October 13, 2011
Coach remembers the Titans
Herman Boone recounts how team overcame segregation
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Former football coach Herman Boone, 75, speaks on Wednesday at SUNY Cortland. Boone was the inspiration for the 2000 movie, “Remember the Titans,” in which he was portrayed by Denzel Washington.
Herman Boone became head football coach at a high school formed by merging three schools, bringing together black and white players who had no desire to be teammates.
It was the fall of 1971, and Alexandria, Va., was feeling the aftershocks of integration. He taught the players to respect each other and become friends, ultimately winning a state championship.
That story was captured in the 2000 film “Remember the Titans,” starring Denzel Washington as Boone and Will Patton as Bill Yoast, the white head coach he replaced.
“They had more than 20 white head coaches for other sports and they needed a black head coach,” Boone, 75, told a crowd at SUNY Cortland’s Corey Union on Wednesday. “They didn’t know I had won five state championships in North Carolina. I found out I had been hired in the July 27 Washington Post. I didn’t want to do it, not that way. I said I’m not a black coach, I’m a coach who happens to be black.”
Boone spoke for an hour to a crowd of 500 people, mostly students, about the need for respect and unity across races, ages, sexual orientations and body types.
He told a few stories about the Titans football team at T.C. Williams High School, a group of men he still talks to, which has a charitable foundation. But he also urged the students to learn the power of respecting other people, a quality he used to mold the 1971 Titans.
“Our country is the only one in the world where people are from every country in the world,” he said. “We’re all colors, all shapes. Look around. You’re like a quilt your grandmother made for you to sleep in the cold.”
Boone said it was odd that people accept all kinds of animals, birds, landscapes and flowers, but not all kinds of people.
He said “Remember the Titans” is not about football, it is about the lessons of learning to work together. The players accepted the challenge of integration and put aside the history that had taught them to despise each other’s races.
Boone said the movie’s producers took a few liberties with the true story but it was mostly accurate.
He said he deprived the players of water during practice, which was common but silly, and he really did mock two players who said they would not play for a black man by calling them Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, and saying he was replacing their fathers for that time.
Another key scene was true. He did divide the players into a bus for offense and a bus for defense on a trip to Pennsylvania for preseason training. He said the players “looked at me like I’d lost my mind.”
Boone made the players jog to the Gettysburg battlefield during that camp, lecturing them about the battle that he said led to a unified nation.
He said star player Gerry (pronounced “Gary”) Bertier became paralyzed in a car accident, but after the state championship game, not before it as the film depicted.
“He reached down to change a cassette and went off the road, hit a tree,” he said. Bertier discovered he could not get into the high school or get to the second floor in his wheelchair, and became an advocate for the handicapped. He died eight years later in March 1981, when a drunk driver hit his car, Boone said.
Boone said he came to Virginia after being fired in North Carolina for joining the civil rights movement.
Boone said he still talks to players such as Julius Campbell and Ron “Sunshine” Bass, and to Yoast, who is 86.
SUNY Cortland junior Matt Henrie was one of the dozens of people who lined up afterward to talk to Boone or take a photograph with him. He asked Boone about the play that won the state championship, a climactic scene in the movie.
“I asked him if ‘fake 23 blast’ was real, and he took a piece of paper and drew it out for me,” Henrie said, gripping the paper, which also had Boone’s autograph. “I’m a physical education major and I want to be a coach. I liked his message.”
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