Not an easy one to forget

Updated: July 23, 2004, 1:50 AM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

It was New Year's Day, 2002 and Eddie Robinson had been going for 45 minutes on the telephone now. Halfway across the country, the caller had stopped asking questions and just listened. The call had been made to discuss Tyrone Willingham, but the conversation moved beyond the significance of hiring a black man at Notre Dame. The old coach was on a roll, spinning stories out of one of sport's greatest minds.

Eddie Robinson
Eddie Robinson had so many wonderful stories to tell.
It felt like Eddie Robinson could've kept telling his stories forever.

History owed him that, didn't it?

Cruelly, forever never lasts when Alzheimer's comes calling. The memories fade, the stories stop and down in Grambling, La., Robinson has failed so quickly to the affliction, Doris Robinson says she can no longer even take her husband out of the house for lunch together.

He gets up in the morning, eats his breakfast and just feels like going back to bed. Every day, Alzheimer's steals a little more of him.

And with it, Robinson has turned into yet another elderly man who loses a sense of history, of family, of self. No more stories out of him, no more beautiful memories of a historic coaching career that started and ended at Grambling.

"I don't guess Alzheimer's has done him any worse than it's done anybody else," Doris told the Associated Press. "We're trying to live with it."

Of course, this is hardest on his family. They'll suffer, the way everyone family suffers when Alzheimer's steals the sparkle out of a man's eyes, leaving him with an empty, sad gaze. If Eddie Robinson, 85, loses out on looking back at his extraordinary career, on the twilight of life with his beloved bride and children, and grand children and great children, he will still have something that tens of thousands of those afflicted with Alzheimer's never will: The history books and records, and colleagues and generations of grateful players and students to make sure nobody ever forgets the substance of his story.

He coached 55 years at Grambling, beginning for $63.75 a month when the school was still called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, his first day on the job just three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He would win 408 games, send dozens of players to the pros, and far more onto graduation and good lives. The legend of Eddie Robinson survives, too important an artifact in American history to be forgotten.

It is still easy to recall the sharpness of his memory on the phone that day, telling the story of his trip to Los Angeles in 1977 for a meeting with Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom about coaching his football team. In his heart, Robinson knew he was never leaving Grambling. He couldn't do it.

"I had Doug Williams going into his senior year, and I wasn't ready to leave Grambling," he said. Incredulous, Rosenbloom asked him, "'I'm offering you one of the leading positions in football, and you're telling me about a player you won't leave?' "

After that, the owner requested that Robinson write down his Grambling salary on a sheet of paper and turn it face down. Rosenbloom wrote out his offer to coach the Rams on a separate sheet. Together, they flipped the two papers over and discovered the differences.

"When I saw that number, I couldn't believe my eyes," Robinson laughed all those years later.

"I still kid my wife about how far we could've gone with that kind of salary."

It wouldn't be one of those modern power plays that coaches use these days to leverage raises at present jobs. No, Robinson had a different motive. A noble one. For the good of black coaches everywhere, the sport needed to hear that he had been offered a chance to coach in the National Football League. At the time, Robinson figured it wouldn't be long until the first black coach was hired. He was wrong. It would take another decade, until 1989, when Al Davis hired Art Shell with the Raiders.

As a young coach, Robinson chased across the country to hear Notre Dame's Frank Leahy speak at clinics. He had a great grandson, Quentin Burrell, who landed a football scholarship at Notre Dame. Considering the circumstances for a young black football player when Robinson started in the sport in 1941, that was extraordinary enough. Yet then, to have Willingham become his coach at Notre Dame, that was beyond his wildest dreams.

"That great grandson of mine has gone and made one of the finest teams in the history of college football and I have such a good feeling about it," Robinson said. "And now, to go out to Notre Dame and see Coach Willingham down on the field, down there where Rockne and Leahy used to coach too?"

Over the phone, Eddie Robinson's words turned unsteady, his voice started to crack.

"That'll be some day, I'll tell you," he said, planning that trip for the fall of 2002.

"Some day."

Eddie Robinson lived to see that day in South Bend, but he'll have a difficult time remembering it.

So, please do the old coach, his family, his amazing American legacy, a favor.

Remember it for him, will you?

Remember it all.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.

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