"I can't make you like each other, but I will demand that you respect each other."
(Coach Herman Boone)
When Coach Herman Boone walked into the dining hall at his football camp in 1971, he saw whites sitting at white tables, blacks at black tables. He marched his team onto the bus and took a field trip -- to Gettysburg. In the early morning hours, the boys' eyes still half closed, Coach Boone told them about the young men who, over a hundred years before, had fought about the same thing that they were fighting about. Only now they were wearing tombstones for hats. The following morning, Coach Boone saw "a noticeable change in the dining hall".
In the 1950's and 1960's, schools were integrated across the United States. The city of Alexandria, Virginia was no exception. Parker-Gray, a black school, and George Washington and Hammond, both white high schools, were integrated into one school called T. C. Williams in the fall of 1971. Resistance came from both blacks and whites. Suddenly, children could not graduate from the same school as their parents or grandparents. Alexandria students had to be bussed from one end of town to the other, often bypassing their "home school" on the way. Blacks and whites would share the same classrooms for the first time in Alexandria.
With the integration of the schools came the integration of the sports teams. T. C. Williams football team was in a shambles. It was crying out for leadership. And that came in the form of head coach, Herman Boone, a black who grew up in North Carolina. A controversial decision, Boone was hired by the city of Alexandria instead of the more experienced white coach, Bill Yoast.
Like baseball's Jackie Robinson, Herman Boone knew that if he were to be accepted by whites, he would have to deliver a top notch performance. From the moment he set foot on the T. C. Williams field, he was a disciplinarian. For the first time, white football players were facing off against blacks. And these were blacks who were originally on opposing teams. But that didn't matter to Boone who reminded them: "I can't make you like each other, but I will demand that you respect each other."
As Boone explained: "Nobody wanted me to succeed but me." But the T. C. Williams coach started to deliver immediately. President Nixon heard about the fuss and sent his aide, Dr. Browne, to check out the Titans shortly after they returned from Gettysburg. The interaction among the players likely accounts for some of the growing respect between blacks and whites. However, as one former player points out: "Boone's gradual acceptance by fans, neighbours and colleagues might have more to do with winning than enlightenment." Like Jackie Robinson, Herman Boone knew how to win.
With a no loss record, the Titans went on to win the Virginia State Championship that year and were ranked second in the United States. Not just an inspiration at T. C. Williams, they inspired their entire community. Richard Nixon called them "the team that saved Alexandria". Coach Boone had a large part to play in that transformation.
Coach Boone with Titans players courtesy http://deadspin.com/remember-the-titans-is-a-lie-and-this-man-wants-you-to-1609473834.
*First published in 2015.