Football Writers Association of America 2005 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: FEATURE
John Henderson, Denver Post

GRAMBLING, La. Eddie Robinson Stadium sits in a bowl on the edge of Grambling State's brick campus, the surrounding clay hills and pine woods of northern Louisiana providing the perfect backdrop to one of college football's legendary programs.

On a recent sunny Saturday, the famous Grambling Band had just taken its place in the black-and-gold seats. The man who made this town of 5,500 a household name in college football sat above in the president's suite. That perfectly coiffed head of black hair, the one that wowed a little eighth-grade girl who'd become his wife of 63 years, is gone.

So is that intense glare, the one that would make a halfback run the same play 100 times until he got it right or bore into a linebacker if he missed a class.

John Henderson
Denver Post
Age: 49
College: Oregon
Background: Henderson has been at The Post since 1990 except for a year-and-a-half sabbatical in Rome from 2001 to 2003. He has covered the University of Colorado, Colorado Rockies and Denver Broncos. Since April 2003, he has been the Post's national college football writer. Before the Post, Henderson worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, first covering UNLV basketball and then as a columnist. He moonlights as a travel writer and has been to 75 countries.

Instead, Eddie G. Robinson stared vacuously as a man next to him jabbered away, receiving no response. Robinson, dressed in a maroon sport coat, snacked while staring at the field where his once proud Tigers were getting whipped by Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 41-22.

Later, his wife, Doris, would say, "He didn't seem to know what happened and didn't seem to care."

While a thrilling college football season builds to a climax, the sad story of Eddie Robinson serves as a dark backdrop to the game this fall. His name remains legendary.

So does his impact on the game. But his image has faded into a gray corner of the public consciousness. We hear of stories. We hear of sightings. What we are afraid to hear is the truth.

Eddie Robinson, 85, the winningest coach in college football history until a year ago, the man who paved the road of opportunity for black players and coaches alike, is dying of Alzheimer's disease.

Yes, the man who inspired dozens of minority players to go into coaching can't hear them credit him for helping knock down the barrier.

Yes, the man who won 408 games in 55 years at the same school, who sent more than 200 players to the NFL and won 17 conference titles and eight black college national championships, now sleeps 18 hours a day. Dozens of former players visit. Only some does he recognize. He needs help getting dressed. He needs help getting to the bathroom.

Said Wilbert Ellis, who coached Grambling baseball for 43 years and is one of Robinson's closest friends, "You know the day is going to come, but you didn't expect this to happen."

Staying by Eddie's side

Doris Robinson, 85, has become the caretaker for the legendary coach.

The Robinsons' modest single-story brick house is just a long punt from Robinson Stadium on a quiet street that hasn't changed much since 1951, when they moved in. A black Cadillac sits in the driveway.

Inside, an NFL pregame show blared from a bigscreen TV. An American flag stands in the corner. The only signs a football coach resides here is a deflated football on a shelf. But family portraits, especially pictures of Eddie and Doris together, are everywhere.

Doris Robinson plopped down on her leather couch with the exhale of a woman who doesn't get to sit much.

Eddie was asleep in the bedroom. Two friends from their hometown of Baton Rouge, La., just had stopped by to see him. She didn't think he remembered who came.

"It's a slow thing, and I guess it's hard on me because I knew him all the time," she said. "Like this morning, I said, 'Now remember to brush your teeth.' He was always brushing his teeth. He had beautiful teeth. Now I have to tell him."

An English teacher for 25 years, Doris Robinson at 85 still is sharp enough to correct Walt Whitman's grammar. Dressed in a classy pink pants suit with neatly short-cropped gray hair, Doris has become Eddie's caretaker. She gets him dressed. She feeds him. She gets him to most Grambling home games.

She tires but she works with the same love she had when he was captain of Baton Rouge's McKinley High School football team. In a picture on a shelf, Eddie is wearing a dapper white tuxedo and his trademark pencilthin moustache. Doris was told her husband looked like an older version of actor Billy Dee Williams.

"Oh, he's better looking than Billy Dee," she said, gazing at the picture.

He used to take her dancing at various fraternities and sororities on weekends. He always stared into her eyes when they danced to "Stardust."

Today those eyes no longer have any tears to cry.

It started seven years ago, shortly after her husband retired. He felt sick. He began forgetting things. The Robinsons went from New Orleans to Dallas to Houston trying to find the problem. It turns out he had a mild stroke that affected the side of his brain that carries the memory.

Ricky McCall, Grambling's head trainer, also has helped care for Robinson. He said the Alzheimer's is "in the mid- or latter stages." Robinson can talk clearly. He can carry on simple conversations, particularly about football. However, his mind tails off within minutes.

"He kind of comes and goes," McCall said. "The biggest part and the hardest part is his wife basically dealing with it. After a while, she's gotten physically tired. It's a day-to-day 24-hour operation."

Doris must do it because McCall no longer can. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with incurable sinonasal cancer. He gets chemotherapy every two weeks but it hasn't stopped him from making periodic stops at the Robinsons.

For McCall, at every visit, Alzheimer's removes another layer of Robinson's very being.

"Yeah, you can see a difference," he said. "You can definitely see a difference. The last time I was over there, I was looking for my keys. No one knew where my keys were, and he put them in his coat pocket and never knew he had them."

Doris has punted all suggestions about putting her husband in a home. She can't imagine him living anywhere but that modest brick house near the stadium.

The kinds of lessons he taught his estimated 4,500 players rubbed off on her.

"He was always patient and good with his family and, of course, with me," she said. "He was ready to do everything he could do all the time. And you know, I want to be that way about him."

Following a football dream

The undeterred young coach puts Grambling on football map in South.

To understand what Robinson meant to college football, it's important to understand from where he came.

The son of a sharecropper, Robinson began dreaming of becoming a football coach when local high school coach Julius Kraft visited his fourth-grade class.

Robinson played quarterback at now-defunct Leland College near Baton Rouge and upon graduation in 1941 worked in a Baton Rouge feed mill for 25 cents an hour and on an ice wagon at night. But that same year he got a call from a school in Grambling, La., called the Colored Industrial and Agricultural Institute of Lincoln Parish.

When he arrived, the school had 881 students, no field, no locker room and an unwieldy name. The newlywed Robinsons' home had no running water.

Undeterred, he improvised.

He put cement in coffee cans to serve as weights and in his second year the team not only went 9-0, it didn't give up a point. Not one. He got the school to change its name to "Grambling" and became one of college football's foremost experts on the winged-T formation.

The Tigers became the G Men and were revered around the South. Robinson's 6-foot-2 presence and religious upbringing swooned the hearts of mothers of the top black athletes in the segregated South, as did two promises: Their sons would go to church and would graduate.

He went to every coaching clinic he could and made his assistants go, too. Alabama's Bear Bryant befriended him. Pro coaches visited him. The winning didn't stop for half a century. From 1942-94, he suffered two losing seasons and topped Bryant's record for victories in 1985, a passing of a torch that made Robinson cry in deference to his good friend.

"We'd take one play and run it 50 times back to back to back to back," said Sammy White, Grambling's current offensive coordinator who played wingback for Robinson in the 1970s and became an all-pro with the Minnesota Vikings. "Over and over and over. You do something like that many repetitions, you could run it closing your eyes."

Robinson also had great vision. Backed by an equally famous band, he took the team to Chicago, to New York, to Tokyo. He played and beat Division I-A schools. He graduated 85 percent of his players. By the time he retired, Grambling had an enrollment of 8,000, with 49 percent of the students from out of state. He turned down offers from the Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the University of Iowa.

"He wanted persons throughout the world to know Grambling State University," Ellis said. "And it was beyond the athletic part of it."

If a player arrived thinking he'd join Grambling's pipeline to the NFL, Robinson put him on another path. After practice, he'd gather the team in the end zone and talk about life, love and supporting a family. Or he'd take a white envelope and pull names of players who missed class. The next fly pattern they ran was up the stadium steps.

He'd hold etiquette classes and have players over for dinner, coat and tie required. One time he saw players' rooms had pictures from girlie magazines on the walls. He told them, "You can leave them up there if you want. But when we have Mother's Day, we're going to come through here."

One time a reporter asked him how he kept his players off steroids. "Easy," Robinson said. "I just tell them it causes impotence. You should see how round their eyes get."

"People who don't know Eddie personally don't know two things," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "One, he was a fierce competitor. He did a marvelous job for his institution. Two, he was just such a warm, good honest guy. He and his wife were delightful. It's hard to think that Eddie's out of it with Alzheimer's. He had principles. He believed in college football. He believed in Grambling. He believed in so many good things."

Robinson's win record may have lasted forever except for John Gagliardi. The Trinidad native made national news last year when he won his 409th game with a St. John's (Minn.) team that went on to the Division III national title. The national media wondered why Gagliardi didn't make a bigger deal out of breaking Robinson's mark, or even crack a smile. Now we know.

"To be honest, I hated to break his record," Gagliardi said. "I had mixed emotions. He was such a giant. That was the only thing I didn't feel good about. I hated to do that to such a good guy." Robinson also believed in blacks coaching well before blacks knew they could. He was more proud of the dozens of black coaches he produced than NFL players. In 1997 he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Racism is what made me work like hell. You remember when people used to hold hands and sing, 'We shall overcome?' I never did that. I always said, 'Anything you can do, I can do better.'"

Said UCLA's Karl Dorrell, one of five black coaches in Division I-A: "He was the one who gave us our ambition to be where we're at. His number of wins and tenure at Grambling meant a lot to minority coaches in this profession." Or, as Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom best put it: "Without question. Coach Rob proved that winners come in every color."

A prayer for Eddie

Doris wants the strength to carry on for her husband no matter how long.

There should be a happy ending here, but there isn't. Before Alzheimer's hit, opposing coaches used Robinson's age against him in recruiting, and he ended his career with three consecutive losing seasons. Thenpresident Raymond Hicks asked him to resign after the 1996 season but the governor stepped in. Hicks eventually resigned under pressure.

Robinson finally hung up the whistle in 1997 after a 3-8 season, culminated by a 30-7 nationally televised loss to Southern that forced Sammy White to leave his watch party for another room to weep.

Today, Robinson lies in bed and refers to his wife only as "Baby." Doris doesn't know if he knows what's happening. He never complains. However, when they sleep, he holds her hand as if he never wants to let go. After her interview, she brought a visitor from Denver to shake his hand, which he nearly crushed.

"Nice handshake, Eddie," he's told.

"Yeah," he said, "but that's about all."

"What'd you think of your defense yesterday?"

"What? In practice?"

"No. Against Pine Bluff."

"We played Pine Bluff?"

"Do you know who won, Eddie?" his wife asked.

"Well," he said, pausing, "I imagine Pine Bluff. So you're from Denver, huh?"

"Yeah. Ever been there?"

"Yeah, I was there, well, three years ago."

Doris then grabbed the visitor and led him out, whispering, "He didn't go to Denver."

She's asked if she's scared. She says no. She said a neighbor who has Alzheimer's doesn't even know his wife's dead. She's grateful Eddie is not at that stage, but he could get there. When? In three months? Three years? No one knows.

"I tell you what," she said. "I need prayer. I hear from people. I hear from people I don't know. That is a big help to me. I wanted to be strong enough to do this. I want to be here for him as long as he needs me. And I want to take care of him.

"As long as I can do it."

Comment of the judge, Gene Duffey: Excellent account of the legendary coach's health and his wife's devotion. Made you feel as if you were right in the house with them. Good background on Robinson's early days. Also good quotes from former players show you how much he means to the school and community.

Second place: Craig Hill, Tacoma News Tribune
Third place: Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN The Magazine
Honorable mention: Dennis Dodd, SportsLine.com; George Schroeder, The Oklahoman