Friday, April 06, 2007


America loses football legend
Grambling's Eddie Robinson, winningest coach in Division I, dies at 88
April 4, 2007

We were the first in the nation to disclose Eddie Rob's passing, which happened after 11 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. This began an emotional week in northeastern Louisiana, and around the world.

By Nick Deriso
Eddie Robinson, coach at Grambling for nearly 60 years, has died at age 88.

He was rushed to a Lincoln Parish hospital Tuesday afternoon with heart problems and died just after 11 p.m., family members confirmed. Robinson had suffered from Alzheimer’s-like symptoms for several years.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete this morning for a coach who still holds the Division I record for wins in college football, 10 seasons after retiring.

Robinson logged 408 victories at Grambling between 1941-97. He also produced 45 winning seasons; won nine National Black College championships and 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles; coached four college football Hall of Famers (Buck Buchanan, Younger, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson and Doug Williams); and sent more than 200 players to the NFL, including four Pro Football Hall of Famers (Buchanan, Willie Davis, Willie Brown and Charlie Joiner).

“He ranks right up there with Bear Bryant and Amos Alonzo Stagg,” Joiner said. “It reminds me of one time when another person asked this one guy if Coach Rob was in a class by himself. He stood there and thought for a long time. I really can’t say, but it doesn’t take long to call the roll.”

Robinson’s greatest influence, many former players said, was outside of football.

“I think the thing that stands out about Coach the most is the development of transforming boys into men and preparing them for life,” said Monroe native James “Shack” Harris, vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars and a former Grambling and NFL quarterback. “He understood the players and where they came from and what it took to be successful.”

Robinson once estimated he coached more than 4,500 varsity athletes in football, basketball and baseball with an 85 percent graduation rate.

“I tended to want to bring things out in a football player as a student,” Robinson said. “We were blessed to have some good football players, but when you graduate people, they seem to be good people. They get a degree, and they can go out and handle things.”


On the band

“There’s more than football at Grambling. We have a great show band. You can be killing us on the field, but people aren’t going to leave until after the half.”

On the secrets of having one job and one wife

"It takes two to tango. It takes two to make a good marriage. You have to respect each other."

“People talk about the record I’ve compiled at Grambling, but the real record is the fact that for over 50 years I’ve had one job and one wife. I don’t believe anybody can out-American me.”

What he learned from his players

"I learned more about what they meant to me and what they meant to the game. I never won a game - they did. You learn from every player because they’re not the same.”

“Means can be justifiable in the end. The football players are the most important people in the world to me. Without them, there would be no me.”

“I firmly believe that football players and coaches are entertainers.”

On being called a legend

"I can’t even spell it. Whatever it means, I hope I didn’t let anyone down. What I’ve done since 1941 has been more for them than for me.”

“Everything I’ve done, I think I dreamed of it first.”

“I can still remember when I was three years old and I had it in my mind then to do this for a living.”

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Bayou Classic stands as Rob's final legacy
Legendary Grambling coach left signature rivalry game for future generations
April 4, 2007

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING -- Back then, even the participants couldn’t have imagined how successful the Bayou Classic would someday become -- or how it would help propel the late Eddie Robinson onto the national stage.

“We just came along at the right time. I tell you, the Lord was in the plan,” Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling State’s original sports information director from 1948-78, once said.

As word of his passing spreads, the Bayou Classic stands as the most visible portion of Robinson's legacy -- a nationally televised testament to his dreams for this small country school.

“It was timing: Coach Robinson was developing all these players for pro football - and we had a marketing plan,” said Nicholson, who also passed last year. “Eddie and I 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 between Grambling State and Southern University. These two schools -- rivals both in the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s West Division and in the state of Louisiana -- have fought to a virtual draw in New Orleans.

“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.”

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 17-16, with SU now just one game ahead.

A matchup so evenly matched can only gather fan interest.

But the Bayou Classic is more than Xs and Os. In the three decades since its founding, the game has been surrounded by a lively slate of 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.

Doug Williams still marvels at the game’s sweeping glory.

“Playing in the Superdome?” asked Williams, a redshirt starting freshman quarterback in the inaugural game in 1974. “Playing for a championship? Playing in front of 75,000? It wasn’t like that at that particular time.”

Nicholson agreed: “We didn’t think we’d do that many. We thought it might attract about 50,000,” he said.

At its pre-Katrina peak, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that 200,000 people visit the Big Easy for Bayou Classic weekend -- representing an economic impact of $85 million.

In honor of those sweeping contributions, a banner with Robinson’s name hangs in the Superdome.

The truth is, the rivalry was squarely in place, long before the game had a name: In 1971, an estimated 35,000 stood at Grambling to watch these two schools battle. A sold-out game in northwestern Louisiana was followed by another in New Orleans - where 76,753 fans crammed into Tulane Stadium.

“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.”

Robinson coached Grambling State to the series’ only shutout in 1974, beating Southern 21-0. The Tigers, at 11-1, finished as co-champions of the SWAC with Alcorn State. GSU then defeated South Carolina State 28-7 in the Pelican Bowl.

The following year, 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,” said GSU assistant coach Sammy White, the game’s MVP in 1975. “Now, it’s a national thing.”

With the televised coverage, every corner of America could finally put a face with the name of Eddie G. Robinson -- who died at 88 just before midnight on Tuesday after battling Alzheimer's-like symptoms for years.

“It became a showcase for Eddie Robinson and all the great coaches at Southern,” Williams said. “Scheduling played a part, too -- with so many families back to visit for Thanksgiving. Then, there’s the in-state rivalry. It was a natural.”

What had once been a football game is something far, far greater -- if only because, through these telecasts, so many got to meet Grambling’s great man.

“When Eddie Robinson came to Grambling, people in Lincoln Parish didn’t even know where Grambling was,” Nicholson once said.

Same with Robinson. The Bayou Classic changed that forever.

Here’s a look at a baker’s dozen of Coach Eddie Robinson’s former players who advanced to the National Football league -- just a few of the more than 300 to do so during his tenure at Grambling State (with years in the league in parenthesis):

Paul “Tank” Younger, a running back and linebacker with Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh (1949-58):
Inducted into College Football Hall of Fame in 2000; also a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame

Willie Davis, a defensive and offensive lineman with Green Bay and Cleveland (1958-69):
First Grambling State player ever drafted; inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981

Junius “Buck” Buchanon, a defensive lineman with Kansas City (1963-75):
Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990; first GSU player to be drafted in first round

Willie Brown, a defensive back with Denver and Oakland (1963-78):
Posted 54 picks in 16-year career; inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984

Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, defensive lineman with Kansas City and Houston Oilers (1966-68):
Twice named All-AFL; later had second career, earning induction into Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame

James “Shack” Harris, a quarterback with Buffalo, Los Angeles Rams, San Diego (1969-81):
First black quarterback drafted into NFL, former Carroll High standout was Pro Bowl MVP in 1975

Charlie Joiner, wide receiver with San Diego, Cincinnati and Houston Oilers (1969-86):
Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996; had 50 or more catches in seven seasons

WR Frank Lewis, wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills:
Inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame last summer; won two Super Bowls with the Steelers.

Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, defensive tackle with San Francisco and San Diego (1975-85):
Sheridan Black College Defensive Player of Year in 1974, inducted into College Hall of Fame in 1997

Sammy White, wide receiver with Minnesota (1976-86):
Two-time Pro Bowler is member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame; NFL Rookie of the Year in 1976

Doug Williams, quarterback with Tampa Bay and Washington (1978-89):
The 1988 Super Bowl winner and MVP; inducted into College Football Hall of Fame in 2001

Everson Walls, defensive back with Dallas, New York Giants and Cleveland (1981-93):
Four-time Pro Bowler; a walk on at GSU, still holds school’s single-season interception record

Albert Lewis, defensive back with Los Angeles Raiders and Kansas City (1983-98):
First-round pick by Chiefs; nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003

Other NFL notables from the Robinson era: DB Fahkir Brown (New Orleans/St. Louis), OL Albert Dennis III (Cleveland and San Diego, former GSU athletics director), WR Andrew Glover Los Angeles Raiders, Minnesota and New Orleans) , DB Delles Howell (former Richwood High standout, New Orleans and New York Jets), WR Trumaine Johnson (Buffalo and San Diego), DE Billy Newsome (Baltimore Colts, New Orleans, New York Jets and Chicago) and Nate Singleton (San Francisco and Philadelphia).

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Bigger than football
April 03, 2007

By Nick Deriso

The news that Eddie Robinson passed brought me back to the last in-depth on-the-record interview he ever did.

It was with me, talking about the 15th anniversary of protege Doug Williams' emotional Super Bowl victory.

Robinson, who was in San Diego on that day in 1988, at one point happily recalled going down on the field to remind Williams of the support he always had back home.

"I talked to him a long time after the game," Robinson said. "I told him how proud the people were - in our community and our churches."

Robinson was a football coach, his resume says as much. But he was bigger than that, even as he struggled in intensive care tonight -- losing a battle against his own body's failures at age 88.

Robinson never framed things by what happened on the field, never talked about winning 408 times. That wasn't what it was all about.

His pride in what his former players accomplished couldn't be contained on the gridiron. Fans talked about the Bayou Classic. But he always talked about his players as community leaders, as fathers, as great Americans.

"The thing we are most proud of is that they graduated from college," Robinson said.

Still, in microcosm, he helped smash the color barrier under center. Grambling products would use that piece of paper as a battering ram in a league locked up tight with misconceptions about an African-American's ability to master the complexity of a pro offense.

James "Shack" Harris, the Carroll product who starred for Robinson in the 1960s, cracked the door with his Pro Bowl MVP performance in 1975. Williams knocked the thing off its hinges in 1988.

Then they both, Coach said quite proudly, went on to other leadership roles -- Harris as an NFL general manager and Williams as Robinson's successor at Grambling and then, later, as a pro personnel executive as well.

"It makes you feel really fine that they can go out and do those kind of things," Robinson said. "It just makes you know what our school can do - and what our students can do."

He wouldn't say so, but it also reminds us - it always will - of what Coach Rob could do, too.

That was much bigger than football.

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Even at the last, Robinson was a giant
April 5, 2007

This column was part of eight pages of tributes we published on the Thursday morning after Robinson's passing.

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — The final days for Eddie Robinson were an ebb and flow, with good days and bad.

On the worst of them, football became a jumbled mess in his mind. Those were the times when his wife Doris has said she worried most about him, the times when he seemed sickest of all.

In the earliest days of his illness, which family members blamed on a series of small strokes, Robinson turned to Friday night boxing matches, something his late friend Collie J. Nicholson said was easier to follow. Later, he watched old football movies, but paid little attention.

On the best of days, however, Robinson gripped life like he’d always gripped an out-stretched hand — firmly and completely.

“Once he gets a line on you, he remembers you. He still remembers you,” Nicholson, Grambling’s long-time former sports information director, said as Robinson’s Alzheimer’s-like symptoms began to become noticeable in 2003. “And he keeps that smile, always that smile.”

Still, Robinson was more apt to remember former quarterback Doug Williams’ triumphal Super Bowl win in 1987 than his own final coaching days at Grambling State a decade later.

In the end, he only rarely came to the stadium on campus that bears his name — appearing at the contest against McNeese in 2003, then at 2004’s spring Black and Gold scrimmage but not much thereafter.

Doris Robinson said he was emotionally drained by the experience, and frustrated that he had trouble following the action on the field.

As his failing memory robbed him of so much, he spent more time at home. Doris, his only love, did all she could.

She worked tirelessly in caring for him, only revealing the specifics of Robinson’s deterioration as his career wins record fell in 2004 to a lower division coach. Still, Doris was so protective of him that she didn’t let anyone from the national press talk to her husband.

She said she never told him that the once thought-unassailable 408-win plateau had been reached.

I called, and stopped by, sometimes. When Robinson spoke to me, it was about the classic Wing-T formation, about players like Bell Pepper Anderson from the old days, about his grandchildren.

His trips away from there slowed to a stop. Robinson, in his final public appearances, attended 2004 birthday parties thrown both for himself and his old friend Nicholson — but Nicholson soon joined him in battling health problems and passed late in 2006.

Yet, even inside his modest brick home in Grambling, Robinson remained a source of inspiration.
A never-ending line of well wishers met him, old and young alike. Many were folks turning off the interstate, just because they saw the Grambling sign.

The football team also walked up the hill on Adams Street on more than one occasion to pay tribute to the former coach.

During one memorable visit in 2005, Robinson was animated and friendly, displaying a familiar gusto as he sang along with the school’s alma mater. His eyes lit up at the sight of former players, and he simply refused to let the moment end.

Sammy White, Andre Robinson and Charlie Lewis, all of whom played for Robinson and now coach at Grambling, bracketed Robinson. As the players trickled back onto the street afterward, Robinson asked to sing again — one more blazing moment of remembrance shared, and the last, with GSU’s coaching staff.

“I have had a lot of great things happen to me around football,” said an emotional White, a former GSU great who later helped lead Minnesota to a Super Bowl. “That was one of mine. Right there.”

And for me, someone who got a cherished opportunity to be around Robinson late in his career and, sadly, also late in his life.

Inside their home, Mrs. Doris worked as tour guide through 60 years of magical memory. She might point out the painting the emperor of Japan gave Robinson, or the photo with President Ronald Reagan.

After a hospital bed was brought in, mattresses from their room were stacked in Robinson’s treasured study. Slowly, his illness seemed to obscure everything that came before.

So a group of locals furiously attempted to establish a long-overdue museum in his honor. A temporary exhibit of memorabilia and trophies opened in June 2005 on campus, though Robinson never saw it.

An inaugural benefit banquet for the museum project followed in September at GSU, but neither Coach nor Mrs. Robinson could attend. Son Eddie Robinson Jr. spoke in their place.

Grambling resident Doug Porter, an assistant for nine seasons with Robinson and a family friend, was part of those efforts.

“Because he was as constant presence, people might have taken him for granted,” said Porter, who made several other subsequent coaching stops. “Anybody, like me, who has been away from Grambling knows well his mystique around the rest of the country. I guess I didn’t completely appreciate all of it until I left.”

Eddie Jr. could often be seen driving the elder Robinson around town. It was an effort to keep the former coach active and engaged that Eddie Jr. shared with Wilbert Ellis, a long-time former GSU baseball coach and athletic administrator.

Robinson fought until the very end, spending time in a Ruston nursing home and, on several occasions, in a Lincoln Parish hospital.

Ellis rushed there to visit on Dec. 12, for instance, just days after the Grambling football team won the 2005 Southwestern Athletic Conference championship.

“He said: ‘Boy, where you been?’” Ellis remembered. “I said, ‘I’ve been down there trying to win a game for you.’”

There were these moments of shimmering clarity.

Just weeks before he succumbed, Robinson had been hospitalized, only to rouse himself once again. He asked for a cheeseburger on the way out the door.

But finally, Robinson suffered a damaging heart attack on Tuesday afternoon and Ellis returned, desperately fighting back emotion, to read a family plea for privacy.

Robinson would pass later that night.

Ellis was overcome with the thought, as if a corner in the very foundation of Grambling had crumbled.

“Coach is gone,” Ellis kept saying. “Coach is gone.”

NICK DERISO is sports editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. Contact him at or (318) 362-0234.

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A shared memory
April 04, 2007

By Nick Deriso
Wednesday brought a jumble of emotions, as people celebrated Eddie Robinson, even as they mourned him.

"I talked to a lot of teammates today, and we probably laughed more than anything," said Doug Williams, former GSU quarterback and Robinson's coaching successor, as tears welled up. "Today has been kind of a sad day, but also a celebration of the man."

Williams wasn't alone as he openly wept. In fact, he joined countless others who found themselves honestly unable to imagine the school, the town and their own lives without Robinson's towering presence.

"Wow, this guy was bigger than life itself. He really impressed me by the way he handled himself, what he believed in and what he stood for," said Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Brown, a standout in the 1960s at Grambling for Rob. "He was a man of high class, a motivator and innovator. He loved his players. I couldn't have learned from a better coach than Robinson."

Robinson passed away late Tuesday night, in a story first reported around the nation in the print and online editions of The News-Star.

Fans almost immediately began sending text messages and then e-mails, to the point that I had to delete out some old sent-files in order to open by box.

A fast-food restaurant on U.S. 167 in Ruston immediately changed its sign to read: "We'll Miss You, Coach Rob." The phones began ringing early, and they were still ringing late.

"I'm so empty," said Tom Lavigne, a 1970s-era All-America defensive back at Grambling who lost everything to the hurricane in his native New Orleans. "This is nothing compared to Katrina. I'd go through Katrina every day to not feel like this."

As celebrated as he was in life, and that continued today with his passing, several former players said Robinson deserved more. Much more.

"There will never be another one like him," said Everson Walls, who led the nation in picks for Rob in 1980 before a standout pro career. "There will never be another one that will do it the way he did it. He put Grambling on the map and made it a football powerhouse. But I never thought he got the respect he deserved. Even when the talent dried up, when black athletes starting going to white schools, he built champions on and off the field."

We're putting out eight pages of stuff about Rob on Wednesday -- stories, columns, pictures, the works. And we kept coming back to the same conclusion.

It's not enough. Every conversation we had, every word we wrote, made that all the more clear.

There's no top to Eddie Robinson's legacy. Every one he ever knew says that, in their own way.

May he forever, and ever, live on through that sweeping influence.

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Searching for the right way to say goodbye
April 6, 2007

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING -- The driveway was filled with cars at 234 Adams St., and still they came up the hill.

They parked in the yard, then across the street.

And more still arrived.

Once inside, they spoke of the late Eddie G. Robinson not in hushed tones, but like he was only in the next room.

Instead, one door down from the boisterous reunion in the den, Robinson’s hospital bed had been dissembled -- replaced with the original queen-sized model he shared for many of his 65 years of marriage to Doris Robinson before passing at 88 this week.

Every door was open, and friends and family streamed in from them all. Many arrived so early on Thursday, as news of Robinson’s passing crisscrossed the world, that his wife was still in her housecoat.

Doris Robinson quickly changed into a fashionable purple outfit, even as friends like Ruby Higgins -- a longtime administrator at Grambling State, where her husband coached football for nearly 60 seasons -- helped answer the ever-ringing phones.

Careful notes were taken so that Doris could return the calls.

Like the cars, they never stopped.

There were messages left by former players from across the spectrum of a coaching career that spanned 1941-97 -- everyone from Willie Davis (who anchored Robinson’s first National Black College championship team in ’55) to Michael Kornblau (who was quarterback on his final squad.)

Doris looked over the morning’s newspaper accounts, and wondered aloud what her reliably humble spouse would have made of all that attention.

“He’d probably say: ‘They did all that for me?’” she said, chuckling softly. “‘I guess I must have done pretty good.’ That was how he was.”

Television coverage of Robinson’s passing ran on a loop, captivating an ever-changing group of well wishers that included Larry Wright, the Grambling men’s basketball coach.

Moments after one segment, he walked into the Robinsons’ kitchen, visibly shaken. Wright hasn’t begun to come to grips yet, he said, with what Grambling might be like without Robinson.

Less than two days after his passing, not many could.

In particular, the woman he married in 1941, Robinson’s childhood sweetheart.

“When I saw her today, Mrs. Robinson grabbed me and cried,” said former GSU baseball coach and family friend Wilbert Ellis. “I don’t think we knew all that would happen to us when Eddie Robinson was gone.”

Asked more than once what she would do without him, Doris Robinson said simply: “I have no idea.”

Grambling president Horace Judson sat with her for much of the morning --- reminiscing, like most of the visitors on this day, about one of the many games Robinson coached.

There were 588 of them, and several times as many stories.

Former school president Joseph Johnson called, and so did classmates like Mildred Jones.

Richard Lapchick, the co-author of Eddie Robinson’s as-told-to autobiography, called at midmorning to speak with Doris. He had already left a message of “love from he and his wife Ann” the day before.

Well wishes arrived from coaches who had worked with Robinson (40-year sidekick Melvin Lee), succeeded him (former GSU coach Melvin Spears) or simply admired him (West Virginia State’s Oree Banks, who preceded Willie Jeffries at South Carolina State in the 1960s).

A sign-in sheet was placed near the door, and several friends left personal messages for the Robinson family: “Try not to worry; God will supply your needs. I love you, Denene Stringfellow.”

Doris Robinson held up well for most of the morning, though the sight of some treasured friends would sometimes bring her to tears.

“I’m not the first to go through this,” she said, holding one well-wisher’s hand. “I’ve just got to buckle down.”

She was shaking by then, and soon retired to bed for an afternoon nap.

The group -- which by then included Eddie Robinson Jr. and family friend James Davison, among others -- later toured Grambling’s new assembly center, where services for Robinson will be held on Wednesday.

They then met for several hours to discuss the details of the event.

Six decades of protégés had to be turned into a short list of pallbearers. Flowers had to be selected. Doris had insisted that informational material on donating to a proposed museum in her husband’s honor be included in the program booklet, so a group of friends began stuffing envelopes.

The smallest details consumed those trying both to pay tribute to an American icon, and perhaps to busy themselves in a time of shattering grief.

“When you look around at this, everybody has been really positive,” Ellis said. “This is so big, though. The kind of person we are dealing with, we recognize what we have. People from all over the world will be there to see this man’s home going.”

Rusty Ponton, who coaches the women’s basketball team at GSU, brought over one of his celebrated cheesecakes.

He had made it for Robinson, after hearing that the late coach had been discharged from the hospital early this week. He couldn’t deliver it before Robinson was readmitted on Tuesday and passed away.

Ponton said Doris Robinson (who he calls ‘Mama D’) told him to bring it anyway: “She said: ‘I like cheesecake, too, you know.’”

The Robinson kitchen exploded with laughter, a welcome and increasingly common respite.

As the day went on, there was more laughter. And more food.

And always, always, more cars.

A group of guys fired up the charcoal grill in the backyard, with the idea of cooking some chicken for those inside, when Robinson Jr. volunteered to go to the store.

“Junior, you know your money doesn’t spend this weekend,” Wright said.

A smile, a rare one, curled up the unusually solemn Robinson’s face.

Later, he took everything in.

“It’s helping,” Robinson Jr. said. “It’s important for me to have everyone around, and my mom, too. I appreciate what everybody is doing. We can’t ask for more support.”

As the sun set behind the stadium that bears Robinson’s name, passersby stopped to take pictures of his red brick home, even though he wasn’t inside anymore.

Some were strangers, people Robinson never knew but had nevertheless touched.

Those inside at 234 Adams St. found no small amount of comfort in scenes like that.

“Eddie Robinson is beyond a king; a king is just for one country.” Ellis said. “A guy from The New York Times said that to me. Eddie Robinson belongs to everyone, and in that way he’ll never die. He will live on in our memories and in our men.”

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