They began arriving soon after the sun came up over the piney woods: football greats, government figures and everyday people – all of them there to say goodbye to former Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson.
“Most coaches are rated by the players they recruit,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said as he waited for Robinson’s funeral to start in the school’s new assembly center. “Coach was known for how many players he graduated and sent on to successful lives.”
About 5,000 people attended Wednesday’s funeral – just across the street from the stadium where Robinson and his players made history.
“It’s like coming to your father’s funeral,” said Robert “Big Bird” Smith, who played for Robinson and was an assistant coach during Robinson’s final four years at Grambling. ”He was like a father to everyone that ever played for him.”
The funeral wrapped up three days of mourning that stretched across the state from Memorial Hall at the state Capitol in Baton Rouge to Memorial Garden, a cemetery two miles from the college.
A plywood sign hung at the Grambling exit off Interstate 20 read “Eddie Robinson, La.” And for the people of this little city and school, it certainly seemed that way.
Robinson died last week at 88. He was widely admired as one of the nation’s winningest college football coaches and as a mentor to the young black men whose lives he influenced for 57 years.
“He was the most influential person in my life,” said Charlie Joiner, now a wide receivers coach with the Kansas City Chiefs. “His first lesson for all of us was to first become a good American, then a good football player.”
The 26 pallbearers included at least 15 former NFL players, some of the more than 200 Robinson sent to that league.
“It feels like the football team is getting ready for a road trip,” said Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, who played nine years in the NFL. “I almost expect Coach to start rounding us up for the bus.”
Former players slapped each other on the back, and hugged as they waited for the service to begin. Some brought cow bells and rang them, a reminder of Robinson’s trips through the athletic dorm to wake players for class or church.
“Every guy here hears that bell every morning in his mind,” Smith said. “It’s part of what Coach left with us.”
When Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Brown asked all the people that had played for Robinson to stand, hundreds rose throughout the auditorium.
The crowd in the assembly center also included U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.
Sen. Landrieu presented Robinson’s widow, Doris, a proclamation passed by the Senate and an American Flag that flew over the nation’s Capitol.
“When he walked on that field in 1941, it wasn’t flat, it wasn’t even, it was slanted up sharply,” Landrieu said. “It’s not level yet, but because of his life it’s getting there and we all are beneficiaries of that.”
Robinson took over at Grambling State in 1941, when the school was the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute and strict segregation ruled the South. As he built the program into one of the most successful, he opened opportunities for the young men he coached.
Richard Lapchick, the director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, wrote a biography of Robinson.
“He loved an America that wouldn’t allow him to buy a ticket to a game at LSU when he was a young boy, yet had him lay in state in the Capitol in that same city,” Lapchick said.
Following the eulogy, Robinson’s great-grandson, 9-year-old Eddie Robinson IV, rang one of the coach’s old cowbells, lofting it over his head and shaking it vigorously. Then the Grambling Band played the school fight song one final time for Robinson as his former players carried the coffin from the building.