of the Superdome," said Andrew Harris, then an associate sports information director for Nicholson.
Jones' counterpart at Southern, G. Leon Netterville, is said to have had initial concerns over filling the cavernous 76,000-seat stadium at Tulane - and suggested a game to gauge fan support be held in Shreveport in 1973.
"We didn't think we'd do that many. We thought it might attract about 50,000," Nicholson said.
In retrospect, the administrators shouldn't have worried. The story goes that, in 1971, an estimated 35,000 stood at Grambling to watch these two schools battle.
So, perhaps inevitably, a sold-out game in northwestern Louisiana was followed by another in New Orleans - where 76,753 fans crammed into Tulane Stadium a year later.
Williams, in 1974, had been warming up to a half-full venue. When he came out of the locker room for the first Bayou Classic, he got his initial glimpse at the burgeoning crowd.
"I looked around and said: `What am I doing here?'" Williams said. "We had 75,000 at a historically black college football game. I was a redshirt freshman, and scared to death. I was blessed to have some veterans around me and Coach Robinson ran a conservative offense that didn't put too much pressure on me."
Grambling State produced the series' only shutout that year, beating Southern 21-0. The Tigers, at 11-1, finished as co-champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference with Alcorn State. GSU then defeated South Carolina State 28-7 in the Pelican Bowl.
A new tradition was born.
"The Bayou Classic was the brainchild of Nicholson," Harris said, "and the creation of the late Dr. Jones of Grambling and the late Dr. Netterville of Southern."
In 1975, the game found its current home with the completion of the Superdome. Later, with the addition of a national viewing audience through NBC in 1990 and the sponsorship of State Farm in 1996, the Bayou Classic became an even larger cultural event.
"It used to just be the local fans. Now, it's a national thing," said former GSU receiver Sammy White, the game's MVP in 1975. White now coaches receivers at Grambling State.
Quite an accomplishment for a little country school like GSU.
"When Eddie Robinson came to Grambling, people in Lincoln Parish didn't even know where Grambling was," said Nicholson, 82, a former combat correspondent.
"It took a long time to build name recognition for the school, during the time of segregation. We sent stories out all across the country, since blacks often had roots in the South. We did what we did in the Marine Corps - tell the stories of the fighting men back in their hometown," said Nicholson, the still-colorful writer who gave GSU running back/linebacker Paul Younger his eternal calling-card nickname, "Tank."
Largely through Nicholson's advocacy did Younger become the first player from a historically black college to be signed in the NFL. He was also instrumental in promoting Williams to a fourth-place finish for the Heisman Award in 1977 - the highest ever for a Grambling State player.
Tireless efforts like those on behalf of the school laid the groundwork for a game like the Bayou Classic to capture a national audience.
"We had played games in New York at Yankee Stadium - and we sold it out. We had drawn 64,000 in Los Angeles. So, we knew it was there," Nicholson said. He was presented the Bayou Classic Founder's Award before the kickoff of the 1992 playing of the game.
"He used his pen to spread the word," Williams said of Nicholson. "Scheduling it this week played a part, too - with so many families back to visit for Thanksgiving. Then, there's the in-state rivalry. It was a natural."
But, even without television cameras, the Bayou Classic would remain a friendly backyard scrum for Louisiana bragging rights in the SWAC.
"To appreciate the rivalry," Robinson said a few years ago, "you have to realize Grambling and Southern fans are close - friends, as well as relatives. In fact, in the early years, when Southern people came to Grambling for the game, they would stay at my house - because there were no hotels for blacks. They were for Southern, but it didn't make a difference."
Williams - who, like Robinson, is a native of the Baton Rouge area - still returns to visit his mother on the way down to New Orleans each year. And that means the occasional sidewalk smack talk about the game.
"Somebody walked up to me at the gas station and said: `What are you doing down here?'" Williams said, laughing. "My mom lives down here. They think I'm spying! That's how badly everyone wants to win."
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The power of the pen
May 03, 2006
By Nick Deriso
Marketing today is as much a part of college football as inflatable mascot heads for the players to run through.
But 50 years ago? People thought it meant going to the grocery store. Except for Collie J. Nicholson, the sports information director of tiny Grambling College.
That legacy plays out in recent media coverage of the program.
Ralph Wallace and I talked about it last night on "I-AA Waves," the nationally syndicated online radio program devoted to Division I-AA football.
Now, make no mistake, it was Eddie G. Robinson who was in charge of coaching the team to victory. Robinson would eventually win more college football games at Grambling than Pop Warner and then Amos Alonzo Stagg and, by the early 1980s, even the immortal Paul "Bear" Bryant.
But would it have mattered if nobody knew? That's where Nicholson came in.
I've called him a shoe-leather genius, because Nicholson worked in the days before computers, fax machines and wall-to-wall cable coverage. He used to keep stats, write the stories, then book it down I-20 to the Western Union after every game, transmitting these seeds of national stature to newspapers all over the country.
He imagined the impossible, then made it real: A game in Yankee Stadium, in Japan, the Bayou Classic.
His pen never lost its punch. Collie J. pushed Paul "Tank" Younger (the first black player to sign a pro contract) into the NFL at the beginning of his career - and Doug Williams into the final list of Heisman Trophy candidates at the end of it.
Today, you'll find Grambling on NBC in a national broadcast of the Bayou Classic that began 12 years after Nicholson ended his 30-year run as SID. That game was the subject last season of just the second ESPN College GameDay broadcast ever from a I-AA game ever.
There have been feature treatments on Grambling's former passer Bruce Eugene by the NFL Network, upcoming features on its rivalry with Southern and Coach Robinson on ESPNU - and, of course, the on-going BET series devoted to the football team and band called "Season of the Tiger."
Collie J., as I told Ralph, wouldn't have it any other way.
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Is he a 'Road Runner' or a `Widowmaker'?
February 23, 2005
One of the final interviews that Collie J. ever gave was a light-hearted look at what Nicholson would have called one current player ...
By Nick Deriso
The only thing missing from Kenneth Pettway's resume is one of those great Grambling State nicknames.
Collie J. Nicholson, GSU's legendary sports information director from 1948-78, penned one for all the legends - from Paul "Tank" Younger to Gary "Big Hands" Johnson.
"They had to have something behind the nicknames," said Nicholson, who still writes about sports from his home in Shreveport.
Pettway, Nicholson agrees, fits the bill. "He should do well up there (at the NFL Combine)," said Nicholson.
Pettway's great straight-line speed might suggest "Road Runner." That quiet intensity? How about "SBD," Silent but Deadly.
His versatility as a two-position all-conference player? May we suggest "Switch Blade"? That propensity for crushing tackles reminds us of "Widowmaker."
"You could always go out and get a nickname," Nicholson finally allows. "But Grambling has tried to give them more than just a nickname; they get an education, too."
Degree in hand, Pettway hopes to school opponents on Sundays now.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
Coach mixes media, matrimony
July 26, 2002
By NICK DERISO, email@example.com
"Presenting Dr. and Mr. Williams," the preacher said, to uproarious laughter. So ended the most unusual of Grambling State University football news conferences - one where head coach Doug Williams got married to an Atlanta dentist in Las Vegas.
The occasion, at least originally, was the announcement of a new Las Vegas game on the football team's schedule. The Silver Dollar Classic pits the Tigers against another historically black college, Tennessee State.
Both coaches came out and talked a little about the September game. Nothing unusual there.
"We plan to bring an exciting offense and a charging defense," said Tennessee State coach James Reese. "Even though they're the No. 1 team in the nation, we're still going to show up."
Again, the friendly crowd laughed.
Both coaches were presented keys to the city. Everything was in order.
A representative from the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority spoke about the game's economic impact.
"We estimate," said Rob Powers, "a nongaming impact of $12 million dollars from this game."
Then a reporter asked Williams about taking over the Grambling program from Eddie Robinson, the winningest coach in college football history.
"If there was a time to go in behind Eddie Robinson, I felt like that was it," he said. "The time to go in was when the team was down." In 1999, Williams brought the Tigers their first winning season in five years.
"We felt like we were in a rebuilding stage. It wasn't going to be a quick fix," Williams said. "We tried to go with young guys so we could keep them around longer - and give them an opportunity to get a degree."
Many of those players - having won two consecutive conference championships - have now graduated. Williams talked about losing 13 starters in 2002.
So far, so good. But someone had heard rumors about possible wedding plans.
"Are you going to get married?" a member of the national press asked.
"If she hasn't ran out yet," Williams said, laughing again. "We are going to get married today."
Then a preacher - hastily called and unsure if there was even a ring - performed the ceremony before a quieting crowd. Reese was best man.
When Williams stumbled over unfamiliar vows - missaying "all my worldly possessions I thee deed" - the friendly crowd again broke into good-natured chuckles.
"Come on, now," he said, shyly.
Details about Lisa Judge, the new Mrs. Williams, were sketchy. In fact, members of the sports information office at Grambling didn't know about the event until Friday.
Williams admitted to hatching the plan the week before. As for young Lisa, "she was a little reluctant to do it at a press conference," he said. "At first, she told me `no.'"
But, the more they talked about it, the more Williams said it seemed right.
"When people found out I was coming to Vegas to get married, several of them told me they had, too. It's a good place to get married, I guess."
Later, a reporter asked about honeymoon plans.
"We've been honeymooning for about the last two months," Williams said. "It's time for me to go to work right now."
That work includes preparations for this newest GSU showcase - which, like the Bayou Classic, is more than simply a football a game.
Much of the presentation centered on the cultural pageantry associated with these games - including dances, reunions, stepshows and the mythical Battle of the Bands.
A special video was presented, detailing the history of both historically black colleges - including Williams' consecutive SWAC championships and the win in last year's Bayou Classic.
The press conference was 20 minutes late getting under way. Williams and his fiancée stopped after their plane arrived in Las Vegas to change clothes.
The Silver Dollar Classic is set for Sept. 21 at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.
Monday, September 04, 2006
Grambling's James Harris made good on a personal vow
July 20, 2003
By NICK DERISO
This was a homecoming in the best sense of the word - by turns sentimental and inspirational.
But in the end, James "Shack" Harris - one of the highest-ranking black executives in the NFL - had twin messages for local young people: Get an education and allow yourself to imagine a brighter future.
"There's not many things you can do in this world for free," said Harris, the Monroe native who serves as vice president of player personnel with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "But dreaming is free: So I decided to dream big."
Harris - a former Carroll High and Grambling State standout who went on to a 12-year NFL career - spoke at a fund-raiser for the Northeast Louisiana Delta African American Heritage Museum, held Saturday night at the West Monroe Convention Center.
The non-profit museum, established on Monroe's Plum Street in 1993, showcases cultural classes and events - as well as a permanent collection detailing important historical moments in local African-American history. Of special note is the presentation "Troubling the Water," which recounts the Civil Rights movement in northeastern Louisiana.
Harris said a key moment in that struggle also changed his life.
He was watching the Martin Luther King Jr. speech in August 1963 on television, looking for two local friends who had gone to Washington, D.C., to participate in the march, when he heard these immortal words: "I have a dream, that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
He decided to do what was then unthinkable for a black athlete: "I decided that day that I would play quarterback," Harris said. "I realized what I was risking. But I decided that day."
Most African-Americans were converted to defensive back or receiver. None had ever been drafted or started at quarterback in the NFL.
But with encouragement from family, Carroll coach Dorth Blade and Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, he realized his own dreams: Harris did both.
He fell to the eighth round in the draft for not agreeing to switch positions, but was finally picked up by the Buffalo Bills in the 1969 NFL draft. Harris would go on to play for Los Angeles and San Diego, earning MVP honors at the Pro Bowl in 1975.
Harris then left the playing field for a second career in scouting, one that led eventually to the Baltimore Ravens - where, as director of pro personnel, he helped construct the 2001 Super Bowl champions.
Last January, he broke more ground: Harris was named vice president of player personnel for the Jaguars - where he is in charge of all personnel decisions.
Doug Williams, a fellow Grambling and NFL alum, says it's impossible to overestimate how important that position is.
"Whatever Jacksonville does," he says, "is going to hinge on James Harris."
Not that Harris - ranked as the 36th most influential African-American in sports last spring by The Sporting News - isn't up to the task. He said he began preparing here in northeastern Louisiana.
Harris led Carroll to 39 consecutive wins in high school.
"That was the greatest team I ever played on," Harris said Saturday. "If we were still playing, we'd still be undefeated."
Carroll teammate Delles Howell, later a member of the New Orleans Saints, gave the benediction - part of a large contingency of friends, family, classmates and fellow players.
Blade introduced Harris, and received warm thanks from his former signal-caller.
"When I left Carroll High School, I left with a blueprint for life, one that gave me an opportunity to succeed," Harris said. "I just didn't realize how good of a coach he was - and what he meant to me. He made me a man."
Harris then called the decision to play for the legendary Eddie Robinson in college "probably the greatest decision I ever made. Coach Robinson told me, in four years I would play quarterback in the NFL - and I believed him. And I believed in Martin Luther King's words."
In the meantime, Harris and the Tigers won or shared the SWAC title in each of his four years in school. He set what was then a state collegiate record with 4,705 career passing yards at Grambling.
That earned him induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, as well as the SWAC and the Grambling Athletic halls.
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'First Shack' remembers hard road he traveled
July 21, 2003
By Nick Deriso
There were, to be sure, some serious moments.
Former NFL quarterback James Harris - in town at a fund-raiser for the Northeast Louisiana Delta African American Heritage Museum - talked about the dark and lonely times when he questioned his own refusal to switch positions back in the 1960s.
A stellar career in high school and college at quarterback was no guarantee of success at the next level. Not then. It was widely believed that blacks didn't have the "intangibles" (code for brains) to play under center.
But the former Carroll High standout had signed with Eddie Robinson at Grambling State, then a virtual factory for black NFL talent.
"I told coach it didn't make any sense to go to the NFL and not play," Harris remembered Saturday. "He told me something - and I think about it often, when I face troubled times," Harris said. "He said if I didn't go to the NFL, it would be a long time before someone else could get there again."
The Monroe native accepted that challenge, learned to thrive on the expectations.
"Never," he said Coach Rob told him, "blame your failures on being black. We've got to face those challenges and prepare to be better."
But the evening's hilarious peaks came more often, the way they will in the reverie of reunion. The fund-raiser, far from focusing on his professional football career, ended up being a happy walk down the dusty back alleys of his time growing up in Monroe and Grambling.
Before the histories could be rewritten in the outside world - first black quarterback drafted, also the first to start, then one of the most influential African-Americans in the NFL power structure - Harris would have to face down adolescence. Folks who'd been there, and folks who admired him as he succeeded, were with Harris again this week - giving the proceedings a kitchen-table casualness.
Every person who got up to the podium cracked wise.
For instance, Richwood Mayor Ed Harris - one of several state and municipal officials on hand - took special care to remind the youngsters listening to Harris' advice on staying in school: "This is the first Shack. The real Shack!"
Several current NFL players attended - including lineman Terrance Sykes, who's been on the rosters of Cleveland and Indianapolis; wide receiver Scott Cloman of Washington; and linebacker Quincy Stewart, a former member of the San Francisco squad who will play for Denver next year.
Stewart presented the African American Heritage Museum's executive director with a football signed by all of his former Niners teammates - prompting Lorraine Slacks to jokingly ask for extra security to escort her out of the building.
Even more laughter.
Shack was disarmingly personal throughout, offering shimmering glimpses into the building blocks of an impressive American success story.
He didn't come from money. "Growing up," Harris reminisced, "all I knew was hard-working parents in a hard-working city. We never traveled, never had a vacation. But I never thought I was poor. We had just enough."
It wasn't laughter then, so much as nods of melancholy remembrance. Shack said his excursions into the harsh realities of work for blacks in the 1960s strengthened his resolve. And how.
Harris had taken on temporary work in a nearby cottonfield, looking to earn some extra money. On the way out, he overheard his mother say: "I sure hope James can go to college." Harris says, back then, "I didn't know what college meant." But when he got to the fields, and took to working the cotton - "in rows," he said Saturday, "that were from now on" - "something hit me: You could be doing this for the next 30 years.
"I went home and asked my mom to tell about this word `college' again."
The sweet laughter of friends and family.
"I know my life has been touched by so many of you tonight," Harris said, at one point. It was clear the feeling was mutual.
Nick Deriso is sports editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. You can contact him at (318) 362-0234 or at nderiso@the newsstar.com.
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Respect lives on for 'Shack'
Prep football award renamed for Carroll, Grambling standout
June 18, 2006
By Nick Deriso
James "Shack" Harris quarterbacked five championship teams in northeastern Louisiana, two at Carroll High and three at Grambling State.
Then he blazed a trail for blacks at the quarterback position in the pros and, later, in NFL front offices. Our readers recognized those staggering accomplishments by voting to name The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare's high school offensive player of the year award in his honor.
"I think naming it for him is exceptional," said Dorth Blade, head coach at Carroll throughout the 1960s. "We've had many outstanding individuals, but I don't know of anybody else in this vicinity who has had quite the influence that James Harris has had. He would be good representative."
Harris topped a poll stuffed with local legends, including West Monroe natives Billy Joe Dupree and Jerry Stovall, Ruston products W.A. "Dub" and Bert Jones, and Monroe's Sammy White, among others.
"I chose 'Shack' because he epitomizes the spirit of someone who is a leader, a winner, a productive player - and one who has earned the respect of all of his peers," said Monroe's Rod Washington, sentiments shared by voters like Sunny Journey and Tammy Ledet.
" 'Shack' did that on the high school, college and pro levels," Washington said. "I think he is a great role model for the top high school football players in our area."
Born July 20, 1947 in Monroe, Harris would lead Carroll to the 1961 and '62 Class 3A state titles before falling in the 1963 semifinals. That loss to St. Augustine was one of only two in Harris' three campaigns as a starter at Carroll, Blade said.
In all, he won 39 consecutive prep games in Monroe.
"That was the best team I've ever been on," Harris said. "There were people who didn't cross the 50 (yard line) on us. I wore white pants, and they didn't get washed all year. I never was touched."
Harris then compiled a 31-9-1 record under former coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling, capturing the 1966-68 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles, before becoming the first black player ever drafted as a quarterback.
"Coach Robinson is the greatest influence in sports that I had in terms of preparing you for sports, and preparing you for life - for the competitiveness that would follow," Harris said. "The biggest thing that Coach taught us was to be prepared, and then good things would happen."
They did. An eighth-round selection for Buffalo, Harris had his greatest success later with Los Angeles - where he led the Rams to divisional titles and the NFC championship game in 1974 and '75.
He was named the Pro Bowl's most valuable player in 1975, then led the NFC with an 89.8 passer rating a season later before finishing his career with San Diego.
Harris has since spent nearly two decades as a pioneer in pro personnel. After a stint in scouting and four years as assistant general manager of the New York Jets, Harris was named director of pro personnel for the Baltimore Ravens in 1997 - where he helped build the 2000 Super Bowl championship squad. Harris has been vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars since January 2003.
" 'Shack' was born to be what he is, a leader at every level," said former college teammate Henry Dyer, who twice led all GSU rushers in the 1960s. "All of us have been pulling for him from the beginning, because he's been a groundbreaker through the years."
Harris has consistently given area players a shot in the pros, signing receivers Randy Hymes and Troy Edwards, kicker Josh Scobee and cornerback Kenny Wright, among others.
"You'll never find someone who is more proud to be from somewhere than James Harris is," said well-known college sports broadcaster Tim Brando, who as a youngster did play-by-play for Neville games. "Everywhere 'Shack' goes, all he talks about is the talent from this area."
Sports Illustrated named Harris one of sports' Top 50 most influential minorities in both 2003 and '04. He is also a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Louisiana Sports halls of fame.
"James was a well-raised guy," said former Carroll assistant coach Curtis Armand, who lived right across the street when Harris was a kid. "A good, good fellow. No attitude, and smart. He deserves this honor."
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Harris was overwhelming choice
Former Carroll High and Grambling standout James Harris finished atop a weeklong poll to name The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare offensive player of the year award, with 56 percent of the votes.
Several other local products received widespread support. Former Dallas Cowboys standout Billy Joe Dupree, who graduated from the now-closed Richardson High in West Monroe, finished second with 19 percent.
"Billy Joe Dupree was a great inspiration to me when I was growing up," said voter James Caldwell. "He encouraged me to stay in school, saw that I had athletic ability and helped me get involved in sports."
The third-place finisher was Ruston High product Bert Jones, who later starred at LSU and with the Baltimore Colts, with 9 percent.
Write-ins for former Louisiana Tech athletics director Jerry Stovall, a West Monroe graduate who later was an All-America player and then coach at LSU, pushed him to fourth place with 5 percent of the vote.
"Every place he has been, he has been known for his strong Christian beliefs, high morals and ethics," said Barry White, president of the West Monroe High School alumni association.
All other candidates - including Walter "Bubby" Brister, W.A. "Dub" Jones, Sammy White and Paul "Tank" Younger - represented the final 11 percent of the polling.
"Mr. W.A. Jones and his son Bert have continued to exhibit the leadership qualities that made them great on the field in their post football days," said voter Brandon Ewing.
The first James Harris offensive player of the year award will be presented in a postseason banquet sponsored annually by Glenwood SportsCare.
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Our lasting legend
Monroe's James Harris has been a groundbreaker all along
June 26, 2006
His college and high school coaches always believed James "Shack" Harris could play.
His folks, well, that was another matter.
Harris, a future standout at both Carroll High and Grambling, had a brother who'd been injured on the gridiron. It took a long talk from former Carroll assistant Curtis Armand, himself a former Grambling player under Eddie Robinson, to convince Harris' parents.
"He said I could get a scholarship," remembered Harris, now vice president of player personnel for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. "They understood what a free education meant."
What came next was a magical career around football. James Larnell Harris, born in Monroe on July 20, 1947, would win five championships playing football in Louisiana, then crash through the NFL's color barrier as a black quarterback and front-office executive.
Those achievements sparked widespread support in a recent poll, as readers voted to name The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare high school offensive player of the year award in Harris' honor.
Call it fitting tribute to Harris, who played during a period of 1960s dominance at Carroll High - winning a jaw-dropping 39 consecutive regular-season games.
"The greatest high school teams ever assembled," Harris said, simply. Harris led Carroll to consecutive undefeated marks in 1963-64, winning the Class 3A title as a junior before falling in the semifinals to St. Augustine a year later.
"We put a value on losing," Harris said. "Losing was not a choice." In a way, Harris had been around the Eddie Robinson aesthetic since he was a teenager. Both Armand and head coach Dorth Blade had played at Grambling. Blade, in fact, was a member of the legendary undefeated 1955 team, Robinson's first black national championship squad.
So, the transition was seamless.
LASTING LOCAL LEGACY
Harris immediately saw playing time in spot duty behind Eddie Robinson Jr. in 1965, helping Grambling to a league title. He then started for the next trio of years - winning three more championships.
Easy to know, but exacting and driven, Harris connected in a visceral way with other players.
"'Shack' has always been a remarkable guy, a motivator and leader," said former teammate Frank Lewis, a wingback on that 1968 Southwestern Athletic Conference champion. "Usually on a team, there are groups of friends. But he's the type of guy who was close with everybody. He could talk to anybody."
GSU lost just five games with Harris as the No. 1 quarterback. In fact, over the four seasons Harris was on the team, Grambling went 31-9-1 - including a 9-1 campaign in 1967 that earned Harris a black college national championship.
"We did a lot of damage," Harris said. "We had the best players in the state of Louisiana. We were so deep and so talented. There were guys that would leave Grambling because they couldn't get a chance to play - then go other places and start."
Twice voted the team's MVP (after the 1967-68 seasons), Harris finished with 4,705 yards and 53 touchdowns - school records that stood until the Doug Williams era nearly a decade later.
All along, Robinson told him he could become the first black player drafted as a quarterback. Harris remained skeptical.
"I was a guy who worked. I spent a lot of time preparing for it," he said. "I thought I was capable, but I didn't think the opportunity would ever be there. Nobody was playing then. It was unrealistic to think about it."
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Several teams tried to convince Harris to switch positions, something that had already happened to black quarterback Marlin Briscoe, but Harris held firm.
Undeniable collegiate numbers eventually convinced the Buffalo Bills to take that chance. Harris, then on a Bills roster that included Jack Kemp and Tom Flores, would also became the first black quarterback to start a pro football season.
But the eighth rounder would only play in four games that first campaign, enduring both unfortunate injuries and scarring racially motivated criticism.
"I've got so much respect for 'Shack' as a person, because I know what he had to go through," said Williams, who followed Harris into an NFL starting job and eventually won Super Bowl MVP honors.
"'Shack' never talked about those things, though," Williams added. "The only thing he ever did with me was say: 'If you can throw at Grambling, you can throw in the league.'"
Harris' stoicism about the crushing adversity that lay ahead was born from long talks with his college coach.
"The biggest thing that Coach Robinson taught us," Harris said, "was not to make excuses."
Robinson, in fact, had stayed in constant contact, even years after Harris had left Grambling.
"I had handpicked and prayed for James Harris to hurdle the color barrier as an NFL quarterback," Robinson once said. "I wouldn't let James ever give up the idea."
He would eventually be waived by Buffalo in 1972, and spent a year out of football working for the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Minority Business Enterprise.
"Sometimes it's where you go that dictates the circumstances," Harris said. "Sometimes it's the breaks you get that determine your career."
A break for Harris came in the form of the Los Angeles Rams, who signed Harris the following year. Harris remained a back up, however. John Hadl, Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden were also in Coach Chuck Knox's quarterback platoon.
"I wrote (Harris) a letter telling him what he needed to do," Robinson said. "He needed to be the first one at practice and the last one to leave. ... I told James to be careful with what he said, and he always should say good things about the team. I impressed on him he should not make his not playing into a racial issue, even if he thought it was."
As Harris continued to split playing time, Robinson even made a call to Carrol Rosenbloom, the owner of the Rams, on Harris' behalf. He didn't ask for special consideration, only that Rosenbloom take notice of how well prepared Harris had become.
"What Coach gave me was more than just knowing what it took to become an NFL quarterback," Harris said. "He touched our lives in such a way that I was better prepared for life. There has probably never been a better man than Eddie Robinson."
Finally given the opportunity to start again in 1974, Harris quickly found his footing.
Harris led the Rams to 20 wins in 24 games, becoming the first black quarterback to start a playoff game. He would complete 483 passes for 3,692 yards and 25 scores over that period - an astonishing burst of productivity that earned Harris an invite to the Pro Bowl, where he was named Most Valuable Player.
In one 1975 game against Baltimore, Harris threw for 294 yards. A season later, he had a 436-yard explosion against Miami on the way to becoming the NFC's leading passer - even though Harris had only played in seven games.
He held the highest career completion average of any quarterback in Rams history, and had played on teams that won four straight divisional titles while advancing to three consecutive NFC Championship Games in the mid-1970s.
Despite that, Harris was traded to San Diego to make room for the aging Joe Namath. There, Harris reunited with a former Grambling teammate, receiver Charlie Joiner, for a final five-year stint.
Harris, while acknowledging his special place in history, laments that he didn't do more as an NFL player.
"I never really got a chance to play up to my capabilities," he said. "I was always trying to play perfectly, because if you made a mistake - you were out."
Perfection took too long, often leaving him with no open options. The highlight reels from back then, it seems, always show Harris running for his life.
"I would hold that ball a little longer trying to make sure I didn't get it picked off," Harris said. "In college and high school, I had played loose. You knew if you made a mistake, the coach would just call it again - not send you home."
EVEN TODAY, A PIONEER
Perhaps Harris' most important achievement is an on-going position of influence within the traditionally lily-white power structure of the NFL.
Robinson often made special note of the fact that Harris "broke restraints on the field as a player, and then in proving blacks could be leaders in the team's front office."
Harris began working up the ladder as an NFL scout, including a six-year stay with Tampa Bay. Next he was promoted to assistant general manager of the New York Jets, a position he held from 1993-96.
Harris would then help build the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens as director of pro personnel. "We came up with a core group of defensive guys who were outstanding," said Harris, in Baltimore from 1997 until taking over with the Jaguars in 2003.
As vice president of player personnel for Jacksonville, Harris works as one of the highest ranking blacks in NFL management - making decisions on player acquisitions, including the annual college draft, free agency, trades, undrafted prospects and those from other leagues.
Those who came later still find inspiration by following in his footsteps. Williams, who succeeded Robinson as coach at Grambling, is now working in an NFL front office, as well. Two years ago, he took a job as a personnel executive with Tampa Bay, the club that drafted him out of Grambling in 1978.
"To see 'Shack' doing what he's doing now, it's an inspiration," said Williams, whose elder sibling Robert played baseball at Grambling. "He always has been. I think of 'Shack' as another older brother. He's somebody I want to be like. Guys like him made it possible for all of us. There's no amount of recognition he doesn't deserve."
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Black quarterbacks turn the page
New ESPN book chronicles struggles that led to future success
February 5, 2007
By Nick Deriso
The timing couldn't have been better.
ESPN Books issues “Third and a Mile,” focusing on black NFL quarterbacks like Grambling products James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams. And it happens just as two African-Americans advance to the Super Bowl as head coaches for the first time ever.
That’s given these two local heroes a chance to reflect, even as they continue to marvel at how far they’ve come.Williams and Harris shared storylines (from Grambling to pro starter to NFL front office) and a college mentor in Eddie Robinson. It’s kindled a shared admiration.
“I’ve got so much respect for ‘Shack’ as a person, because I know what he had to go through,” Williams said. “‘Shack’ never talked about those things, though. The only thing he ever did with me was say: ‘If you can throw at Grambling, you can throw in the league.’”
“Third and a Mile,” an oral history collected by New York Times writer William C. Rhoden, has Harris and Williams — the first black passer to start an NFL game and the first to win a Super Bowl — as an understandable focus.
They form the center of book that expands to feature fellow pioneers like Marlin Briscoe (first to throw a pass in the modern era) and Warren Moon (first to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) as well as current players like Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper.
Before those later successes, however, there were mighty struggles.
At first, Harris, a Monroe native, didn’t even let himself dream about starting.
“I thought I was capable, but I didn’t think the opportunity would ever be there,” he said. “Nobody was playing then. It was unrealistic to think about it.”
The world was turning, but slowly.
Harris, fresh off his selection in the 1968 NFL Draft, arrived to find this headline in The Buffalo Evening News: “A 6-4 Negro QB, Harris, Drafted 8th by the Bills.”
Black quarterbacks were still a novelty for a league that had seen just two attempt a pass between 1953 and 1968. Even then, Briscoe did so only because of injuries to the two quarterbacks ahead of him.
He set several rookie records as a passer in Denver — then found himself released at season’s end, anyway. Briscoe would play nine NFL seasons and eventually win two Super Bowls with Miami, but as a receiver.
That didn’t exactly bode well for Harris, despite the fact that he had led five championship teams in northeastern Louisiana — one at Carroll High and four at Grambling.
“The interviews that he had, they didn’t want him as a quarterback,” said former Carroll coach Dorth Blade. “He had the kind of talent that he could have played defensive back; he had the skills to play any position. (In fact, in the closing moments of Carroll’s 1962 state championship, Harris was actually spelling at safety.) But he wanted to play quarterback.”
Harris was never given a fair shake. He bounced from Buffalo to Los Angeles — where, during a rare period where he saw consistent starting time, the Rams won divisional titles and advanced to the NFC championship game in 1974 and ’75.
Despite becoming the first black passer to lead a team into the playoffs, Harris was shipped off to San Diego.“I never really got a chance to play up to my capabilities,” said Harris. “I was always trying to play perfectly, because if you made a mistake — you were out.”
Still, the yeoman’s work done by Briscoe and Harris opened the passway for Williams, who would become the most valuable player of the 1988 Super Bowl for the Washington Redskins.
The now ailing Robinson would often recall telling Williams that the significance of that moment would only deepen with time.
“Coach was right, as usual,” Williams told reporters this week. “In a way, seeing (Chicago Bears coach) Lovie Smith and (Indianapolis Colts coach) Tony Dungy coach in this Super Bowl will have more impact on me than my playing in the game did. I’ve lived a little history now, and I know exactly where we started with black coaches.”
Harris looks back with more than a little regret on his pro playing days. Still, his steady resilience made it easier for those who came later.
Moon was so determined to follow Harris into quarterbacking that he decided not to run at full speed when he was clocked in the 40-yard dash as a college athlete at Washington — all to avoid being moved to wideout or cornerback.
He and Randall Cunningham would bridge the gap between the widely accepted black superstar passers of today and Grambling’s groundbreakers of the ’70s.
“The only thing I knew,” Harris said, “is I wasn’t switching positions. I was going home before I was going to do that.”
Harris’ more remarkable contribution was to follow that 12-year career on the field with nearly two decades as a pioneer in pro personnel. He’s helped build rosters for the Jets, the Ravens (including the 2000 Super Bowl champions) and the Jaguars, where he was worked since 2003.
Robinson often made special note of the fact that Harris “broke restraints on the field as a player, and then in proving blacks could be leaders in the team’s front office.”
Williams, who later succeeded Robinson as Grambling’s coach, is also a personnel executive — working for Tampa Bay, the NFL club that selected him 17th overall in the 1978 draft.
Though they once endured a withering spotlight focused on their skin color, Harris and Williams have been witness to an amazing transformation: In some ways, the game itself has become bigger than race.
McNair and McNabb have led teams into the Super Bowl over the last decade — and with far less scrutiny.
“The thing about a Super Bowl is, they may call you a black quarterback,” Williams said, “but the truth is that they can’t color that experience.”
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A separate history: Harris, Williams return with new book on black QBs
Grambling products featured in 'Third and a Mile,' a stirring new oral history
March 10, 2007
By Nick Deriso
William C. Rhoden wanted you to walk a while in their shoes.
So the New York Times writer took a gutsy approach in the new book “Third and a Mile,” which explores what he calls “the trials and triumphs” of the black pro quarterback.
He presents an oral history, rather than weaving in the expected prose. These raw and riveting accounts give the book its power, and its poignancy.
About 80 different voices are heard, loud and clear -- including two Grambling products, James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams. Their words become an ever-more resounding rebuke, even if the book’s stark style means Rhoden disappears a bit in the telling.
“We left it up to him,” Harris said, “and that was the way he thought it was best to present it -- since there were so many different angles and personalities to the story. We like it because it’s easy to read.”
Harris, a Monroe native, and Williams will sign copies of “Third and a Mile” today at Windows, a Bookshop, on Park Avenue across from Forsythe Park in Monroe. The free event lasts from noon to 2 p.m. Call 361-9004.
“Third and a Mile” also includes accounts from Warren Moon, Vince Evans and Marlin Briscoe, among others. Each played his own role in the struggle of black passers to earn equal opportunity in the National Football League.
Their thoughts are laid bare, without interruption or tacked-on transitions. Eventually, the quarterbacks are joined by others, black and white, to provide insight and context.
“The writer did a good job, because he didn’t deviate from what we said,” Williams said. “It’s not just told from the individual quarterback’s point of view, but also from other people’s. You get it from a different view, and see what everybody else thought about what was going on.”
For Harris and Williams, these were not new thoughts. It was new, though, to voice a few of them.
“Some of the things you go through, you have not shared with anybody else or hadn’t wanted to talk about,” Harris said. “Some of those things were said for the first time, once we sat down and started thinking about it. But those are things you never forget.”
Harris -- who once won 39 consecutive games as a prep quarterback at Monroe’s Carroll High -- would become the first black in league history to open a regular season as a starting quarterback, and the first to lead an NFL team to the playoffs.
Williams was the first to be selected in the first round of the draft, the first to lead a team to the Super Bowl, the first to win it, and the first to be named most valuable player.
Leading the way meant absorbing withering criticism -- in print and in person -- from those who questioned whether a black quarterback could lead a football team.
“There are things that have been on your mind for a long time, and maybe you only shared them with a few people,” Williams said. “Now, you can share it with whoever wants to read it -- and they are things that people probably didn’t even think about. All you know was what you saw on TV on Sundays. You may not know the roads that were traveled to get there.”
Rhoden’s intriguing examination is an important reminder for those who once thought too little of the struggle to even football’s playing field for blacks. But as players like Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb have helped us move beyond the question, it’s no less meaningful for a new generation who might not be as mindful of what came before.
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March 09, 2007
In the new book "Third and a Miles," James "Shack" Harris talks about the effects of blistering racism while growing up in Monroe during the 1950s and '60s.
But this Carroll High and Grambling product never wavered in his passion for the area.
"So many people from Monroe have supported me and are a big part of where I am today," said Harris, who attended practice at GSU tonight along with fellow Grambling product Doug Williams. "I always enjoy coming home, and seeing the way things have changed."
There was much to talk about: The book, the charity golf tournament he and Williams are sponsoring later this summer, the Jaguars - where he makes all the personnel decisions.
Then Harris got down to business: Just how good is Bastrop? Who's the best player coming out of the area right now? Ahmad Paige?
Harris left northeastern Louisiana, but it never left him.That's a tribute to his former Grambling coach, the beloved Eddie Robinson, who always challenged Harris to work hard, no matter the hardships, and to never rely on excuses.
Harris' love for Monroe would withstand whatever wrongheaded prejudice it once threw at him.
And now, finally, the town has learned to return his embrace -- and with a northside booksigning in Harris' honor, no less.
As Rob would say: I love this country.