Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

November 13, 2013

When the Sons of Eddie Break Through the Line

Sam Freedman's new book revisits the incredible 1967 football season when the players and coaches of Florida A&M and Grambling battled for supremacy on the football field and equality off of it.

Matthew Goldenberg

Over the last couple of football seasons, Florida A&M and Grambling have both made national headlines, though not the kind that either of these tradition-rich, historically black universities would want. The hazing death of a member of the famed FAMU band resulted in a year-long ban for The Marching 100. Grambling, meanwhile, has won just two games over the past two years, and players recently boycotted a game in protest of inadequate training facilities, unsanitary equipment, and long bus travel.

Sam Freedman. Photo by Sara Barrett
"Making a black quarterback for the NFL ... meant shattering the worst racist stereotypes about blacks."

Sam Freedman. Photo by Sara Barrett

Before their recent struggles, both institutions had seen much brighter days. In his new book Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, Columbia journalism professor Sam Freedman tells of the 1967 season that culminated in the Orange Blossom Classic (the black college championship game) pitting the FAMU Rattlers against the Grambling Tigers. More than a simple recap of two excellent teams coached by two legendary coaches, Breaking the Line is the story of a tumultuous era for college sports, on university campuses and in society as a whole.

In the following interview, edited for clarity, Gelf Magazine caught up with Freedman to talk about his book, football at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) then and now, and the intersection of football and race in American history.

Gelf Magazine: How did you, as a journalism professor at an Ivy League school, come to write a book about Civil Rights-era football at historically black colleges?

Sam Freedman: I've been a diehard football fan all my life, ever since I sat with my father watching the "Allie Sherman Show" on TV when Sherman was the Giants' coach. So I'd wanted to write at least one of my books about football. But I wanted it to be about more than football alone. As much as I love the game, my goal was to look at how football intersected with larger social or political issues. As I thought about football and race, or football and civil rights, that quickly brought me to the HBCUs. From my knowledge of the Civil Rights movement, I knew how important a role the black colleges played in the movement. And as a football fan (age 58), I'd known of Grambling and Eddie Robinson ever since I stumbled onto the Jerry Izenberg documentary Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory as a 12 year old. I also had a vaguer sense, but at least some sense, of Jake Gaither and FAMU. One of my previous books, Upon This Rock, dealt with a black church and its minister. And that pastor, Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, had gone to Dillard, so I heard a lot about the HBCU world from him. The question was whether the Civil Rights strand of the narrative and the football strand of the narrative would come together. And in the 1967 season, I found that they did.

Gelf Magazine: Your book tells the story of two coaches—Grambling's Eddie Robinson and Florida A&M's Jake Gaither. Their lack of civil rights activism came under criticism, particularly from more radical campus elements during the 1960s. No doubt history judges them as great coaches, but what is history's verdict in terms of moral leadership—could or should they have done more?

Sam Freedman: I think history will judge them positively. In the heat of the moment, they looked too removed from the struggle. But as I came to see through my research, they ultimately did things very directly—developing the first black quarterback for the NFL, arranging the first black-white college game in the South—that were huge landmarks, not just for sports but for Civil Rights societally. Making a black quarterback for the NFL was all about proving black intelligence, leadership, grace under pressure; it meant shattering the worst racist stereotypes about blacks. And the FAMU-Tampa game was probably the largest mass act of desegregation up to that point in the history of the South.

Gelf Magazine: Football is undoubtedly one of the most important cultural institutions in the South. But so was segregation. And some argue that Southerners' desire to remain competitive with integrated teams was a driving force for desegregation. How do you react to the idea that black USC running back Sam Cunningham did more for integration in 60 minutes (during a 42-21 defeat of Alabama at Legion Field) than Martin Luther King did in 20 years?

Sam Freedman: I agree that football is hugely important in the South, and that's why schools like Alabama kept their teams all-white for years after they were forced by federal courts and troops to admit at least a few black students. Football prowess was seen as evidence of white supremacy. So, yes, the USC rout of Bama played a big role. But let's not forget that a year earlier than that game was the FAMU-Tampa game—which had been set up by a black coach, Jake Gaither. While it didn't get on national TV, it was closely followed in the South as both a football game and a cultural crossroads.

Gelf Magazine: Who would you have rather played for, Gaither or Robinson?

Sam Freedman: That's an impossibly difficult question. Both coaches treated their players with respect and decency—and also were perfectionists who drove them hard. If I absolutely had to choose, I'd probably say Gaither because of his tremendously innovative mind.

Gelf Magazine: As an Alabama fan, I remember when Eddie Robinson broke Bear Bryant's all-time wins record. What made Robinson so successful?

Sam Freedman: Robinson, as I said, was a perfectionist. He was very similar to Vince Lombardi in that he ran a fairly limited playbook but insisted on utterly flawless execution. He also had very intimidating defenses, stocked with players like Ernie Ladd and Buck Buchanan. And he imbued his players with a sense that they should never lose.

Gelf Magazine: Jake Gaither was notably wary of integration. You write, "Integration was the solvent for dissolving every institution black people had created for themselves." Was he right? What has been lost as a result of this dissolution?

Sam Freedman: Jake Gaither, and also Eddie Robinson, feared that when black athletes were recruited by mostly white schools, they wouldn't be encouraged to be students, too. They'd just be jocks to be used and discarded. Sadly, they were largely right. While some schools like Stanford, Notre Dame and Alabama have good academic records with black athletes, the overall numbers are poor. And while black coaches and executives have thrived in the NFL, there are still way too few in top NCAA schools. Also, not surprisingly, the top black football players have gone to SEC or Big 12 or ACC schools instead of the HBCUs, so the quality of HBCU football has suffered. But the HBCUs are cherished by black Americans as a vital part of African-American culture and heritage. They haven't disappeared, despite the obstacles.

Gelf Magazine: You start your book by describing the Super Bowl matchup between the Colts under Tony Dungy and the Bears under Lovie Smith. While a notable moment, neither is still an NFL head coach, and there are very few black head coaches currently in the NFL (3 of 32) or college's bowl subdivision (12 of 125). Why do you think this is and what, if anything, could or should be done to address the shortage?

Sam Freedman: The number in the NFL is low right now, but in many recent seasons there have been was many as six or seven or eight black head coaches. And there are successful black GM's like Ozzie Newsome, Jerry Reese, and Martin Mayhew. The last seven Super Bowls have had a black coach and/or GM. And the NFL has a successful affirmative action plan, the so-called Rooney Rule. The problem is at the college level, as your stats show. The power of alumni, boosters, and regional norms have made progress there much slower than it should be.

Gelf Magazine: At Grambling, the football program has fallen on hard times—the team has won one game in each of the last two years, fired both the head coach and then the interim head coach this season, and the players recently boycotted a game amid complaints about mildewed equipment and extremely long bus trips to away games. Is this a sign that HBCU football is no longer relevant?

Sam Freedman: No, it's a valiant sign by the Grambling players that they were willing to take huge risks in order to call attention to deficient state funding for higher ed. What they experienced—poor facilities, long bus rides—was the athletics part of an overall financial crisis as state aid to Grambling has fallen by more than half since 2007. They are the heirs to the idealistic student protesters at Grambling in 1967, who also used football's visibility to call attention to educational inequality. I think this year’s Grambling players are champs.

Matthew Goldenberg

Matthew Goldenberg is a practicing psychiatrist in New Haven, CT.

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Article by Matthew Goldenberg

Matthew Goldenberg is a practicing psychiatrist in New Haven, CT.

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