Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: Breaking the Line (2013)

By Samuel G. Freedman

Can you picture a Southeastern Conference without an African Americans on the rosters of the team? An Atlantic Coast Conference with only white faces on its football teams?

Probably not if you are under the age of 50. But not only was it once true, but it was accepted until it all changed a little more than 40 years ago.

Before that, separate and not particularly equal was the rule for blacks and whites in college football. The big state schools such as Alabama and LSU were very pale when it came to that game. The black players, at least those who stayed in the South, frequently wound up at colleges such as Grambling and Florida A&M.

In 1967, feelings about the state of race relations in the United States were at the boiling point. Change was clearly coming, but the old system persisted.

That's the setting for Samuel Freedman's fine book, "Breaking the Line." The author takes a look at two teams' seasons, and sets then into context of time and place. In other words, there's plenty of football here, but it's not all football. And rightly so.

The coaches were legendary. Eddie Robinson piled up more wins than any other college football coach, 408 when he retired in 1997. Grambling became a household name, at least in football-oriented homes, through his work. Hall of Famers Willie Davis, Buck Buchanon and Willie Brown played there. Meanwhile, Jake Gaither didn't have Robinson's longevity, but he did have an .844 winning percentage at Florida A&M.

Picture a Southeastern Conference without black players, and you get an idea of just how much talent was available for these schools and their regular rivals. Games involving Grambling and Florida A&M along with other schools such as Tennessee State, Southern, Texas, Southern, and Prairie View A&M back then were filled with recognized names - Kenny Burrough, Eldridge Dickey, Charlie Joiner, Essex Johnson, etc.

Two of the biggest names quarterbacked in the end-of-the-season clash between Grambling and FAMU: James Harris and Ken Riley. Harris went on to a good-sized career in the NFL, while Riley - converted to defensive back in the NFL - comes up in Hall of Fame conversations as one of the leaders in career interceptions in league history. They were both smart, and dedicated as well as athletic, knocking down stereotypes at the time about black quarterbacks.

Freedman ping-pongs between the two schools in the text. An interesting chapter shows what happened when ABC came to film a documentary on Grambling - only to turn up on a week when demonstrations had the campus in turmoil. It wasn't an easy time, especially when it came to picking sides in the debate over civil rights. Do the best you can to slowly change the system, or angrily protest in an attempt to speed the process along? Players, coaches and administrators were all caught up in the argument.

As you'd expect, the teams meet in an informal championship game at the end of the season/book, and it's a good one. Few readers will remember the outcome, so it all seems fresh several years later.

If there's a flaw here, it's that Freedman is obviously fond of the subjects involved - which is understandable. For example, Harris does indeed start on opening day for the Buffalo Bills in 1969, when Jack Kemp and Tom Flores are hurt. But that was his only start of '69, as Kemp - a former league MVP - returned to duty and sent Harris to the bench. Freedman writes that Dennis Shaw, "a white rookie from San Diego State," moved ahead of Harris in Harris' third year, and that Harris won several games in relief of Shaw. Shaw actually arrived in Harris' second year, 1970, and Harris never did win a game in relief according to pro-football-reference.com.

Freedman is right that Harris had a lot of good moments with the Rams, yet the QB found himself on the bench rather quickly. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom supposedly ordered coach Chuck Knox to play Pat Haden at quarterback at one point in 1976. Still, Harris is the first to say that being a pioneer as a black quarterback put enough pressure on him to prevent him from fulfilling his potential as a pro.

The book's subtitle - "The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights" - might be a slight exaggeration too. It's tough to point a finger at a particular year and say it was the most significant of the era. Still, it was an interesting time, in sport and society. "Breaking the Line" captures the dynamics of it all quite well.

Four stars

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