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'Remember the Titans' coach reveals true self

Fans of the 2000 movie "Remember the Titans" probably wondered whether the captivating football coach played by Denzel Washington was true to reality.

Students and faculty members at Niagara County Community College got a resounding "yes" to that question Wednesday, as coach Herman Boone delivered a speech full of tell-it-like-it-is truths, one-liners and his trademark motivational fire.

"I'm a person of expectations, and I do not sacrifice things I believe in," Boone said in the college's auditorium. "I don't go for 'Do it again, do it again.' You do it right the first time."

Those high demands became legend in the hit movie, which chronicled Boone's guidance of a 1971 high school football team in Alexandria, Va., that was newly integrated in a community exploding with racial tensions.

"They were among the very few [high school athletes] in the country, and maybe the first in the country, to show the world to reject the fear of diversity and celebrate the differences of diversity," Boone said. "They made it work in spite of what was passed down to them because they learned to talk to each other."

Boone inherited a team, and a community, that was fearful of the integration that a federal judge ordered at T.C. Williams High School. As the team traveled through some parts of the South, its school bus windows were repeatedly broken with bricks and shotgun blasts, he said.

But the team forged a bond of steel through the hard practices of summer, where Boone pushed the group to its breaking point, relentlessly barked orders and required black and white players to spend two hours each night conversing.

In a signature scene, he takes the team to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg and compares the racial struggles from the 1970s to those of the Civil War, describing the misplaced hatred that tore the nation apart.

"I said to myself, 'If two armies can meet each other and fight on that battlefield, then we can come out of here and play with one team,' " Boone said Wednesday. "People who seemed to hate each other at first were now eating food out of each other's hands. They tell me 30 years later that experience will stick with them for a lifetime."

Those lessons are just as true today, Boone told the students, because the importance of respect hasn't changed.

"I never had any visions of forcing people onto other people to integrate, but I had a vision of respect, where respect becomes trust, and trust becomes the glue that binds a community together," he said.

"You may not like him, and you may not like him," Boone said, pointing at two students. "But you will respect each other."

Boone added that the majority of the movie was historically accurate, with only a handful of scenes taking a new form, adding that he was even "tougher" on his team than the script indicated.

He said that America has "made a lot of progress" in its racial relations since the 1970s but that it still has "a long way to go."

"We're always going to have racial problems unless we get rid of one word: 'superiority,' " he said. "If people learn to respect the soul of an individual rather than reject them based on the color of their skin, all of us will get along on this planet of ours."

Now retired, Boone, 76, spoke privately with NCCC student-athletes before the speech. It was his first visit back to what he called the "most beautiful" part of the state since he spoke at the college in 2006.

"It was amazing, and he really talked some sense into some athletes," said Molly Cole, president of the college's student programming board. "His story from 'Remember the Titans' is just extremely inspirational."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com