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To Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, football was more about molding men than winning

The famed coach would be 100 years old today

Edward Gay Robinson would have been 100 years old Wednesday.

The only child of a sharecropper and a domestic servant, he was born in Jackson, Louisiana, 13 days after Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, another American icon who helped change the face of our nation. While Jackie operated on the national stage, Eddie worked in the universe of black college football, where he served as head football coach for an incredible 56 years. He played quarterback at Leland College in Baker, Louisiana. As soon as he graduated in 1941, he became the school’s head football coach. Leland was renamed Grambling in 1946.

Robinson died in April 2007, but James Harris, the pioneering NFL quarterback and executive, said he thinks of his former coach all the time. “Coach Robinson is the most unique individual that I’ve ever met,” Harris said recently. “He was a rare character in terms of personality — he was a true gentleman.”

“I have to sell my players on the idea that they’re as much Americans as other people and that they have to compete.” — Eddie Robinson

Harris added: “There are some things he’s instilled in you, tools that you carry with you in football and in life that he instilled in all of us.”

Robinson was an English major. Outside of practice, he wore suits, shirts and ties. He knew the importance of education and stressed to players that long after their physical skills eroded, education would be their salvation.

“It’s fashionable today for coaches to talk about the players as student-athletes. He was concerned about it,” Harris said.

Harris was being recruited by Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana, although he doubts he would have been allowed to play quarterback because of his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame. During a recruiting visit to Harris’ home in Monroe, Louisiana, Robinson told Harris’ mother that if she allowed her son to go to Grambling, “I will coach him like my very own. He will get a college degree. He’ll go to church on Sunday and he’ll make a difference in society.”

Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969 and became the first African-American to start the regular season at quarterback. During that rough first season, Harris, who had never played with white players much less led them into competition, spoke with Robinson nearly every day. Robinson provided a sounding board but made it clear to Harris that he was expected to succeed or fail without excuses.

Robinson instilled in his players the idea that they would have to be twice as good as the competition. When Harris considered not reporting to camp because he was drafted so low — he was an eighth-round selection in the 1969 draft — Robinson told him that he had to go for the sake of young black quarterbacks behind him. He also told Harris that if for some reason he didn’t make it, “Don’t come back and say you didn’t make it because you were black.”

“We had to be prepared to deal with life and not make excuses. We were going to have to be better,” Harris said.

Harris completed a 10-year NFL playing career in 1979, then worked in the NFL as a front-office executive for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens.

A legacy across generations

Eddie Robinson was Every Coach. He was Bill Belichick. He was Nick Saban. The stages were different, but the hard work and dedication were the same.

His legacy is reflected in the deeds and accomplishments of players we all know, players such as Harris and Doug Williams. But there are thousands of lives he touched whose names we’ll never know.

Robinson retired in 1997. During his tenure as head coach, Grambling produced more than 200 professional football players. In 1949, Paul (Tank) Younger became the first player from a predominantly black college to play in the NFL. Four of Robinson’s former players are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Robinson’s record of 408-165-15 is the third-best record among college football coaches.

Williams, who played for Grambling, became the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He now works in the front office of the Washington pro football team.

“He built his name on football for winning football games and having some of the great players. But what’s equally impressive is that he had thousands of other players who went on to coach in Louisiana, teach, go into business, be successful and make a difference in society.”

‘How else can you judge me except by what I accomplish?’

The first football game of my college career at Morgan State University was against Robinson’s Tigers at Yankee Stadium in September 1968. We won that game but lost badly in the next three. Robinson and I got to know one another better as I progressed in my career as a journalist. While Robinson never was my coach, I considered him a mentor.

Robinson was fiercely patriotic and believed in the American dream. I once asked why he stayed at Grambling so long. He received offers from other programs but chose to stay put.

“Nobody could out-America coach,” Williams told me during a recent phone interview. Williams came to Grambling four years after Harris.

In 1988, he became the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl championship.

“He always told us ‘This is your country—take advantage of it. You can be anything you want, you can do what you want. This is your country.'”

“The main reason,” Robinson once told me, “is that I’ve never been made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I like it here, that’s basically it. I’ve been able to coach great athletes and work at a pace I like to work at.”

One of my most memorable conversations with Robinson came in 1985 when he was about to break Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s record for football victories. I asked Robinson why he decided to take on larger programs with deeper pockets that relied on the type of black athletes who once were his sole domain.

“I have to sell my players on the idea that they’re as much Americans as other people and that they have to compete,” Robinson said at the time.

He often told me, too, that African-Americans seemed too content to sit in the reviewing stand instead of marching in the parade.

“It took me a long time to believe that it was as much my flag as anyone else’s. … At some point, you have to put it in your mind that it’s as much yours as anyone else’s, provided you pay the price,” said Robinson.

That conversation stuck, as well as what he said about forgiveness. He said he held no grudges and carried no chip on his shoulder. “You can’t unring a bell,” he said.

“I played as long as I could play, whenever I could play, and as hard as I could play. How else can you judge me except by what I accomplish?”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.