One sun-baked day in October 1967, Jerry Izenberg drove up a cracked dirt road outside the hamlet of Slaughter, La., headed for the unpainted shack at its end. As he neared the structure, its front door swung open and a couple of chickens ambled out, followed by the prematurely aging black woman who lived there.
She was the mother of Henry Davis, the star guard on the football team at Grambling, a small black college in northern Louisiana. With a skeletal crew and a scant budget, Izenberg had come from New York to interview her as part of a film he was shooting for a New York television station.
Izenberg was treading ground that was uncommon enough for broadcast journalism at the time, reserved for the occasional socially conscious documentary like Harvest of Shame, which Edward R. Murrow had made several years earlier about migrant workers. Rarer still, unprecedented in fact, Izenberg was delving into the subjects of race, inequality, and civil rights in the course of making a film about sports.
Then again, Izenberg was himself a rarity: a sports-addled son of Newark, N.J., who had been instructed by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a German Jewish refugee who was a confidante to Martin Luther King. And while Izenberg was chiefly a print journalist, he arrived at the Davis home with the backing of Howard Cosell, the country’s most famous sports broadcaster and an outspoken supporter of black athletes.
The resulting documentary, Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory, debuted in early 1968 on New York’s WABC with Izenberg as writer and producer. The film was shown with such reluctance by WABC’s leadership that it was consigned to an hourlong position at 10:30 on Saturday night. It might never have been seen at all without Cosell’s imprimatur as benefactor and executive producer.
Yet a chorus of praise had been building even before the broadcast, with columnist William N. Wallace in the New York Times declaring, “Do not miss it.” In the documentary’s immediate aftermath, influential sportswriters such as Shirley Povich in The Washington Post and syndicated columnist Red Smith added their endorsements. Six months after its obscure premiere, Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory received a national broadcast on the ABC network in a prime-time slot preceding the annual game between a college all-star team and the defending NFL champs. An Emmy nomination arrived several weeks later.
With the benefit of 45 years of hindsight, the impact of Grambling: 100 Yards to Glory is even clearer. It provided white America with one of its first glimpses of the parallel universe of black colleges, where football was only part of a culture of upward mobility and self-help. It told the story of Coach Eddie Robinson, who was developing dozens of players for eventual stardom in the NFL while preparing hundreds more for college degrees—and an escape from Jim Crow’s deprivations. And the film astutely wove together sports and societal issues in a manner that anticipated and in some ways inspired today’s sports documentaries, from Hoop Dreams and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg to ESPN’s “30 By 30” series and HBO’s “24/7” series.
“Of all the things I’ve ever done, I feel proudest of this,” says Izenberg, 82 and still writing actively from his retirement home outside Las Vegas. “I didn’t feel like I was on a mission from God like the Blues Brothers. But maybe some higher power wanted me to show I could do something.”
To the degree that Izenberg’s own story starts in any particular place and time, it starts on a late afternoon in in Newark in 1943. On that day, 12-year-old Jerry had characteristically blown off his bar mitzvah lessons to play baseball. The rabbi found him on the diamond and pulled him home by the ear, threatening not to perform the bar mitzvah ceremony. As it happened, Izenberg’s father Harry knew of another rabbi in town: Joachim Prinz, who had been expelled from Nazi Germany just six years earlier.
They made an odd pair. Harry Izenberg worked in a factory dying furs, and Prinz was a yekke with a doctorate in philosophy. But Prinz had heard that Harry Izenberg had played semi-pro baseball, and he needed someone to teach him about baseball—not because he was interested, but because he wanted to be able to share his Americanized sons’ passion for the game. So, when the rabbi learned of Jerry’s dilemma, he promised to take over the bar mitzvah preparation.
Up until that point in his life, Jerry had absorbed a street Jew’s sense of identity. As a 7-year-old, he’d noticed an anti-Semitic slur chalked on the sidewalk. It served as a prop for Harry’s teachable moment: “Don’t look for trouble, but if anyone ever says that to you, smack ‘em in the mouth before they can say anything else.” An uncle once drove young Jerry to a hotel in a town called Mt. Freedom that posted a sign saying, “No Jews or Dogs Allowed.” Harry instructed Jerry never to forget it. When Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling, Harry made sure Jerry listened, and prize-fighting became a metaphor for defeating racial supremacy.
To these visceral forms of Jewish pride, Rabbi Prinz added theology and purpose. He taught Jerry a Judaism in which particularism and universalism entwined together to form a greater moral whole. “He burned in my brain that we are Jews and we’ve got to honor that,” Izenberg recalls. “But we’ve got to honor others, too.”
Izenberg’s idealism took another turn during his college years when he joined a Communist youth group—in itself a Jewish sort of thing to do in the immediate postwar years, especially because the American Communist Party championed civil rights. But after that flirtation ended, the influence of Rabbi Prinz remained: With the special credibility of a survivor of Nazi Germany, he had emerged as a national leader on civil rights. He spoke at the March on Washington. He participated in the Freedom Rides.
By that point, in the early 1960s, Izenberg had begun to fuse his love of sports with his commitment to racial equality. They came together in his nascent journalism career.
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.
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.
Samuel G. Freedman is a journalism professor at Columbia University and a regular contributor to Tablet. He also writes the “On Religion” column for The New York Times.