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Humbled by Grambling greatness

People like myself who grew up in the South and attended historically black colleges and universities (also known as HBCUs), we knew all about Grambling. We were very aware of its tradition, and of course, its legendary coach, Eddie Robinson.

To us, Robinson was more than a coach. He was a larger than life figure. It would have been a dream come true to play for him, but playing against him was just as special.

That opportunity presented itself on Sept. 21, 1985, when my alma mater, North Carolina Central University, faced Grambling in the Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Classic at Yankee Stadium.

The game annually pitted two black college football teams, but my teammates and I knew that the 37,000 people who attended came to see Grambling. The Tigers were the show and we were mere props.

That didn't matter because we were getting a chance to play the kings of black college football. Grambling was Notre Dame, USC and Florida all rolled into one. More important, this was an opportunity to face Robinson. To us, it was the equivalent of meeting Vince Lombardi.

We wanted to win the game, but we had mixed emotions. A lot of us always rooted for Grambling, which provided an opportunity for African-American football players to showcase their talents at a time when they were shut out by predominantly white programs.

We were proud of the fact that Robinson's success opened the door for a lot of black college players to make it in the NFL. When Doug Williams quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to the title in Super Bowl XXII, he didn't just represent Grambling. He represented all black college players.

So for three hours, my NCCU teammates and I had to put all that aside and treat Grambling like any other football team. Easier said than done.

There was a feeling of awe seeing Robinson prowling the sideline. We got so caught up in that, we forgot about playing football. Early in the second quarter, we were down, 24-0.

We figured Grambling would come out and try to run the ball down our throats. Instead, Robinson crossed us up and unleashed a devastating pass attack for which we had no answer.

Our offense finally snapped out of it in the second quarter and we scored to cut the deficit to 24-7. But Grambling quickly answered and we went into halftime down, 31-7.

Our coach, the late Henry Lattimore, was livid. I can't tell you everything he said because this is a family newspaper. The clean version was he expressed disappointment in our performance and warned there would be dire consequences in practice the following week if we didn't give a better effort in the second half.

We played better, but there would be no miraculous comeback. Grambling was simply too good and won easily, 45-14. The classy Robinson, who shook the hand of every NCCU player afterward, said the score wasn't indicative of how competitive the game was. But he was being kind. The fact is the outcome could have been worse had Robinson not called off the dogs or if he went into the game without three starters.

Yes, we got our heads handed to us but we got a chance to be part of history. The victory boosted Robinson's career record to 322-106-15, leaving him just two wins away from passing Alabama legend Paul "Bear" Bryant as the winningest coach in college football.

I've met a lot of athletes and coaches, but nothing compares to my encounter with Robinson. He may be gone, but the memories he left behind will endure forever.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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