By Jerry Byrd
The last time I saw Eddie Robinson, we were attending Collie Nicholson’s 83rd birthday party at Shreveport Country Club.
Nobody had told me anything about being one of the speakers, but I knew I better be ready to say something. Sure enough, I was called to the podium.
I quoted King David in Psalms 143:5. “I remember the days of old.” I suggested that a few of his fondest memories may have been killing a lion, a bear and a giant with a slingshot as a shepherd boy.
“I never killed a lion, a bear or a giant,” I said. “But I walked with giants many times in my sports writing career, and none stood taller than two men in this room, Eddie Robinson and Collie Nicholson .
Nicholson was Grambling’s sports information director during Robinson’s coaching career.
Robinson started coaching the Grambling College football team the same year I started first grade at Alexander Elementary School.
The previous year, he had been the quarterback at Leland College. He was 22 years old, making 25 cents an hour working in a Baton Rouge feed mill and supplementing that salary by making four dollars a week delivering ice in a mule-drawn wagon before dawn, when Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones hired him to coach guys he had played against a year earlier.
His first team lost every game. Robinson kicked five players off the team. The next year, Grambling won every game.
“We didn’t have much to look forward to,” Robinson recalled later, “but we had even less to look back on.”
On May 10, 1976, I attended the Grambling football banquet. The guest speaker was Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama, the winningest coach in college football history at that time. Robinson was second.
Dr. Jones stood at the podium and placed one hand on Bryant’s shoulder and the other on Robinson’s shoulder.
“I’ve had a lot of dreams,” he said. “But I did not dream 50 years ago that this would happen.”
Robinson often quoted the words of Booker T. Washington: “Lower the bucket where you are, and draw up whatever water is available.”
“Some people keep dreaming of going someplace,” he once told me. “And they never get to that place. There is always something wrong with the job wherever you are. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But if you work hard, you can make the place where you are the place you wanted to go.”
Grambling was Eddie Robinson’s place.
He didn’t want to be remembered as a great football coach. He wanted to be remembered as a great American.
“I’ve always believed in the philosophy of this country,” he said. “If you work, you get paid. We have one of the most competitive societies in the world, but it is also one of the most rewarding. I don’t want anyone telling me he never had a chance. Things don’t just happen. You have to make them happen.”
When Robinson was the incoming president of the American Football Coaches’ Association, he sat beside outgoing president Darrell Royal of the University of Texas at a banquet attended by President Gerald Ford.
President Ford, a late arrival, went down the line, shaking the hand of each coach. He called all of them “Coach.” But when he got to Robinson, he said, “Glad to meet you, Eddie.”
As he moved on, Royal turned to Robinson and asked, “How is it that you’re the only one he recognized?” “Darrell,” Robinson replied, “I can’t help it if you guys all look alike.”
Jerry Byrd is the former sports editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune and an award-winning columnist. You can contact him by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org