Breaking the Line by Samuel G. Freedman (Simon and Schuster, 2013)
As the 2016 football season gets under way, it is a good time to reflect on a pivotal year in the history, not only of the sport, but of the American Civil Rights movement. New York Times columnist, Samuel G. Freedman, a native of Highland Park, NJ, succeeds brilliantly in recounting the remarkable achievements of two legendary black coaches, Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither, during their long careers, and their leadership as they moved their teams to the finale of the football season of 1967. The climax of the 1967 season was a game known as the Orange Blossom Classic, unofficially regarded as the championship of black college football.
The events leading up to the Orange Blossom Classic and Freedman's skillful retelling of that game, are fascinating and enlightening for football aficionados, as well as those who are passionate about understanding the complexities of modern American history. Freedman tells us, “Grambling and Florida A &M were the most storied teams in all of black college football. Their respective head coaches, Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither, were legendary within their world. Their quarterbacks, James Harris and Ken Riley, were the best ever to have played the position at each school. All around the coaches and players, in that eventful year, swirled the crosswinds of Civil rights activism, black nationalism, white backlash, growing integration, slum insurrection, soaring hopes, and dashed expectations.” (p. 8) Freedman builds a strong case that the events of the season of '67 led the way to total integration of college and professional football teams, although there are still struggles that black players contend with today.
In 1937, Jake Gaither, then 34 years old, ventured south with his wife, Sadie, to Tallahassee, Florida to take the helm of the football team, which had been struggling for years. Gaither had grown up in Tennessee, and the venture to the Deep South of Florida provided a culture shock for his wife and him as they struggled to fit in. Gaither's superior at Florida A&M, President Lee, a man of vision for the students of the university, had been born a slave and was trained by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. He believed that Florida A&M should offer courses in liberal arts as well as the practical skills that most students needed for personal success and survival. Gaither immediately threw himself into the rigors of coaching on the college level and tasted success in his first year as head coach, with his team going 6-1-1 and capturing the conference title.
The only job to which Eddie Robinson, a native son of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had ever aspired was that of football coach. He frustrated his teachers while in high school by scribbling football plays all over his notebooks. He played quarterback both at McKinley High School and Leland College so that early on he understood the hunger that young, black athletes had to lead a team in the quarterback position, as well as taking leadership roles in the greater society. When Robinson was offered the head coaching position at Grambling College in northern Louisiana, he grabbed it despite the risks moving to the volatile Ruston, a small town near the college, would bring to him and his wife, Doris.
Breaking the Line is the story of these two visionary coaches and their struggles for success that draw the reader into the story leading to the big game of 1967. By the time Robinson and Gaither met face to face in the Orange Blossom Classic, they had endured indignities both for their teams and in their personal lives. However, their struggles were forgotten, considered the past, and the bolder voices of young players and students on campus were not interested in moving civil rights along by being patient and playing by rules that they felt had been established by the whites in power. The dichotomy in the thinking between the early days of both coaches' careers and the modern era is the most poignant issue in Freeman's recounting of the days leading up to the climactic game.
Robinson realized that he had an unusually talented quarterback in 1967, a young man named James Harris. Robinson burned with the desire to see that Harris had a shot at playing quarterback in the NFL. Although blacks had been playing professional football for quite some time, every time a black quarterback had been drafted, his position had been changed. There was a terrible misconception that black athletes were not intellectually astute enough to lead a team.
Gaiter's dream was to have his team play against a predominantly white team to prove that blacks could dominate in a game that would certainly shake the South during that era. Both coaches were able to see their goals come to fruition, but success was hard fought.
During the 2016 pre-season, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco '49ers, caused quite a stir when he took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. He explained that he was protesting the way that blacks are treated in the United States, and he wanted to make his feelings known in a non-violent manner. Today, Kaepernick is one of only eight black starting quarterbacks in the NFL, including Russell Williams of the Seattle Sea Hawks, Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings, E.J. Manuel of the Buffalo Bills, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, Geno Smith of the New York Jets, James Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Robert Griffin III of the Philadelphia Eagles. There are ten others in the league who are non-starters. While the numbers of black quarterbacks has increased over the years, there is still racial under-representation in the leadership roles.
Consider that there are only five black head coaches in the NFL, including Todd Bowles of the NY Jets, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jim Caldwell of the Detroit Lions, Marvin Louis of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Lovie Smith of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There are six black general managers, including Martin Mayhew of the Detroit Lions, Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens, Doug Whaley of the Buffalo Bills, Rick Smith of the Houston Texans, Jerry Reese of the NY Giants, and Reggie McKenzie of the Oakland Raiders. To date not a single NFL team is owned by a person of color.
Thus, while college teams are no longer segregated, and the Orange Blossom Bowl eventually faded away due to the fact that so many schools became integrated, including the predominantly black institutions, we have a way to go before the gap between top level positions closes permanently. Freedman's brilliant, riveting story focuses us on what was just a turning point in athletic competition and civil rights. Freedman's research into the football seasons of both Grambling and Florida A&M is meticulous and eloquently told. Breaking the Line is a rich and important story that demands to be read.
Samuel G. Freedman, author of a number of well-regarded books, was a finalist in the 1997 Pulitzer Prize competition for his book called The Inheritance. Another non-fiction work, Small Victories, was a finalist for the 1990 National Book Award, and in 1993 Freedman's Upon this Rock won the Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism.
*Information on quarterbacks, coaches, and general managers comes from and article from Black Athlete Sports Network by firstname.lastname@example.org