GRAMBLING, La. -- 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
"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
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
"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
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.