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Doris Robinson: Not just the coach's wife

With her granddaughter Cheryl Robinson Clifton, Doris Robinson on the night in 2014 she was inducted into the Grambling Legends Sports Hall of Fame. Dacia Idom/The News-Star/USA Today Sports

Early in the summer of 2014, Cherie Kirkland paid a visit to her grandmother in Grambling, Louisiana, with the specific goal of shopping for a dress. Her grandmother, Doris Robinson, was 95 years old, a widow who had outlived both of her children. Yet there was a significant event coming up on her calendar, and her lifelong sense of style was undimmed by the decades.

So Kirkland and Robinson drove to Monroe, the largest city within 50 miles, and they chose a royal-blue dress, lightly sequined to catch the light, with a matching jacket. Best of all, the color was the same one associated with Sigma Gamma Rho, the African-American sorority Robinson had joined as a college student in the late 1930s.

"Very few things excite me now," Robinson told a local television reporter a few days later. "But I'm excited about that." She was referring to her induction on July 12, 2014, into the Grambling Legends Hall of Fame. Most of its members were the athletic stars who made the small black college in the piney woods of northern Louisiana into a national brand: football players Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner, basketball center Willis Reed, baseball batting champion Ralph Garr.

Robinson was being inducted in another role, as the lifelong partner of Grambling's legendary football coach, Eddie Robinson. To say she was being honored as the coach's wife, though, would be to drastically understate her importance to the Grambling program, one that was less about producing elite athletes than dignified, educated young men, each one living proof of the case for black equality during an era of rampant segregation.

Now, Doris Robinson's royal-blue dress will serve a different purpose. She died on Sept. 16 at the age of 96. Her funeral service -- a "homegoing," in the parlance of black Christianity -- will be held on the Grambling campus Sept. 24. She will be buried in the same outfit she had worn for enshrinement as a Grambling Legend.

Eddie Robinson is best-known, of course, for the multitude of players he sent on to the NFL and for his lifetime record of 408-165-15, which was best among major-college coaches at the time he retired. Yet Robinson also used football, with its nearly religious power in the South, as a means of overturning segregation. Among the young men he produced were the first black player in the modern NFL (Tank Younger), the first black quarterback to regularly start (James Harris), and the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl (Doug Williams).

Doris Robinson was her husband's companion and collaborator in all of these efforts. The coach often said his motto was "one job, one wife." As Williams told the Monroe television station KTVE last year: "Coach Robinson boasts not about his record, not about the number of years he coached, but the number of years he was married. That meant more to him than anything."

The relationship between Eddie Robinson and Doris Mott, as she was then known, preceded marriage by 10 years or more. They grew up together in the black neighborhood of South Baton Rouge, and both attended its McKinley High School. Courting Doris Mott, in fact, was one of the first acts of Eddie Robinson's lifelong quest for self-improvement. He was the son of a sharecropper and a maid, the child of a broken home, taking all manner of menial jobs to help support his mother. Doris Mott was a child of the black middle class, with a father who worked for the Illinois Central railroad and a number of female relatives who were educators, which she also would become.

Eddie and Doris eloped as Leland College classmates, and soon she was pregnant. Call it serendipity or call it providence, but Doris Robinson was also responsible for Eddie Robinson getting the chance to coach at Grambling in 1941. She was attending a teacher-training program at Grambling -- or, as it was then officially called, the Negro Normal and Industrial Institute -- when she learned the school was looking for a head football coach. She sent word of the opening through her mother, who had one of the only home phones in South Baton Rouge, and she carried the message to the feed mill, where Eddie Robinson was working for 25 cents an hour.

Together, the Robinsons moved the 200 miles from Baton Rouge to Grambling, a distance measured in more than mere miles. By the standards of the Jim Crow South, Baton Rouge's racism was muted by the large Creole and Roman Catholic populations and by Gov. Huey Long's economic populism. A pinprick of a black settlement, the town of Grambling was surrounded by counties that had some of the highest rates of lynching in the entire nation. But that hostile place was where the opportunity to coach awaited.

Robinson signed on with Grambling for $63.25 a month and moved with his wife into a rooming house. City people until then, he and Doris got sick from bugs in the well water and fell asleep to the foraging sounds of possums and raccoons. "It was just nowhere," she said years later of Grambling circa 1941.

Eddie Robinson's penchant for self-reliance proved to be necessity as much as choice in his new job. Without any assistants, save the school's night watchman, Robinson not only coached football and basketball but lined the field, drove the team bus, trained the drill team for halftime shows, made sandwiches for the players on road trips, taped up the sprained ankles and knees, and called in game stories to local newspapers.

The news was not so good that first season. Grambling went 3-5, and Robinson returned home in a fury after each loss, tearing his hat off, getting so worked up that Doris worried he'd have a heart attack. "Maybe we better go back to Baton Rouge," she told him, "and you get a job at Standard Oil." The next season, Grambling went unbeaten and didn't allow a single point.

For Grambling's young men, most of them the first in their family to attend college, Robinson presented himself as a role model. Besides requiring them to attend class and church, he showed them what it meant to be a husband and father, the kind of consistent and reliable man absent from his own childhood and those of so many of his players.

"Miss Doris," as most of Grambling called his wife, taught English at the black high school in Ruston and sang as a soloist with the college choir. Eddie made a point of walking through campus holding hands with her, still sweethearts. He ate lunch with her at home on any day she wasn't teaching. And when Grambling players stopped by the coach's home in the evening, as they were permitted, they would often get a plate of dinner from Miss Doris and a glimpse of her and Eddie listening to their favorite Ellington and Sinatra records.

"What's so special about both of them," Cherie Kirkland recalls, "is that the people we saw at home were the same people the public saw. Their foundation was the same, publicly or privately. My grandmother was a very generous person, very sweet, easy to talk to and very funny. But she could also be very protective of her family. And I fully believe that the Eddie Robinson we know, though he would have been successful, wouldn't have been as successful without her. She was his speechwriter, cheerleader, shoulder to cry on. [She] picked out his clothes. She was there for everything, and he sought her out for everything."

Like many other Grambling players, James Harris met Doris Robinson soon after arriving on campus for his freshman year. For years to come, the Robinson home on Adams Street served as the surrogate home for team members.

"The way Coach carried himself, the way his office was open is the same way his home was open," Harris remembers. "And if he wasn't home when you got there, Miss Doris would make you feel comfortable, offer you snacks. She always had a smile, always asked if you needed anything, how your classes were. She was what you'd want your mother to be like."

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of "Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Game and Changed the Course of Civil Rights."