Herman Boone, the former high school football coach remembered for coaching the T.C. Williams High School Titans to an undefeated season and the Virginia state championship in 1971, delivered Monday’s keynote address at Dartmouth’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The film “Remember the Titans (2000),” in which Denzel Washington portrayed Boone, immortalized the historic 1971 season.
The film is an accurate representation of not only that season, the first after the forced integration of three Alexandria, Va. schools, but also the racially charged context in which it took place, Boone said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
“If you look at it closely, that movie isn’t about football,” he said, “It’s a movie about incredible young boys from Alexandria who decided to celebrate their differences instead of seeing them as a problem which must be solved for them.”
Boone said he sees his 1971 players, including Gerry Bertier, Julius Campbell, Petey Jones and Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass, as responsible for diversity as we know it today.
“Diversity isn’t about skin color or sexual orientation,” he said. “It’s about your God-given right to be an individual.”
He said the dynamic of the team that inspired the movie, in which the Titans went 13-0 and ended the year ranked second in the nation, was challenging as a coach and as a civil rights activist because of the consolidation of three rival schools.
“The parents had three different color clothes on in the stands,” he said. “After the game, the Hammond [High School] people would stand together, the [George Washington High School] people would stand together, and the [T.C. Williams] people would stand together, and I’d be left alone in the middle. The parents were the reason that the process of consolidation took so long.”
Boone also said that the team dynamic, accurately depicted in “Remember the Titans,” was key to his success as a coach.
“Winning brought people together,” he said. “Winning was a byproduct of integration. A lot of the guys didn’t like each other. Heck, I didn’t even like most of them, but they respected each other and that respect led to trust, which was the emotional glue that held the team and the community of Alexandria together.”
Boone faced several challenges, not only because he was entering a predominantly white conference, but also because he was given the head coaching job over Bill Yoast, an immensely popular and better-qualified coach destined for the Virginia Football Hall of Fame, according to Boone.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.
In one instance, a toilet was thrown through Boone’s window in an attempt to force his resignation, and in another, his neighbor’s house was bombed in a mistaken attempt to kill Boone.
Boone said he was greatly influenced and inspired by King, whom he met on multiple occasions. Boone first became interested in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s while coaching at E.J. Hayes High School in Williamston, N.C. His players left practice early to protest in town and Boone decided to join them, even though it meant risking his job. When King came to the town later that year, he wanted to see Boone, whom he called the man with the “strength to speak out.”
Boone, who is half African-American and half Cherokee, said that meeting King spurred a change in him. Boone “came as a colored boy, and left a black man,” he said. He added that meeting King allowed him, as a member of the “black elite,” to see what life was like for people who did not have the luxuries that he enjoyed.
In his speech, Boone detailed the life story of King because, in his mind, “today we gather not to remember his death, but rather his life.”
He also stressed the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a time to serve those who are less fortunate than us, especially at Dartmouth. Boone also challenged Dartmouth students, as future leaders of the world, to “speak up and speak out” against injustice.
“I have dedicated my life to the visions and dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King and above else have tried to make a difference,” he said.
He praised College President Jim Yong Kim for “raising the bar for diversity here at Dartmouth.” He added that “it is the responsibility of Darmtouth College to ensure that all students have their inalienable right to human dignity.”
Boone said he wanted to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Dartmouth because he wanted to “share the experience of what it was like sitting beside him, shaking his hand and continue his philosophy of love,” he said.
He said he sees King as one of the most influential people of the 20th century.
“Without him, young people, especially minorities, would not have the opportunity to become president, leaders of their communities or make a positive mark on society,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of young people to continue his legacy. I take the opportunity to keep his dream alive every day and every chance I get.”
Afro-American Society president Joan Leslie ’12, who introduced Boone, said she hopes that the speech, entitled “Content of Our Character,” will “really encourage all of campus to branch out more and cause people to think about where we stand on viewing other people based on the content of their character.”
She said she was excited to introduce someone who helped improve race relations in the United States, noting that his purpose “extends far beyond the gridiron and the turf.”
Boone coached the father of Mike Olentine ’14, who is a member of the lacrosse team. At a reception for Dartmouth athletes today, Olentine raised his hand and introduced himself to Boone, who remembered his father immediately. Olentine’s father played offensive line for the Titans in 1974 under Boone, who jokingly remembered the 5’4″ lineman “blocking guys twice his size.”
“It was a really cool experience to meet the man my dad talks about so much,” Olentine said. “I can finally put a face and a person to all of those funny stories.”
Boone continues to work as an advocate of social justice for those oppressed in society, having visited a hospital for injured troops just before coming to Hanover.
Following Boone’s address, Kim noted the kind of “special courage” it took to not only protest against injustice, but to get disagreeing people to work together and be successful.
“What strikes me about Coach Boone is how courageous he was,” Kim said. “He was not only building character, but taking them to a place where they were able to perform greatly.”
Michael Appeadu ’12, who attended the keynote address, said he was moved by Boone, adding that he believed the speech was “very motivational with the combination of Dr. King’s life and Boone’s galvanization of us to embrace diversity.”
At the end of his keynote address, Boone said, “You cannot grow unless you are challenged; you cannot be challenged until you are outside your comfort zone; you cannot grow and be challenged unless you embrace diversity.”