Monday, October 2, 2000

Never mind Hollywood’s hokey history: This is the way things really happened during the memorable football season of 1971 at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School.

Denzel Washington’s new film, “Remember the Titans,” gets some facts right, but the caveat “based on a true story” allows its scriptwriters to unleash their imaginations in the service of cornball drama. So now that true story …

Before the school year of 1971-72 began, three four-year institutions had been merged to achieve better racial balance after nearly a decade of integration. Hammond, where the student body was 97 percent white, and George Washington, 51 percent, would become middle schools for grades 9 and 10. That made T.C. (as it is known locally) the city’s only public school for grades 11 and 12. Suddenly the 6-year-old facility on upper King Street had become a “super school” likely to dominate Northern Virginia sports.

Its football coach was 35-year-old Herman Boone, the first black to be head man at a predominantly white school in town. Boone had arrived as an assistant coach in 1969 after winning several championships at black schools in North Carolina. He was tough and, some thought, unduly abrasive.

In his new job, Boone had two special burdens. First, the Titans were expected to win and win big. Second, he had been selected over the more experienced Bill Yoast, a white man who had coached Hammond to a regional championship two years earlier. Some thought there was only reason the color of Boone’s skin, in an early example of political correctness.

The burning question was whether black players and white players, mostly segregated in a city slow to shake off its Southern heritage, could exist and win together. Toward this end, Boone took the team to Gettysburg (Pa.) College for a week in August, forcing the players to coexist whether they wanted to or not. In the process, many of the old prejudices vanished or became submerged.

“We didn’t always love each other, but we respected each other,” Boone says. “[I told them] you will respect each other’s cultures and ideas. I demand it.”

At one point, Boone led his players to a Gettysburg cemetery and preached about the need for tolerance and brotherhood, “although it wasn’t at 3 a.m., and we didn’t run through a swamp to get there,” he says, referring to scenes in the movie.

Two months later, star linebacker Gerry Bertier, a refugee from Hammond, told The Washington Post, “At first I was displeased yes, hateful about changing schools. I didn’t know many blacks, and the ones I played against I didn’t like very much. But when we came back [from camp], we were a football team… . Now we all goof around together. Even the people I thought I hated are my friends. It’s been the greatest experience I’ve ever had.”

Now the job was to convince other students and parents, and it didn’t come easy. When school started, football players patrolled the hallways in their jerseys, attempting to be peacemakers when trouble arose. But sometimes it happened out of sight.

“It was one hell of a struggle to keep things going,” Boone recalls. “Alexandria wasn’t a sleepy little town any longer, but it was still under the influence of a good-ol’-boy mentality [among whites]. I don’t know if prejudice was exhibited on a daily basis, but it was there.

“The movie didn’t show the Black Panthers hanging out in the bathrooms where white kids weren’t supposed to go. Working there was never easy never easy when you had to rescue two or three kids from the bathroom every day.”

Boone got another negative taste of the city’s racial climate when Howard University athletic director Leo Miles brought him to the Old Dominion Boat Club for an annual Sportsman’s Club meeting of high school coaches.

“They had to take a special vote to see if I could go into the bar and I don’t even drink,” Boone says. “You tell me that isn’t prejudice? Eddie Crane [a Washington sportswriter and former club president] threatened to resign from the club unless I was admitted.”

When the season started, the Titans won and won and won some more. Thirteen straight games they won, finishing with a 27-0 rout of Andrew Lewis of Salem in the state Class AAA championship game in Roanoke. Said losing coach Eddie Joyce, also Salem’s mayor: “If they played in our neck of the woods, I’d have to think about outlawing them. I knew they were great before, and now I’ve got to say they’re kind of super.”

Super indeed. The Titans outscored opponents 357-45 and posted nine shutouts. In the regional title game, they rolled 28-0 over perennial power Annandale, whose coach, Bob Hardage, recalls, “I never went into a game not thinking we could win, but I knew we’d have to play a perfect game to beat them.”

T.C.’s only tight squeeze came in the fifth game against George C. Marshall, coached by Northern Virginia legend Ed Henry. The Titans rallied to win 21-16 on a 75-yard run by Frankie Glascoe with 5:20 left. (The film chooses to portray this thriller as the state championship. On celluloid, of course, T.C. wins with a touchdown on the final play.)

“Look at it from Hollywood’s perspective,” Boone says understandingly. “Their job is to put butts in the seats, and how exciting would a 27-0 final be? Besides, if we hadn’t beaten Marshall [and won the state title], I would have been fired no doubt about it. The school board already was discussing it.”

The Titans overflowed with individual talent. Ronnie Bass, a transfer from California, provided steady quarterbacking after winning the job from Jerry Harris. Defensive end Julius Campbell a black whose relationship with the white Bertier is crucial to the movie and tight end Brad Smith were all-state. Running backs Glascoe and Henry Castro and defensive back Earl Cook were stalwarts. There were many others who played starring roles.

More than 250 family and friends greeted the team uproariously when it returned to National Airport after winning the state title. Said one delirious fan: “Only the Redskins can beat them.”

So the Titans ruled first in Virginia, second in national polls and subsequently regarded as the best high school team ever hereabouts but tragedy loomed. On Dec. 12, following the school’s awards banquet, Bertier was permanently paralyzed from the waist down when his car hit a telephone pole; some reports indicated he was drunk. Ultimately, Bertier became an admirable advocate for the handicapped and won a medal in the National Wheelchair Games. Ironically, he was fatally injured at the age of 27 when his car was hit head-on by a hit-and-run driver on a Charlottesville road in 1981.

T.C. remained strong in football but never again captured a state championship under Boone. The following season, the Titans finished 8-2, then won the regional title in 1973 with a 10-0-1 record before faltering in the state playoffs.

After Boone was fired in 1979 following the school’s first losing season, the program faltered before rebounding with two unbeaten teams, two state titles and a composite 89-18-2 mark from 1982 through 1990 under Glenn Furman. But in the ‘90s, another recession set in as times changed and interest in football declined among students. The school has had only one winning season since 1990 (6-4 in ‘95) and is 7-18 over the last 2 and 1/2 seasons.

In the final analysis, did this high school football team really make a contribution toward racial harmony in Alexandria, Virginia and the nation? Says Boone: “Our biggest accomplishment was that the players got to know each other as human beings instead of monsters, they showed the rest of the student body that it was OK to have a friend of a different race, and those students showed their parents.”

As epitaphs go, that will do nicely. The Titans should be remembered and so should the times in which they played.

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