Football Legend Eddie Robinson: A Biography Wasted
Eddie Robinson was one of the greatest head coaches in the history of college football. He overcame the misfortune of being born a black man in the Deep South during the worst years of Jim Crow to produce at Grambling one of the great programs in all of football history. He won over 400 games in a coaching career spanning six decades.
But despite his accomplishments, there are not a lot of books that have been written about Robinson. He released an autobiography in the late 1990s, after he had retired, but other than that, the life and career of a coach who produced some of the greatest football players in history has been largely ignored by those who write about the history of the sport.
Denny Dressman, a former award-winning sportswriter, has set out to right this wrong in Eddie Robinson. Dressman sets himself a high bar with his book, for not only does he attempt to chronicle Robinson the coach, he tries to place Robinson's life and Robinson's attitude on life and country in the context of the Civil Rights Movement that swept through the Deep South, and the rest of the U.S., during a large portion of Robinson's career.
It's a valiant effort that Dressman makes. Unfortunately, it's an effort that, though valiant, ultimately fails.
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Dressman, quoting one of Robinson's rival coaches, casts Robinson as "the Martin Luther King of football." But while King was risking his life with his attempts to desegregate the South and dismantle the Jim Crow laws that forced African Americans to sit at the back of buses, drink from "colored only" water fountains, and prevented them from voting, Robinson took a completely different tack with his players.
Robinson didn't forbid his players to participate in the sit-ins and demonstrations of the time, but he counseled them to stay away. He made them concentrate on school, on graduation, on playing the game the right way. He prepared them for a world that should exist after the work of King and his brethren, a world where everyone was treated equally.
There's a validity to Robinson's approach, a validity backed in the book by John Lewis, a congressman from Georgia and one of the leaders with King of the Civil Rights Movement. But it's still hard to see Robinson as the Martin Luther King of football, at least when it comes to approaching things in the manner of Martin Luther King.
And while Dressman tries to turn Robinson into a great figure of the Civil Rights Movement, he attempts as well to write and educate the reader about Robinson the coach, the innovator. These portions of the book are the best written, and get to the heart of what made Eddie Robinson one of the great figures of college of football.
For instance, at one point, though coaching a tiny, historically black college in Louisiana that was not able to play, due to racial attitudes and Jim Crow laws, the same strength of schedule as the likes of LSU, Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State or any other college football powerhouse, Robinson and Grambling University had produced more pro football players than any school but Notre Dame. Doug Williams played for Grambling. James Harris, the first full time African-American QB in the NFL, played for Robinson at Grambling. Charley Joiner, one of the NFL's great wide receivers, played for Eddie Robinson, as did Hall of Fame defensive players Willie Davis and Buck Buchanan.
But while Dressman discusses the players to go through Grambling -- he interviewed many and quotes them often -- Eddie Robinson the coach is missing from the book. He's a supposedly innovative offensive mind, yet Dressman mainly glosses over all of this, telling but not showing the reader.
What sets good biographies, excellent biographies, apart from most biographies is that upon finishing the book, the reader doesn't just know about the subject, the reader feels as if he/she lived that life. The reader feels what the subject feels, knows how the subject thinks, understands the life philosophy. Upon putting down Eddie Robinson, the reader knows a lot of things about Eddie Robinson. But the reader doesn't know Eddie Robinson.
One of the best sports biographies of the past decade is Jane Leavy's Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy. Leavy makes her readers live the life of Koufax. The reader endures the same pain in the left elbow that Koufax endured. The reader relives the agony of Koufax deciding to skip a start in the World Series because it fell on the same day as a religious holiday.
The life of Eddie Robinson deserves such attention. It's not enough to know his players worshipped him because ultimately, the reader doesn't know why his players worshipped Robinson. The reader is told he's a coaching genius, but doesn't experience his coaching genius. The reader is shown the life of Eddie Robinson, but doesn't live the life of Eddie Robinson, and if there's a life worth fully knowing, worth fully understanding, then it's the life of Eddie Robinson.
Dressman's book is a quick read. It's well-written. It's an excellent primer into the life of an exceptional man. But ultimately, that's all it is. A primer waiting for something more in-depth.