Thursday, April 12, 2007


Robinson's players huddle up for last goodbye
Memories, tears flow throughout emotional reunion for proteges of late coach
April 10, 2006

By Nick Deriso
BATON ROUGE -- Former players made a gathering to mark Eddie Robinson’s legendary 57-year career at Grambling into a lively reunion that crossed generations.

Members of Robinson teams from 1941-97 met for a private event before the general public was allowed into the state capitol for an all-day memorial, something typically reserved for heads of state.

“I’m so happy this happened for Coach,” said Frank Lewis, a wide receiver and running back at Grambling in the late 1960s. “Coach was so special. He deserves it.”

The day was marked by stark emotional contrasts -- beginning as the players, wearing white gloves and standing in parallel lines, passed Robinson’s cherry-wood casket up the imposing steps of one of Louisiana’s most iconic buildings.

GSU standouts Albert Lewis and Doug Williams, the lead pallbearers, were joined by more than 100 Robinson protégés in that solemn task, which led inside to Memorial Hall, the ornate, two-story space between the state’s Senate and House chambers.

Director Larry Pannell led the Tiger Marching Band through a sad, but swinging rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” from the top of the steps.

“There’s no topping this legacy,” said Lewis, a Grambling defensive back in the early 1980s. “I consider Coach Robinson one of the greatest individuals -- not coaches, individuals -- in this country’s history.”

The 88-year-old Robinson, who still holds the record for Division I wins, died April 3 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. But not before shaping the lives of generations, said Williams, a former GSU quarterback who succeeded Robinson as coach.

“We’re all an extension of Coach Eddie Robinson,” Williams said. “He lives on through each of us. We are part of what Coach Robinson was, and what he will always be.”

Quiet sorrow turned to open grieving as the casket was opened.

A trio of state troopers presented the colors --- the United States, Louisiana and Grambling flags --- and placed them behind Robinson. Wreaths from the university and the state were also placed by former players, including Adolph Byrd, a tackle on Robinson’s first 1940s teams.

Robinson’s family sat at the feet of the former coach, while his ex-players lined up again to pass a football, hand to hand, from the back of the group to the waiting hands of Williams --- who held the ball aloft before handing it to Doris and son Eddie Robinson Jr. They then placed it in the casket with Robinson.

Robinson Jr. stood behind the GSU flag as more tributes followed, including a powerful speech by Williams, famous even now for his 1988 Super Bowl MVP performance.

“This is such a showing of support for what he did,” said Robinson Jr. “Just to know that so many people admired him, it’s an honor for the whole family.”

Personal touches surrounded the casket, including a painting by Ruston artist Reggie McLeroy, previously hanging in the Robinson family living room.

Next to it was a new creation by McLeroy that featured the former coach, wearing his familiar red suspenders and carrying his briefcase, walking across a football field. A shimmering image of Robinson rises in the clouds above.

“It’s a testament to him, when you get this kind of representation,” said Michael Haynes, a late 1970s-era defensive back. “He was charismatic. I will say this, the world lost a great one -- and heaven has truly gotten better.”

The team event’s finale included an emotional singing of the Grambling alma mater, and several players were overcome -- including Williams, who had to briefly leave the hall.

That somber moment turned to celebration with the Tiger Marching Band’s segue into the GSU fight song. Players and family members alike, tears still in their eyes, suddenly filled the Memorial Hall with ringing joy.

“This isn’t just what he taught us about football,” said Darrius Matthews, a defender on Robinson’s final black college national championship team in 1992. “It was about what he taught us about life.”

The players poured out on the capitol steps once more, where team mates from every decade gathered for what quickly became raucous group photos.

More than one player, when there was an unexpected hitch in the proceedings, reused Robinson’s well-worn practice mantra: “Run it again!”

Melvin Lee, a 1950s-era player for Robinson, later coached alongside him for 40 seasons. He ended up in nearly every photo.

“To see people come back and pay tribute to Coach Robinson like this, it’s sad but great at the same time,” said Lee, who still lives in Grambling. “It’s great to share stories and relive the memories.”

Henry Dyer, a running back for Robinson in the early 1960s, stepped out to take his own picture of former teammates.

“It was a great day for a great man,” Dyer said. “It was a celebration of a great life.”

Even as the band filed past the players on the capitol steps, a group of well wishers and fans had begun lining up for the public viewing of Robinson that followed. Back inside, many gathered around an exhibit of memorabilia, including a series of photos taken by James Terry.

Robinson’s casket remained under the towering brass doors that lead to the Senate until 4:30 p.m., when his body was moved into the House chambers for a memorial service. More than 3,000 passed in the first few hours of viewing.

Players lingered for a while, reminiscing about their time with Robinson and sharing tall tales.

“There’s a million words you can say,” said Larry Metevia, a center for Robinson in the early 1960s. “But, mostly, I’d like to say: Thank you.”

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Outpouring overwhelms busy Williams
April 10, 2006

By Nick Deriso
BATON ROUGE — Former Grambling standout Doug Williams stood in the Louisiana House chamber and took stock of a powerful day.

He had spent the balance of Monday in the towering Memorial Hall that connects this room with the state Senate, overseeing the public memorial to his late college coach, Eddie Robinson.

More than 1,000 people an hour had entered the Capitol for the public viewing of Robinson, who died April 3 at 88 from complications related to Alzheimer's disease.

Williams was overwhelmed.

"I can honestly say that today we've had some heavy hearts, but it was a great day," Williams told the packed House chamber. "So many people passed by, took pictures, shook hands. We saw parents bringing kids — and the only way they are going to know who Eddie Robinson is, what Eddie Robinson was, and what he will always be, is if we tell them."

Williams appeared as part of a Monday night memorial service that featured Gov. Kathleen Blanco as the keynote speaker. State Sen. Bob Kostelka R-Monroe, and state Rep. Rick Gallot, D-Grambling, two area legislators, were also featured — along with state Sen. Charles Jones D-Monroe of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Guests included LSU coach Les Miles, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, former Alcorn State and Southern University administrator Marino Casem, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and former GSU coach Melvin Spears, among others.

Blanco presented Doris, Eddie Robinson's wife of more than 65 years, the American flag that had flown over the Capitol building on Monday.

Williams began the day overseeing a private event for players. More than 100 former teammates shared the duty of carrying Robinson up the steps and into the Capitol's Memorial Hall earlier that morning.

"To see so many former players come and pay tribute to Coach Robinson made me feel good," Williams said. "Only Eddie Robinson could have done what happened today."

Williams immediately followed Jones, who had given an animated tribute sprinkled with poetic verse and snippets of Shakespeare.

But Williams, still flush from that morning event, said he remained undaunted — even if he couldn't match the poetry of Jones' speech.

"Ordinarily, I would want to wave the white flag, coming in after Senator Jones," Williams said. "But I was fortunate to be coached by Eddie Robinson, and he said if you are going to lose, lose trying to win."

Williams played quarterback for Robinson from 1974-77 before an NFL career that included Super Bowl MVP honors in 1988. He then succeeded Robinson as coach at Grambling, winning a trio of league championships between 2000-02.

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It's time
April 09, 2007

By Nick Deriso
It's been eight years since the Legislature approved the idea of a state-run Eddie Robinson Museum. There's still no museum.

For all that time, the mantra amongst the organizers was getting it done before Robinson passed. That day has come, and gone.

There's still no museum.

But those who believe in the project think the museum could gain new life in the aftermath of Robinson's death, that some glimmer of hope might emerge from the grief over losing an American hero.

Doris Robinson, the late coach's wife of more than 65 years, is one of those people. (She was the one who asked the information on donating to the museum be distributed during today's memorial in Baton Rouge.) So is Doug Williams, Robinson's most visible protege this week.

"It's unfortunate that it took his going home for so many people to know what we already knew about Eddie Robinson," Williams said. "He was more than a football coach. He was more than 408 wins and 200 guys in the NFL. He was a great American."

I don't know why Robinson had to pass for us to get to that place, even though I'm glad that it might be possible.

After all, Robinson didn't send any more players to the NFL this week. He didn't win a 409th time. All that happened long ago.

It's time. Time for the university to sign off on the space. Time for the alumni to gather itself in mighty support. Time for this thing to happen.

There's still no museum. And that's a shocking rebuke to everything that is happening around Robinson right now. All of these tributes mean nothing if there isn't action to back up the sentiment.

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'His spirit will be with us'
Thousands come to Grambling to say goodbye to Eddie Robinson
April 12, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — They talked about the son of a sharecropper who rose to national fame, about a racial pioneer who refused to let the country's inequities dim his passion, about a football coach who cared more about people than games.

Services for Eddie G. Robinson, who had a 57-season tenure at Grambling, were Wednesday. He died April 3 at age 88 from complications related to Alzheimer's.

"Let's grieve and let's celebrate," said Willie Davis, a key member of Grambling State University's undefeated 1955 team before joining the legendary Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s. "But let's walk away feeling better because he touched our lives."

The crowd, which numbered in the thousands, included scores of former Grambling players like Davis. Several of them spoke during the event, including Pro Football Hall of Famers Willie Brown, Davis and Charlie Joiner; former Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams; and James "Shack" Harris, one of the NFL's highest ranking black executives.

Davis admitted that Robinson's very constancy made his passing seem impossible.

"You can never prepare for an occasion of this type," said Davis, who later became a business leader in California. "We are witnessing a legend passing on, but his spirit will be with us forever."

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu announced a proclamation recognizing Robinson's accomplishments and presented the former coach's family with a flag that flew over the Senate during the body's deliberations.

Wednesday's event included comments from GSU President Horace Judson; Secretary of State Jay Dardenne; Grambling Mayor Martha Andrus; Robinson biographer Richard Lapchick; civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and former Grambling president Joseph Johnson and Shreveport pastor E.E. Jones, both of whom also played for Robinson.

"As we say goodbye to Coach Robinson, I know God is saying hello," said Joiner, now an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Williams revealed that he and Brown — an assistant with the Oakland Raiders, where he played pro ball — had a side bet on who would cry first. Williams won, but only because he spoke last.

"I loved the man," Brown said, then moved away from the podium to compose himself. He pointed at Williams and nodded, before continuing.

Brown said he had been overcome when his gaze fell on Doris, Eddie Robinson's wife of more than 65 years.

"Thank you for letting Coach Robinson be a part of our lives," Brown told Doris Robinson, finally.

Williams cut his own message short as he again was brought to the verge of tears.

"Coach used to say that the first to cry was a sissy," Williams said. "I've been a sissy all week."

Harris, a Monroe native, brought the crowd out of its solemn mood by remembering some of Robinson's best-known lines, comments that many of the players around him then echoed word for word.

"Coach always said he wanted a piece of us," Harris said. "Today we are all better for having a piece of him."

The Robinson family had asked that donations be made to the long-delayed Eddie Robinson Museum effort in lieu of flowers.

"I stayed with him until the last," said Wilbert Ellis, a close friend and former GSU baseball coach, as he too fought back emotion. "He was a great man, who stood for great things. He loved dear old Grambling."

Robinson's memorial was the first event to be held at Grambling's newly constructed Assembly Center, a project first envisioned when Johnson was president of the school in the late 1970s. Flags in front of the new building flew at half-staff in honor of Robinson.

"This facility will forever be a special place," said Judson, "a consecrated place."

Robinson family friend George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, couldn't attend, but sent a representative in his place. Singer Mary Griffin, a Grambling product, performed, as did the GSU choir and its Tiger Marching Band.

The services ended with Eddie Robinson IV, the former coach's great-grandchild, re-enacting one of Robinson's signature morning rituals — ringing the bell to wake his players for school.

Jackson's thoughts
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson called the late Grambling coach Eddie Robinson a national treasure, saying his legacy of commitment would remain an important lesson to every American.
"I say to (former Grambling players) James (Harris) and Doug (Williams), you don't have a monopoly on Coach," Jackson said. "He was everybody's coach."

Jackson was added to the list of speakers when he made a surprise appearance Wednesday to honor Robinson, who established a Division I college football record for wins in a career that spanned 11 presidents and several wars between 1941-1997.

Jackson went on to connect Robinson's accomplishments in breaking through racial barriers with heroes from biblical times as well as the decade of the 1960s that produced Jackson's mentor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In closing crescendo, he led the crowd in a rousing cheer for Robinson: "Put your hands together like Grambling is playing Southern!" Jackson exhorted.

He then knelt before Doris, Eddie Robinson's wife of 65 years, and son Eddie Jr. and spoke privately with the family.

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A break in the clouds
April 12, 2007

By Nick Deriso
As somber and quietly sorrowful as the Monday memorial for Coach Robinson had been in the state capitol, his final services back in Grambling were a consistent celebration.

Maybe it was an air of reunion that surrounding the school's new assembly hall, as generations -- literally -- of former Robinson players gathered, many for the first time since graduating.

Maybe it was because that earlier day in Baton Rouge had been so reverential.

The campus gathering was typified by comments like those of longtime Grambling trainer Eugene "Doc" Harvey, who had worked with Robinson for 32 years. He certainly mourned the passing of this giant, but there was a good bit more joy in the remembering.

"When we awoke today, it was clouded up," Harvey said on Wednesday, "and on days like that (when Eugene and Robinson worked together with the team), sometimes we would be slow going to the stadium to dress. Coach Robinson never understood that. He'd say: 'Why are you guys not dressed? It's not going to rain in Grambling!'"

Robinson, the enternal optimist, had given his old friend one last boost.

"I thought about that today, when the sun came out just before the service," Harvey said, moments before Robinson's casket was closed for a final time and the memorial began.

"He was a great, great man," Harvey added, then paused. "A great man."

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