Monday, June 20, 2011

The story behind the biography of Eddie Robinson

Before undertaking the only biography thus far of historic African American college football coach and role model Eddie Robinson (Eddie Robinson " . . .  he was the Martin Luther King of football"), I decided to go to school.

Literally and figuratively.

It's not that I wasn't already an experienced professional.  I'd won awards as a reporters and columnist during a 43-year newspaper career; had written three books, and had edited and produced four others; and had written for several magazines.

But I had never even attempted a biography.  And I had never dealt with the history that provides the context for a person's life story.

So I enrolled in a course in the University of Denver's University College Enrichment Program that dealt with writing narrative history - the reference text for the class was David McCullough's 1776, and a lecture by McCullough himself was the final session.  After learning by listening to McCullough discuss his work for more than an hour -- without notes, I searched for books on biography and life writing.

I have always been a great fan of William Zinsser's On Writing Well.  When I found that he had published Writing About Your Life, A Journey into the Past, I was certain that his view on capturing life events would be very instructive, even though he was writing from the perspective of relating one's own experiences.

Indeed, Zinsser's appreciation for unique details to bring dimension and color to personal experiences applies equally to the small elements that enrich the telling of a moment from any life.

Even more pivotal in my "training" in the art of biography, though, was a fabulous little (5 1/2 by 7 inches) book by the noted biographer Nigel Hamilton, called How To Do Biography - A Primer.

I recommend it not only to those interested in writing a biography, but also to anyone who enjoys reading biographies, because Hamilton's explanation of what should go into a biography also tells readers what to expect and how to judge/appreciate a biographical work.  If I were in a reading group, this would be my nomination for our next title, followed by a biography (Eddie Robinson, of course).

I read all 346 pages of Hamilton's primer twice, highlighting passages the second time through. And then I typed those highlighted excerpts into my own abstract, to which I referred throughout my work on Eddie Robinson " . . .  he was the Martin Luther King of football."

"The intrinsic aim of biography," Hamilton wrote in what I treated as his guiding principle, " . . . (is) to penetrate the moral core of a life, to interpret it -- and thereby not only learn the facts and information, but also acquire insight and lessons that could be serviceable in one's own life, either as warnings or inspiration. . . . Ultimately, the reader wants to know the meaning of that life, what it amounted to . . . "

Hamilton is the author of many acclaimed biographies, but his three-volume life of British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery is perhaps his most recognized achievement. A reference to that masterwork in How To Do Biography shaped my approach to telling Eddie Robinson's life story.

"I realized," wrote Hamilton, "that I was not only writing Montgomery's life story, but contributing to the military history of World War II in Europe and the Mediterranean . . . "

That statement inspired me to do all that I could to incorporate the history of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement into the chronicle of Eddie Robinson's remarkable and historic accomplishments and contributions.

I am pleased to say that the book has been cited for excellence in both biography and in historical non-fiction. Though I would never equate this book to any of Nigel Hamilton's biographies, the dual recognition at least suggests to me that I was able to execute his written general guidance with some degree of success.

I'm also proud that the book is the basis for a K-12 character education curriculum developed by the State of Louisiana, and that it will be included in a list of recommended reading for a Leadership n Sport class to be taught this summer and fall and the University of Kansas.

I hope you enjoy reading the story of a great American who transcended college athletics and racial prejudice.  I welcome your comments here, or you also can email me at

Monday, May 23, 2011

Discovery on the Heroes and Heritage Trail

The trademark red clay along the side of Interstate 20, which darts across the top of the Louisiana boot from Shreveport to Jackson, Mississippi, was dusted white with a rare light snowfall on the second weekend of February, 2010.

Above that odd sight, a newly installed sign not only informed passersby that Exit 81 leads to Grambling State University but also announced the Pelican State’s two newest tourism attractions: the Eddie G. Robinson Museum and the Heroes and Heritage Trail.

A unique conceptual network of historic attractions, the Heroes and Heritage Trail winds its way from the fishing hamlet of Lafitte, 24 miles below New Orleans at the southern end of Louisiana Highway 45, to equally small Oil City in the far northwest corner on Louisiana Highway 1, about four miles east of Texas and less than 20 miles south of Arkansas.

The route, ties together 16 local museums that were largely hidden gems for many years.  It was conceived by then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne as a way to promote them absent tourism marketing funds. Elected Louisiana Lieutenant Governor in November, 2010, Dardenne unveiled the idea at the dedication of the long-awaited Robinson Museum, originally proposed more than a decade ago, on February 13 – the late coach’s birthday.

To encourage vacationers to embrace the Trail, Dardenne’s office came up with a game called Passport to Adventure.  It promises the “Ghost of the Castle” Sleepover, an overnight stay at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, and a VIP tour of the site to those who visit at least 11 sites along the Heroes and Heritage Trail. 

While each museum is a destination in itself, the Heroes and Heritage Trail makes it easy to visit small groups of them in a series of driving trips.  And because the museums are funded and operated by state government, admission is free!

Many of the museums feature famous (and sometimes infamous) figures from Louisiana history – from notorious pirate and smuggler Jean Lafitte to colorful politicians, war heroes and celebrities. But only one focuses entirely on a single individual’s life and career, his achievements and contributions.

Eddie Robinson coached football at Grambling – and developed educated and disciplined contributors to society under Jim Crow and amid the tumult and aftermath of the civil rights movement – for 57 years. From 1941 to 1997 his teams won 408 games – the most of any college coach at any level through his retirement at age 78 – and his players achieved a level of renown that made Grambling, during those years, the “black Notre Dame” when it came to producing pro stars. 

The amazing career and remarkable life of the most significant black coach in the history of American collegiate athletics are impressively preserved with Hall-of-Fame-caliber presentations at the Eddie G. Robinson Museum. It is located in a renovated early campus building where “Coach Rob” also coached basketball for 13 years – winning 288 games and developing national scoring champion Robert Hopkins.

At other stops along the Trail:

-- The Delta Music Museum and Arcade Theater in Ferriday tells the story of three famous cousins – piano-pounding early rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, country icon Mickey Gilley and television evangelist Jimmy Swaggert – and documents the role of the Mississippi River in nurturing the distinct sounds of Southern music, from gospel to country to blues.

-- Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Monroe – named for Gen. Claire Chennault, daring leader of the famed Flying Tigers in the Pacific Theater of World War II – preserves the history of Selman Air Field (now Monroe Regional Airport), where more than 15,000 American navigators were trained and Delta Airlines later was born.

-- The Louisiana State Cotton Museum in Lake Providence features an extensive array of interpretive exhibits, including life-size dioramas, farming equipment, a re-created “juke joint”  (a community room for slaves on a plantation), and more. All are packed into a replica gin house along with authentic plantation buildings, including a sharecropper’s cabin.

-- The Mansfield Female College Museum, 45 minutes south of Shreveport, exhibits the artifacts and memorabilia of the pioneering young women who attended the first female college west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1855, Mansfield Female College was closed during the War Between The States and its buildings used as a hospital for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Mansfield.

-- The Jean Lafitte Marine Fisheries Museum near Bayou Barataria is dedicated to both the legendary Jean Lafitte and the fishing industry that developed along the little strip of land bordered by swamp on one side and open water on the other after his demise in the early 1800s.   While there, adventurous visitors often sign up for a swamp tour by airboat.

A detailed description of each museum, and the rules of the Passport to Adventure game, can be downloaded using the following link: 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Recalling and Living Up To the Great Example of 'Coach Rob'

When the coach, an assistant at South Carolina State, approached me at my book booth at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Dallas, I knew immediately that he, as others before him, wanted me to sign his copy of Eddie Robinson " . . . he was the Martin Luther King of football."

And as I did with everyone who came to me with a copy of my biography of the legendary Grambling coach, I asked: "Did you know Coach Rob?"

"I sure did," the man answered enthusiastically.  "I carried his briefcase for him one time at this convention."

I, of course, wanted to know more.  As I signed his book, he told me the following story:

"I came here one year with a friend, another coach, and we met Coach Rob in the lobby.  He didn't know us, but when we said hello to him, he stopped to talk with us.  Coach Rob would always take the time to talk with a stranger and make him feel good.

"He said to us, 'I've got some advice for you two. A lot of guys, especially the young guys, come to this convention to drink beer and have a good time. My advice is, don't ever leave this convention without learning something.'

"We nodded, but he wasn't finished. He said, 'Like now. There's a session coming up on how to play againsgt the option. We've got two teams on our schedule next season that run the option. So that's where I'm going right now. Where else can I learn how to defense the option?'

"Then he said, 'You guys want to go with me?' I looked a my friend, and said, 'Yes!'

"Coach Rob said, 'Good. You can carry my briefcase for me.'"

That briefcase was one of Eddie Robinson's trademarks. In my book, I wrote about him carrying it to practice daily, and quoted Jackson State's W.C. Gorden relating his reaction the first time he saw Coach Rob walk to the opposing sideline carrying it.

"When we would make our game plan, as defensive coaches, we'd have one page, front and back," Gorden said.  "Eddie had a briefcase! I wondered, 'What's in this briefcase that he can thumb through to help him make adjustments during the game?' I thought he possibly had our coaching history -- how we coached and how we thought, that sort of thing."

All biographers strive to capture their subjects as the persons they were, and, if honest about their innermost feelings, pray they have presented an accurate and complete portrait. On those serendipitous occasions when a depiction is confirmed, the feeling is one of intense satisfaction.

The visitors who had their Eddie Robinson books signed at the 88th AFCA Convention provided just such validation for me. In their words, they sketched a likeness consistent with the one I pieced together from 40 interviews and extensive research.

"Did you know Coach Rob?" I asked repeatedly, knowing he had attended more than 50 of the annual meetings.

"I heard him speak once, and I decided right then that I wanted to be a coach the rest of my life," said one.

"I sure did," answered another. "He once had an ice cream cone with me."

"One time," recalled a third, "I took a flight from Colorado all the way to North Carolina, just so I could hear him speak. It was worth the trip."

Echoing AFCA executive director Grant Teaff, several coaches recalled: "He was always in the front row at the sessions, asking questions."

Jack Lengyel, perhaps best known as the coach who took over what little was left of the Marshall University football program following the tragic plane crash that killed 75 players and coaches in 1970, also stopped by and offered a personal recollection of Coach Rob.

"He was everybody's friend," Jack said. "I remember at one convention we went into a restaurant together, and were sitting at a table by a window.  A policeman walked past outside, and glanced in the window. He recognized Coach Rob and started pointing and waving to him.

"Coach Rob didn't know the man, but he motioned for him to come in. And when that policeman came in, Eddie invited him to sit down with us and have a cup of coffee. The guy couldn't believe it, but that's just how Coach Rob was."

June Jones, who revived the University of Hawaii football program and is doing the same thing now at Southern Methodist, has said of Eddie's life story: "Every coach should read this book. It is a history lesson that needs to never be forgotten."

A high school coach from Connecticut agreed. When asked if he wanted his copy signed to him by first name or as "Coach" with his last name, he replied:

"Sign it to my football team. Those kids don't know anything about Coach Rob, but they sure should.  And they will when they finish reading this book."

Quickly searching for words appropriate to that sentiment, I inscribed: "May we all learn from, and live up to, Coach Rob's great example."