So “Remember the Titans” is Hollywood hokum?
Unless you’ve been living in a cave lately, or preparing for a presidential debate, you know that Denzel Washington’s latest starring vehicle is about Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School and its newly integrated football team that went 13-0 and won the Virginia AAA state title in 1971.
The film is wildly inaccurate, cornier than Nebraska in August and in some ways comes no closer to real life than, say, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” And you know what? From the standpoint of entertainment, none of this matters.
I saw it twice in five days and was all choked up both times, just like with “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.” I know critics are supposed to be cynical, worldly and all that, but what’s wrong with feeling good as you walk out of a theater? The real world is tough enough who needs another dose of it every time you pay $9 for a movie ticket?
Herman Boone, the rock-rumped coach portrayed by Washington, told me President Clinton had tears in his eyes as they talked after last week’s VIP premiere at the Uptown Theater. I guess that means Slick Willie felt Herman’s pain, or at least Denzel’s rendering of it.
Even Boone, who could have been the severest critic of all, had good things to say about “Titans,” and no wonder. As he prepared to play a round last week at Langston Golf Course in Northeast, people kept coming up and offering congratulations. How many high school coaches, white or black, are remembered 30 years later?
“I found it hard to enjoy just as entertainment because I kept seeing me out there like some raving lunatic,” said Boone, who has mellowed a bit in his 60s. “I used to spank players, but I’d hug them, too the movie doesn’t show that. Yeah, I was real tough, but all coaches were then, like Lombardi and Hayes.”
Boone sighed. “There was a time when you had all this bull, saying things like ‘don’t get blood on my uniform’ and ‘wipe your wounds with grass.’ Coaches used to teach you to tackle a guy right under his chin today that would be considered unnecessary violence. I was a mean, hard-nose son of a . . . but even I changed eventually. Bob Knight didn’t, and that’s why he got in trouble.”
Another sigh. “Denzel was pretty much right on. I was a consultant, and I couldn’t allow him to be [shown as] sensitive. I had to play it like ‘my way or the highway,’ and I don’t apologize. I didn’t ask for kids to come in from all parts of the city and for people to treat me as some kind of head nigger.”
Bill Yoast, the veteran head coach who was named Boone’s assistant when three (not two) city high schools merged, had no complaints about the film either, although one of its most dubious characterizations portrays his 9-year-old daughter, Sheryl, as a ranting, raving brat who should be blistered on her hindquarters and sent to bed without supper.
“Oh, sure, they took a lot of liberties,” said Yoast, who is played nicely by Will Patton. “Sheryl was a big football fan. She spent a lot of time around the team, but she didn’t act like that. . . . You know, Herman would hit players upside the head, be real tough, and I was never like that. It was just a difference in philosophy.”
Fair enough. And although they don’t really matter, as a public service let’s point out some of the major inaccuracies in “Titans,” with the help of T.C. alumnus and historian Greg Papatis.
Although racial tensions existed, Alexandria in 1971 was not the redneck backwater shown. “All the racial stuff that was a bit of a stretch,” said Earl Cook, a black defensive back and now deputy chief of the Alexandria Police Department. Added Bob Luckett, a white center and now deputy chief of the Alexandria Fire Department: “We didn’t know we were making history we were just playing football.”
Yoast, a head coach for only seven years before joining Boone, was never nominated for the Virginia High School League Hall of Fame.
Star linebacker Gerry Bertier was paralyzed when he drove his car into a telephone pole after the postseason awards banquet, not when his car was sideswiped before the title game. And the stricken Bertier is shown watching the state title game on television in his hospital room; it was not televised.
T.C. defeated Andrew Lewis 27-0 in the state final, rather than edging George C. Marshall (a Northern Region rival) on the last play. However, a 21-16 midseason victory over Marshall was the Titans’ only close game all season.
Newcomer Ronnie Bass won the quarterback job in preseason practice rather than taking over when Jerry Harris was injured in the third game.
Nobody played both offense and defense, as suggested on celluloid.
There were many more such imaginative touches in the service of drama big deal. The “Titans” offers a valuable and valid message about respect and friendship among people of different backgrounds and shows how far we have come.
It’s a movie, for heaven’s sakes, and a good one. Let’s leave it at that.