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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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For most of his coaching life, Eddie Robinson had espoused bromides about patriotism and opportunity in America. His star quarterback on the 1967 team, James “Shack” Harris—later to break the NFL’s color barrier at quarterback with the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams—once said with chagrin, “Coach Rob sure waves the flag.” Robinson certainly believed his testimonials to American exceptionalism. But they were also, conveniently, what Southern whites wanted to hear. Deliberately or not, those words helped secure Robinson’s tenuous acceptance by the bigots around him.

After football practice one afternoon, as Robinson walked across the field with the crew trailing, Izenberg for the first time felt confident enough to ask a particular question. It was the kind of question that Robinson, with his fervent patriotism and his Horatio Alger optimism and his sublimation of Jim Crow’s indignities, had spent a lifetime not answering. The question was, “Do you ever wonder?”

Robinson started his reply with his standard hymn of gratitude, saying, “It isn’t sour grapes. I mean, it’s all been good to me.” Then he paused. Maybe it was the events of the past week of student protests. Maybe it was all the times over the years he’d been called an Uncle Tom. Whatever it was, something compelled him to confess emotions he had swallowed for decades.

Robinson had grown up dreaming of coaching football, and Grambling had allowed him to fulfill that dream. Deep down, though, he knew that race meant he would never attain the fame of his white peers—coaches like Bear Bryant at Alabama and Woody Hayes at Ohio State. “Yeah, I wonder,” he finally answered. “I wonder, and I’m sure many Negro football coaches wonder, what it would be like to play before 80 thousand people in the stands. And if you had some of the things that some of the other great coaches—Bear, Woody—had to work with. If you don’t think about those things, you’re not real. You got to wonder about it.”

***

Back in New York, Izenberg edited the film and wrote a script, which would be narrated by WABC’s anchorman, Bill Beutel. Then Cosell arranged a showing for the station’s sales force. They delivered a unanimous verdict. As one advertising rep put it, “How am I going to sell this thing?”

In their own minds, the salesmen were simply being realistic. On American television in late 1967, there was not a single black anchorman. The only black character in a starring role was Bill Cosby on I Spy. The anodyne sit-com Julia, with Diahann Carroll, was months away from debuting. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the similarly tepid film comedy about an interracial love affair, had just opened. In college football, many of the most dominant and most televised teams were all-white: Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee. Public universities that had grudgingly admitted black students under pressure from federal courts and federal troops were still keeping their football teams racially pure.

In that WABC screening room, Cosell let the sales force have it with all his eloquent wrath. He knew the real reason they “didn’t like” the show. So did they. Besides, he had paid for the documentary out of his own pocket. Eventually, one of the station executives, a man named Dick Beesmeyer, said, “I can sell it.”

The rest is a kind of history. Propelled by the network broadcast of Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory in the summer of 1968, Collie J. Nicholson arranged for Grambling to open its season that September in Yankee Stadium against Morgan State, a black college in Baltimore. The game, a fund-raiser for the Urban League, drew more than 64,000 fans. In subsequent years, Grambling went on to play in California, Hawaii, and Japan. Eddie Robinson set the record for career wins by a major-college coach. He did commercials for Oldsmobile and was featured on a commemorative bottle of Coca-Cola.

Jerry Izenberg had an illustrious career as a sportswriter on the Newark Star-Ledger, from which he retired in 2007 with the title “columnist emeritus.” He recently completed a biography of the former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. His interest in racial issues remained a constant in his life. He founded the organization Project Pride, which gives college scholarships to Newark children. He kept up his friendship with Nicholson until the publicist’s death in 2006.

In 1983, Izenberg married an African-American woman, Aileen Leach, who worked in the federal Title I education program. Several years ago, after the Izenbergs had moved to Nevada, they went to a class for prospective converts taught by a local rabbi. He asked, “What do you think we mean by the chosen people?”

Though Aileen was the intended student, Izenberg couldn’t resist giving his own answer. “Everybody is wrong,” he said. “We are not chosen to be special because we’re smarter or greater. We’re chosen because He gave us something, and we’re supposed to show that’s how it works in humanity.”

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book Breaking The Line: The Season In Black College Football That Transformed The Game And Changed The Course Of Civil Rights.

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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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