Samuel G. Freedman is humble, telling a story about how African-American college football players cope and survive the strife-filled 1960s civil rights.
“I looked at the seasons where there were a great deal of civil rights,” said Freedman, a thin man with salt and pepper hair and a salt and pepper beard. “I just felt that if I looked hard enough, I would find that coaches and players were using football to contribute to the civil rights movement.”
Freedman was in Grambling Monday to sign copies of his recently released book, Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, the story of the historic 1967 season when two historically black college football powerhouses, Grambling State University and Florida A&M University (FAMU), played at the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami to determine the black college championship.
Freedman signed copies of his book and led a panel discussion about the era and the roles played by head football coach Eddie G. Robinson and James “Shack” Harris, the first black quarterback to regularly start on an NFL team at the Eddie G. Robinson Museum on the campus of Grambling State University.
Freedman said HBCUs were at the center of the civil rights movement and the schools had some of the most of the outstanding football programs in the country.
The panel discussion included Grambling State football legends — coaches Melvin Lee and Douglas Porter, and players Delles Howell and Doug Williams. Freedman asked a series of questions about the difficulties the team faced in 1967 and how Robinson and FAMU head coach Jake Gaither helped compel the segregated colleges of the south to integrate their teams, and redefining who could be an NFL head coach or quarterback.
Porter, who was an essential part of Eddie Robinson’s coaching staff, said Freedman’s descriptions successfully negotiate between sport and social history.
“Culture, race, and civil rights is what it was all about,” Porter explained.
New Orleans native William Rutledge, a 1946 alumnus, who lives in Grambling, was 41 years old living in Washington D.C. in 1967, but the season was a far memory for him. He attended the signing because he wants to know the untold moments Coach Robinson experienced with his team.
“This event is something I needed to come to,” said Rutledge.
Years later, The Orange Blossom Classic became a key element for African-American quarterbacks. Harris became a successful NFL quarterback, and Ken Riley of FAMU became an all-pro defensive back for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Harris, who joined the discussion via telephone from training camp with the Detroit Lions, where he is a senior personnel executive, said, “The most important thing Coach Robinson told me is ‘Don’t come back to Grambling and say the reason you didn’t make it was because you were black.'”
Williams agreed, saying without Harris paving the way, the opportunity to be the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl in 1988 would not have happened.
“I was a benefactor of James Harris,” he said.
“Breaking the Line” is Freedman’s seventh book. He started the project in November 2006, months before Eddie Robinson died. He said meeting one of the greatest college football coaches was a dream come true.
Freedman, 57, is a journalism professor at Columbia University and a contract writer for The New York Times. He has written frequently for USA TODAY, New Yorker magazine, Rolling Stone, The Jerusalem Post, Tablet, The Forward, and Salon.com He is the author of six acclaimed books, most recently Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life (2005) and Letters To A Young Journalist (2006).
While offering 336 pages of exciting and detailed descriptions of sporting events and coaching prowess, the real joy throughout Freedman’s seven-year journey was getting to know Grambling State University.
“It feels great to give something back,” he said. “I was honored to write this incredible story.”