Sunday, September 7, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 242: Jerry Izenberg, A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent (#242)

Jerry Izenberg, "A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent" (1967) from Football: Great Writing about the National Sport:

It is college football season, which I know for two reasons: one, I'm living in a house in Austin with some people who are interested in college football; two, I'm living very close to the UT-Austin campus. So, yesterday I went out grocery shopping at 9--before it got too hot--and I passed a bunch of people who had set up in the stadium parking lot for some tail-gating. Think about that for a second: people set up to hang out at 9 for a game that starts at 6, knowing that it'll get up to 100 degrees around 2 or 3. That's dedication.

Which is one of the themes of today's LoA story, which is an article about how pro-football scouts discovered the talent pool available at all-black colleges, starting with Grambling State University--and starting because a series of men were dedicated to the work and to the people they served. First, there's Grambling's president, Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who took a struggling college and made it into a successful institution; second, there's coach Eddie Robinson, who Jones brought on to coach football, and who believed in himself and in his players enough to make them work hard; third, there's the star running back; fourth, there's the black pro player who finds this news article on the college player and gives it to his scout; fifth, there's the preacher and coach who taught Eddie Robinson, etc.

(If you're wondering, women play an out-of-focus role here: they are the mothers who need to be convinced that Grambling is the place for their boys, they are Robinson's aunt who told Jones to go hire him, and so on. Their role is important, but not really what Izenberg is interested in.)

It's all set up almost perfectly for a sports movie: how the little (black) guys persevered and overcame the odds.

Underneath that, though, Izenberg is not shy about the racial angle and about what that means for these men. (Interesting to note that this story was written for but not run at the Saturday Evening Post.) When he notes that Jones and Robinson help their players with their contracts, he notes that many white players would go into those negotiations with a lawyer, but the black, low-income, and rural students of Grambling don't have that option. When he notes how much Robinson gets paid or how many people the stadium can hold--or even that Robinson, after his own graduation from college, could only find manual labor--Izenberg hits on the notion that America hasn't been the land of opportunity for all its children. Which, in 1967, might've been a radical tone for a sports column to take.

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