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

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