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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Football Flick Has Powerful Message

September 23, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER

The Walt Disney Co. is hoping to fill the Rose Bowl tonight with thousands of high school football players, coaches, cheerleaders and parents for a special screening of its new movie, "Remember the Titans."

It's the true story of a high school football team from Alexandria, Va., the T.C. Williams Titans. The year is 1971, and the school board has been forced to integrate a mostly white school with students from a mostly black school.

Herman Boone, a black coach who recently moved to the area, has been given the head coaching job over Bill Yoast, a white coach with seniority. Yoast reluctantly decides to stay as defensive coordinator. Together, the coaches must learn to trust each other and unite a group of players divided by prejudice and ignorance.

E.C. Robinson, football coach at Locke High in South-Central Los Angeles for 22 years, wants to attend the screening. But the subject matter is so disturbing to him he must summon courage to confront painful memories.

"I hate to relieve that stuff," he said.

Robinson attended segregated schools while growing up in Haynesville, La., in the 1960s.

"We had to walk past the white school, and we had to walk on the opposite side of the school because the racial tension was so bad," he said. "At the time we went to school, we didn't have books. The white school did."

What makes this movie so important are the history lessons it will teach a generation of teenagers unfamiliar with the sacrifice individuals made to remove prejudice and discrimination from sports and society.

"Kids today think they have arrived," Boone said. "They haven't. They don't even know what discrimination is. This movie should show them that people can hate you because of the color of your skin, which is probably the most ridiculous thing in the world. Modern kids don't know this aspect of life."

Boone, retired from coaching, said he recently returned as a substitute teacher and told the students how 30 years ago, "there were certain bathrooms blacks couldn't go to and certain bathrooms white kids couldn't go to."

"Kids' eyes were wide open," he said. " 'You've got to be crazy, Mr. Boone.' These things have happened and they're part of our history and we have to deal with them."

"Remember the Titans," starring Denzel Washington, is a terrific sports movie. It ranks alongside "Hoosiers" in depicting inspiration, humor and realism. Not that Hollywood hasn't taken its usual dramatic liberties to embellish a true story.

"They took out 116 of my cuss words," Boone said.

Some of the twists in the championship game were changed, just like in the 1986 basketball movie "Hoosiers," but Boone said the movie is realistic and powerful.

"I think it's a tremendous story," he said. "It's a story that should have been told a long time ago, and the impact on the community is going to be great."

In a scene in the locker room at halftime of the championship game, Yoast, played by Will Patton, reveals how the season has changed his life.

"I hope you boys have learned as much from me this year as I have from you," he said. "You've showed this city how to trust the soul of a man rather than the look of him."

In Los Angeles, racial tension on athletic teams has largely disappeared, but the fight for equality continues in other areas, such as facilities, equipment and educational opportunities.

Since 1978, the Los Angeles Unified School District has bused students from the inner city to the San Fernando Valley as part of a mandatory and voluntary desegregation program. Coaches such as Locke's Robinson don't like to see their top athletes leave the community.

Last season, after Taft played a football game at Locke, Robinson said he saw Taft kids walking home instead of taking the bus back to Woodland Hills.

"Half the kids should be in the inner-city schools," he said. "You're busing the better kids out of the area."

One battle has been won while another rages.

"Remember the Titans" is a tribute to the plea of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who dreamed that one day his four children would "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

The T.C. Williams Titans proved what can happen when people learn to trust and respect each other.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at his e-mail address: eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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