Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Recruiting: South side of Monroe has been a Grambling talent pipeline

Grambling's great provider
South side of Monroe has been talent pipeline
February 6, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - James Harris grew up right around the corner from Sammy White.

Who lived down the way from Lane Howell. Who lived near a street that would eventually produce a flinty talent named Brandon Landers.

Who shares a zip code with Desmond Lenard.

The south side of Monroe sent them all to Grambling State, in an unbroken storyline that continued through last week's National Signing Day.

"I grew up in that neighborhood," said Sammy White, a Richwood product who played and now coaches at GSU as offensive coordinator. "It gives me great joy to see where these guys progress and how they move along."

In 1965, a Carroll High product was quarterback at Grambling. Forty years later, Landers is likely to follow Harris into the role.

White was a star wingback for former GSU coach Eddie Robinson - after winning both football and basketball titles at Richwood in the early 1970s. Lenard, Carroll's wingback last season, committed to Grambling after earning All-Northeast honors as a kick returner.

Derrick Wilhite, a 2006 signee out of Wossman, contributes to a legacy that includes ex-Wildcats assistant Lee Fobbs, a former player under Robinson, and current defensive back Bakari Guice.

"There's no question that the south side of Monroe has added to that Grambling mystique," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "From the Howells to James Harris to Goldie Sellers and on down to Brandon Landers - our freshman sensation in '04."

Landers shot to conference freshman of the year honors in relief of injured quarterback Bruce Eugene, then redshirted last year when Eugene returned for a final season of eligibility.

"I think this is a good place for finding highly skilled athletes - and that's true at many inner-city schools," said Carroll coach Jesse Smith Sr., who is also a Grambling product.

"There is a lot of talent in this area. I think that through the years, we've proven that."

Carroll's connection to GSU goes deeper than the head coach.

Back in 2001, current Bulldogs assistant Levi Washington Jr. led all receivers in yards as Grambling won the second of three straight SWAC titles. The team uses an offense patterned on GSU's, as well.

So, it's perhaps no surprise that Carroll split end Jesse Smith Jr. joined Lenard in signing with Grambling last week - along with teammates Derrick Johnson and Xavier Lee, both of whom play linebacker.

In the end, though, all three of the southside schools - notably Richwood and, more recently, Wossman - have been an important thread through the tapestry of Grambling's football legacy.

"It's great coming from that tradition," said Landers. "I'd like to have that same impact - not only as a player, but as an individual."

Harris, perhaps the south side's most legendary product, led Grambling to 31-9-1 record between 1965-68, winning a conference title every single year. He was voted the team's most valuable player his final two seasons.

But Landers reminds, Harris' most important contribution came after he left Grambling.

Harris would become the first black athlete to be drafted as a quarterback. His NFL career - which included stops in Buffalo, Los Angeles and San Diego - was capped by an MVP performance in the 1974 Pro Bowl.

Harris later moved into even more rarified air, working in the front offices of Baltimore and currently Jacksonville as one of the NFL's highest ranking black executives.

Smith said Grambling provided a platform in that journey, and for the scores of southside youths who followed him.

"Anytime you've got a kid who goes on and does well, that's an example that you can stir these kids with," said Smith. "It makes them understand that you can dream and it can happen."

Carroll's Lane Howell, a two-way lineman for Robinson, was the first of three brothers to star at Grambling, beginning in 1960. Michael, a cornerback nicknamed "Trackdown," followed two seasons later. Delles, another defensive back, would arrive seven seasons later - but by then the family had moved to California.

Grambling won its first Southwestern Athletic Conference title with Lane up front, establishing a 23-5-2 mark between 1960-62. Michael's 1964 squad went 9-3, winning the Sugar Cup over Bishop before falling in the Orange Blossom Classic.

One of Michael's teammates that season was cornerback Goldie "Spider" Sellers, a Winnsboro native who eventually moved to the south side and played for Richwood.

In 2004, White joined Harris in the SWAC Hall of Fame, recognition for a career that included three conference championships and co-offensive player of the year honors in 1975 at Grambling.

"It was passed down to me," said White, later an NFL rookie of the year at Minnesota. "James Harris and Delles took me to a Grambling basketball game when I was in junior high. I was always around it. There were other places I could have played, but this was the only place I was ever going."

Quarterback Matthew Reed, born in Winnfield, would prove so dominant at Richwood that he once threw nine touchdowns in a single game. Later, he was named Grambling's MVP as a junior, then made All-America as a senior in the early 1970s.

White grew up idolizing Amos Augustine and Charlie "Tank" Smith at Richwood, then played after them at Grambling. Between 1968-71, former Carroll guard Solomon Freelon Jr. protected Harris, Reed and Frank Holmes.

White says many of those greats called a neighborhood known as Bryant's Addition home. He still scouts for talent there, giving another generation the Grambling road map out of one of the area's most impoverished communities.

"The thing about it is, we thought we were pretty good - and these guys could be that too," said White. "It's all about hard work."

Landers, for his part, says he can't account for the staggering impact such a small geographic area has had on Grambling. But, when he's home, he sees the next group working to get there.

"If you ride around, you see little kids out playing in empty lots and at the rec centers - and that's year-round," said Landers. "They're playing everything too, just like we did. Football, basketball, baseball. With small schools, you've got guys going both ways, playing all sports. That makes you better. Who knows? One of those kids could follow me someday."

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