Midnight. Forty young black men get on a bus in Mississippi. Their coaches follow. Then the assistants. The trainer. They are all black. Eddie Robinson, the head coach, gets on last, still in the suit he wore on the football field hours earlier.
The air is cold and still. You can hear crickets. Robinson nods, and the bus rolls. Seven hours and 400 miles will pass before the team gets home to Grambling, La. This is how they travel.
Robinson leans against the window, his forehead creased with age lines, and holds out a roll of mints. “Want one?” he asks. Then he begins to reminisce, his voice a whisper over the engine.
The stories. Fascinating. Horrible. Of the 1940s, and the lunch-meat sandwiches he used to prepare for his players because blacks were not allowed in the restaurants.
Of the 1950s, and how they broke down somewhere in the Deep South, and the nearest mechanic picked up a wrench and yelled, “Don’t bring that nigger bus in here.”
Of the 1960s, and how some players came from such poor backgrounds,
“they did not know how to use a knife and fork.”
Eddie Robinson took them all. Taught them all.
Where you expect anger in his voice, there is none. Where you expect resentment, there is none.
I took this bus ride with him two years ago, a year after he won his 300th game. Now, in his 44th season, his foot is in the door of history again.
He is about to pass Bear Bryant as the college football coach with the most victories of all time.
And where you expect recognition, there is none. Not the kind Eddie Robinson deserves. Robinson was coaching . . .
Remember that when Bear Bryant was starting out at Maryland, Eddie Robinson was already at Grambling, coaching football. A one-man staff.
And when Bear Bryant was making a name for himself at Kentucky, Robinson was at Grambling, coaching football. And hosing off the field, and directing the girls drill team.
And when Bear Bryant was turning into a legend at Alabama, Robinson was still at Grambling, coaching football. And writing the game stories for newspapers that generally didn’t print them.
And when Bear Bryant passed Amos Alonzo Stagg in all-time victories among college coaches, Robinson was still at Grambling, coaching football. And sending his 200th player to the pros — though his quarterbacks were almost always given new positions. “Not smart enough,” the pros said.
For decades, black athletes in the South came to Robinson, for they had little choice. If they wanted to play college football, it had to be at a
“black” college; a Grambling, an Alcorn State, a Southern.
Eddie Robinson took them, molded them, won with them, made sure they graduated.
And when, in the 1960s, the previously all-white schools were integrated, the black schools were suddenly shunted aside. Their programs sank as their would-be players were wooed away by promises of network TV and fancy stadiums.
Robinson would not complain. “I watched black kids risk their lives to integrate society,” he said. So he settled for the also-rans. The leftovers.
And he taught them. And he won with them.
Time magazine once asked him about the irony of it, and he shrugged.
“Some build the roads, some drive over them,” he said. “We’re getting there.” Not much fuss over this record
Well, maybe and maybe not. Saturday marks the start of Grambling’s 1985 season, with Robinson only four wins from breaking Bryant’s career mark of 323 victories. And I don’t hear much fuss, much Pete Rose-type hooplah.
Oh, there’s an article here and there. But you can bet if he were white and at a major school you’d know Robinson’s name backward by now.
And meanwhile, he goes on, still on a tiny budget, still making the midnight bus rides, still driving the Louisiana backroads to recruit players.
He is 66 now, and how many men owe him their football careers? Tank Younger, Willie Davis, Ernie Ladd, Buck Buchanan, Doug Williams. And how many less famous owe him their diplomas, their manners, their pride?
Remember Ralph Ellison, the brilliant black writer, who called himself an Invisible Man because people refused to see him?
Eddie Robinson has been invisible. Too long.
No doubt there are some who don’t want Bryant’s legend eclipsed — and particularly by a black man. Tough. It’s going to happen.
And when it does, it might be worth noting that Bryant did not have a black athlete in his program until 1970. The same year Grambling finally got a sprinkler for its football field.
Some build the roads, some drive over them.
This college year belongs to Eddie Robinson. And sadly, too few of us know it.