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How a Jewish Sportswriter Introduced White America to Black College Football

In his new book ‘Breaking the Line,’ Sam Freedman recounts the history of a 1968 documentary that helped break color barriers

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Grambling State QB James Harris (14) in action, passing against Morgan State at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1968. (Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
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As the 1964 football season approached, Izenberg was looking over pro rosters and was astonished to discover that a tiny college he’d barely heard of, Grambling, had sent more players to the big leagues than the football powerhouse Notre Dame. He proposed an article to The Saturday Evening Post about the black college in rural Louisiana that was turning out all these stars.

Ultimately, the editors at the Post, uninterested in what they disparaged as “sociology,” killed the piece. But in the course of reporting it, Izenberg spent weeks with the Grambling team, getting to know the coach, Eddie Robinson, the president, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, and, most important, the sports-information director, Collie J. Nicholson.

Ever since childhood, when he saw a playmate shot for accidentally venturing onto a white family’s property, Nicholson had refused to passively submit to racism. Serving in a segregated unit in the Pacific during World War II, he became the first black combat correspondent in Marines history, syndicating his stories across America through the Associated Negro Press. Not long after moving to Grambling in the late 1940s, he joined with a local minister and a shopkeeper to form the village’s chapter of the NAACP. Even more bravely, Nicholson stayed in the NAACP after a Louisiana state court in 1956 ordered the civil rights group to list its members, and the fear of retribution led the vast majority of them to quit.

Out of his talent and worldliness and racial consciousness, Nicholson concocted an audacious goal. In today’s parlance, it would be called branding. Grambling could be for black Americans what Notre Dame was for Catholic Americans—an institution, deliberately parochial, that demonstrated its people’s achievements and through them made the case for inclusion. Not Lincoln University, which had educated Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes; not Morehouse College, with its renowned presidents John Hope and Benjamin Mays; not Howard University with Ralph Bunche and Alain Locke on its faculty—rather, unassuming little Grambling would represent the pride and hope of every Negro, in the spirit of its earlier incarnation as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. And football, as it had at Notre Dame, would supply the means.

In distant, isolated Grambling, tucked amid the piney woods, Nicholson was the resident city slicker, with tailored suits, myriad ties and shoes, and a vocabulary that inspired Robinson to dub him “The Man With the Golden Pen.” Nicholson used his acumen and élan to spread news of Grambling throughout the nation, although almost entirely via black newspapers and radio stations. As enlightened as Northern journalists thought themselves to be, none of them had considered Grambling worthy of coverage until Jerry Izenberg.

He was, according to the sports historian Michael Hurd, the first white reporter ever to come to Grambling. While Eddie Robinson remained cautious of the reporter, less out of suspicion than inexperience with the big-city white press, Izenberg and Nicholson rapidly formed a professional bond and a personal friendship. “Jerry had a deep admiration for what Collie had done for Grambling despite the racial restrictions, but also for Collie the man and how he embraced life despite all that he had endured to survive and become a success as a black man in the South,” says Hurd, author of the biography Collie J. “The two men could talk easily about topics well beyond sports, especially when it came to race, and those conversations would come late in the evening and into the night when Collie hosted Jerry on his first visits to Grambling.”

In September 1967, Izenberg finally got True magazine to publish his article about Grambling, “A Whistle-Stop School With Big-Time Talent.” At a time when the white newspapers only miles away from Grambling in Ruston and Monroe could hardly be bothered sending reporters to a black school, Izenberg had launched a pre-emptive strike of national publicity. On the strength of the True story, Izenberg also formulated a plan with Howard Cosell to make a documentary later that fall.

The two men had met a decade or so earlier at a luncheon for journalists covering college basketball in New York, and they kept crossing paths at various ballgames. In the mid-1960s, they began collaborating on films, with Izenberg writing the script for a documentary about Yankees manager Johnny Keane.

They shared a deeper affinity, too. While one part of Cosell paraded as the orotund showboat, another treated racial and political issues seriously within sports. He had defended Muhammad Ali when the boxer was being vilified both for joining the Nation of Islam and refusing induction into the Vietnam-era military. And he periodically had Grambling’s coach, Eddie Robinson, as a guest on his radio show.

Cosell agreed to bankroll Izenberg’s production and signed on as executive producer. With $13,000 in funding from Cosell’s production company, Izenberg assembled a three-man crew and set off for Louisiana. His budget amounted to only about $70,000 in present-day dollars. (A full-length sports documentary on ESPN generally costs between $500,000 and $750,000 to produce.) While documentary filmmakers in the 1960s normally shot about 13 times as much footage as they ultimately used, Izenberg could only afford enough film stock for a 3-to-1 ratio.

He reached the Grambling campus amid a wave of student protests against racial disparities in state support for higher education. The governor was on the verge of calling out the all-white state police, which raised the very real prospect of a massacre. The one black member of Izenberg’s crew abandoned the project to join the student demonstrators. At one point, surrounded by angry picketers, Izenberg had his camera man pretend they were filming the protests for a Chicago TV station—though in fact the camera was empty, because Izenberg couldn’t afford to waste his film. The week’s tensions peaked with slightly integrated National Guard units being deployed and a cold peace being restored.

In the midst of that chaos, Izenberg managed to capture footage of everything from the college’s gospel choir to Eddie Robinson coaching a victory over Texas Southern to Henry Davis’ mother in her shack. “Up and down the Delta, in homes just like this,” the narrator intones by way of introducing her, “college is for somebody else’s kid.” Then, on camera, she recounts how her son offered to quit school and return home to help her out. She refused, knowing his athletic scholarship was his lifeline. Again and again, fighting tears, she repeats, “I’m so proud of him.”

Izenberg left the student protests he had witnessed out of the film, but the larger climate of racial inequality and black struggle is palpably present in it. Most indelibly, Izenberg got Robinson to talk with rare bluntness about race.

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How a Jewish Sportswriter Introduced White America to Black College Football

In his new book ‘Breaking the Line,’ Sam Freedman recounts the history of a 1968 documentary that helped break color barriers