Grambling, Louisiana is a small town tucked away in the northern part of the state. It's not
on the beaten path to anywhere and is only relevant because of the college football program
that was built by the legend, Eddie Robinson.
Today, it's in the news because its football players boycotted a game in protest of travel
arrangements, poor facilities, and a coach who was eventually fired. I can't say I'm shocked,
but I am surprised that it didn't happen sooner.
In 1997, I worked as a sports anchor in Shreveport, the closest major city to Grambling
and its university. I must admit, I was anxious to go there for media day in August of that
year, even if it was on a day that was so brutally hot and humid that'd you sweat profusely
from just blinking.
This was Grambling State University, a smaller than smaller football program that had
produced big-time NFL players like Doug Williams, James Harris, Buck Buchanan,
Sammy White, Willie Brown, and Charlie Brown. This was the place where the coach,
Eddie Robinson became an American icon. This was the place where Bruce Jenner starred
in a movie called, "Grambling's White Tiger."
However, this was the place that time forgot.
As I walked to the football facility, I wondered how in the world Grambling recruited
players, much less great ones who would end up in the hall of fame. The place was like a
third-world country, and that's being generous. The grounds were far from the meticulously
groomed ones you see at just about any college in the country these days. High school
football stadiums were better than the one at Grambling and the field resembled that of
a cow pasture.
Eddie Robinson, of course, was the main reason any player with an ounce of talent in
the south went to Grambling. He started the football program and coached there for more
than 50 years. He was a man of impeccable character and integrity, teaching his players
more than just football, he taught them about life and gave them the tools and knowledge
to succeed once all the games were over. Robinson was truly special.
After one game, I found myself sitting in his coaches locker room. It was just me and
Eddie Robinson in a room no bigger than a studio apartment in NYC. I have never been
star struck, but I was mesmerized by this 72-year old man and what he had accomplished
in his life.
The grooves in his forehead were like the rings on an oak tree, telling you he had
been around forever and had seen so more than he ever cared to talk about. Robinson
had lived through some hard times as a black man in the south. He had overcome
tremendous obstacles and succeeded in a place where very have before or after him.
Robinson was already a big part of American history, winning more games than any
college coach and I was fascinated. He had slowed down considerably and his mind and
mouth didn't not work in conjunction as they once did, perhaps, it was a prelude to the
Alzheimer's disease he came down with shortly after retiring.
I said to myself, "This is unreal and one of the best moments of my life and career." If
I had a cell phone camera back then, I would've taken a selfie of the two of us. I wanted
something to document this priceless moment of my life. I wanted to show and tell people
that I had a moment with this man. It was one of those times when you say, "I wish somebody
was here to see this."
Just a few days earlier, Robinson had a book signing and I was given a copy as part of
the promotion. I didn't ask Robinson to sign it at the time, I was long past getting autographs.
The last one I ever received was one from Steve Garvey back in 1975. I thought asking
for autographs was ridiculous and it's forbidden as part of a sportscaster job.
But I still had Robinson's book in my bag during our interview and when it was over, I
didn't care about protocol. I wanted this man's autograph. He was history. He was an
icon. He was all things good about college sports. He was truly special. I asked for his
autograph, Robinson obliged, and I was on my way, stuffing the book back in my bag
so nobody would see it.
I thought about that moment after I heard about the unrest at Grambling this week. I'm sure
the facilities aren't much different from when I was there back in 1997. There are no
big revenue streams at Grambling and the alumni base doesn't have deep pockets. The
athletic department tries to do their best, but to the players, busing to games 750 miles
away isn't trying hard enough.
I don't think this story is going to end well. When a school cancels a game just days
before the opponent is expecting a big crowd on homecoming, there will be repercussions.
I'm not sure Grambling's football program can survive this. I'm not sure they have the
financial resources to sustain it. And when potential recruits for what is already a
downtrodden program see the unrest at Grambling, they will most likely turn and run
That's a sad thing for a program that was once the little one that could. Now, it's
the little one that can't do anything right.