Breaking the Line tackles the Black athlete phenoms in college football
9th December 2013 · 0 Comments
By Ro Brown
It’s a book that should be required reading for all prospective and current Black college football players.
Samuel G. Freedman is the author of a book titled Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights (Simon and Shuster; hardback, $28, 320 pages).
The book deals with the 1967 seasons at Grambling College and Florida A & M University—-directed by two of the game’s greatest coaches, Eddie Robinson at Grambling and Alonzo “Jake” Gaither at FAMU.
The teams were on a collision course, meeting at the end of the year in the Orange Blossom Classic. Along the way, both men set about fighting for civil rights through the game of football—-each in his own way.
“Athletes and coaches at Historically Black Colleges and Universities in this period used their game to force significant and important social change,” says Freedman.
In the case of Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, a quarterback named James “Shack” Harris, from Carroll High School in Monroe, Louisiana, represented that change. College football’s all-time leader in victories groomed Harris to be a starting, classic, drop-back quarterback in the National Football League. Most black signal callers were moved to other positions because they were told they had physical ability better suited to other positions but lacked the intelligence to play quarterback.
In the Sunshine State, Gaither, who won an amazing 83 percent of his games during a 25-year career, was using his political good will with the white power structure to get what he wanted. What he wanted was a game against a white team.
“Jake Gaither cashed in his political cachet with a segregationist governor and legislature in an effort to go against state law and play a game against predominately white Tampa University.” Freedman continued, “Gaither’s Rattlers did play Tampa. The game was still against the law, however the power structure allowed it to happen because Jake Gaither made the request.”
In 1967, every college campus in America experienced student protests. Grambling and Florida A & M were not spared campus upheaval.
Students were questioning every aspect of the “system,” including football and those involved with the sport. Both Robinson and Gaither were looked at as “Uncle Toms.” Homecoming at Grambling was almost wiped out because students occupied the administration building.
The issue was inequality in funding. Remember, this was 46 years before the 2013 Grambling football squad protested by refusing to practice or play until changes were made.
Freedman, a columnist for The New York Times, likes to point out that one of the protest leaders was a student named Willie Zanders. Today, he is the lawyer representing thousands of fired teachers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The author does an amazingly thorough job of telling game stories during the 1967 season of both teams. One feels like you are actually in the stadium watching these talent-laden teams chocked full of future NFL players.
We rarely talked about one aspect of Black College Football covered in this book – the quality of coaching and educating at these institutions. Each member of Jake Gaither’s coaching staff in 1967 had a master’s degree. Gaither received his master’s from Ohio State. Eddie Robinson had a master’s from the University of Iowa.
Breaking The Line is not just a book about Grambling and Florida A & M, it is about Black college football. At a time when most white institutions were intent on keeping their football teams lily-white in order to prove a point about white supremacy, this book reveals how HBCU programs succeeded against the odds.
Freedman says, “The fact that these football programs produced quality people and athletes says something not just about black athleticism but black intelligence.”
Breaking The Line is more than a sports book. It is documentation of triumph during a tumultuous time in this nation’s history.
This article originally published in the December 9, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.