A quiet friendship between two titans

They talked and talked on the phone, George Steinbrenner and Eddie Robinson did, titan to titan, man to man. Theirs was not a game-day relationship between a booster and a coach, or some charitable arrangement between the white son of a shipping tycoon and the black son of a sharecropper.

The owner of the New York Yankees and the head football coach of the Grambling State Tigers were underdogs who came to respect, admire and love each other. George Steinbrenner had to overcome a father who never thought he'd amount to much. Eddie Robinson had to overcome a society that thought the same of him.

Steinbrenner's connection to Robinson was a throwaway line in the Boss' obits, wedged somewhere between his contribution to the Olympic movement and his civic awards in Tampa, Fla. But make no mistake:

If Steinbrenner died as the face of baseball's fiscal imbalance, as the overlord of a $200 million payroll and a billion-dollar-plus franchise, he had a personal stake in a small-market team. The Grambling State Tigers brought out the best in him.

"George Steinbrenner made a statement one time that made us all proud," Eddie Robinson Jr., son of the late coach, said as he wept into the phone. "He said he didn't see how Grambling was able to do the things they did with the resources they had. He said he'd never seen anything like it."

Yes, at Robinson Sr.'s request, Steinbrenner acted as a benefactor of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Urban League Classic -- a game pitting Grambling against another historically black college to fund scholarships for students in need -- at a time when the Classic was in dire financial straits. And yes, Steinbrenner did facilitate the game's move to Shea Stadium (during Yankee Stadium's renovations), back to the Bronx and, ultimately, to Giants Stadium.

Only the Boss had an equally profound impact on Grambling when he sent his Yankees to play on-campus exhibitions against the Tigers in three different seasons, and when he agreed to speak at the football team's banquet following Doug Williams' senior year.

The Yankees had just won their first World Series title under Steinbrenner in 1977, and Grambling's Black and Gold Room was packed with a few hundred guests. "He talked about having a presence in the community, and working hard, and overcoming the odds," Williams recalled. "He talked about being strong and fair, and that sometimes in life you've got to make tough decisions that people might not think are fair.

"George had a lot of pep in his step, his team had just won, and he was the Boss. But he didn't have to say a word. For George Steinbrenner just to show up, it told us that we were somebody at Grambling."

On his first journey to New York, Williams was among the many Grambling players from backwater Southern towns whose flight into the big city represented their first trip on a plane.

"And to end up on the same field where Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio played?" Williams said. "George gave us an experience and opportunity that really affected us."

Steinbrenner had acted on his blossoming friendship with Robinson, who would claim 408 victories at Grambling over a career that started before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and ended after the death of Princess Di.

Steinbrenner ranked winning behind breathing -- it was close -- on his list of priorities, and he saw Robinson as the ultimate winner and survivor. The Boss knew that the same coach who had met Knute Rockne and attended Frank Leahy's clinics deserved a shot at the Notre Dames of the sport, and was denied because of the color of his skin.

This might not be something Rush Limbaugh could ever fathom, but the Steinbrenner-Robinson partnership transcended the stubborn boundaries of race.

"It wasn't anything for them to talk for an hour or more on the phone," Robinson's widow, Doris, said. "Eddie would get off the phone and say, 'Listen to what George just said,' and he'd have the whole house laughing.

"Mr. Steinbrenner was the rich one, but it was always an even thing as far as their friendship was concerned."

Up in the Bronx, Steinbrenner made sure Doris Robinson watched her husband's team from his Yankee Stadium suite. Down in the bayou, the Robinsons were more than happy to match his hospitality.

The Yankees played their final exhibition at Grambling in 1997, after winning it all the previous October. Steinbrenner watched from the bleachers and signed autographs. "We had whites and blacks come from all over to see those games," Doris Robinson said.

"If George had just walked them out on the field and not played," Eddie Jr. said, "that would've been fine with us. To have the New York Yankees on the Grambling baseball field, that just blew everybody down here away."

Steinbrenner would pay for the installation of lights at Grambling's field, endow a National Football Foundation scholarship fund in Robinson's name, and support the construction of the Eddie Robinson Museum.

When Steinbrenner first came to bat for the Whitney Young game in the '70s, Bear Bryant's Alabama and the rest of the Division I powers in the South were recruiting African-American players like never before, drawing them away from the historically black colleges that once served as necessary landing spots.

"So it was probably a time when our schools needed support the most," Eddie Jr. said.

Williams was a first-round draft pick out of Grambling, and later became the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl. Upon shredding John Elway's Broncos in the big game, Williams heard his old Grambling coach tell him his triumph was "just like Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium. You won't realize the impact of this for years."

As a Tampa Bay Buccaneers executive in recent years, Williams would cross the street to the Yankees' spring training facility to catch up with the owner who let him play on Joe Louis' stage.

"He wasn't the Boss of old," Williams said, "but he had some awareness. He always congratulated me on my career, and he told me he liked the way I handled myself as a player."

Steinbrenner loved the way Eddie Robinson handled himself as a coach. A former football assistant at Northwestern and Purdue, Steinbrenner was fond of talking about linebackers and pass rushers with the man who had recruited his fair share of them.

"My father and George were straight shooters," Eddie Jr. said. "My father always told me George was one of best friends he ever had."

When Robinson died in 2007, Steinbrenner called him "an extraordinary man." In the wake of the Boss' death, Robinson's family wanted to return the favor.

"This is a hell of a personal loss to us," Eddie Jr. said through the tears. "And honestly, we're all having a real problem getting over it."

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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