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First Person

Remembering the History of 'Titans'

* A screenwriter who moved to Virginia to escape L.A.'s tensions retraces his discovery of Alexandria's racial healing.

September 30, 2000|GREGORY ALLEN HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

President Clinton hugged Coach Herman Boone on Tuesday night. More like a bear hug. Then the president hugged Coach Bill Yoast. Tightly. He then invited all the tuxedoed Titans up to the front of the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C.

He hugged all of them seemingly at once and thanked them for what they had done for Alexandria, Va., and what the movie about their high school football team--their beloved T.C. Williams High Titans--would do for the country.

Love changes everything. So does a movie.

Four years ago, I moved to Alexandria, a town of 100,000 across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. I moved here to get away from the stress and racial tension of Los Angeles. I chose Alexandria at the suggestion of relatives who lived here. They described it as 'livable, friendly, well-integrated."

Once in Alexandria, I found it to be all those things, but I was most struck by the integrated part. This town is more socially integrated than anywhere I've ever been or seen. I wondered why. Then I began talking with the locals, and always they referred back to a football team that brought the city together. The 1971 T.C. Williams High Titans--the Singing Titans as they were known.

I did some preliminary research toward the end of 1996 and got the names of the two coaches, Boone and Yoast. After some fits and starts, I turned the story of the coaches and this remarkable team into a screenplay, then sold it to mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer after every studio passed. The film, "Remember the Titans," has just been released by Disney. And my little adopted city may never be the same.

"Did you see the TV commercial?" "I like the new one better--it's funnier." This is the kind of conversation that races through the streets of this city, previously known as a lesser bedroom community of D.C. Old, 250 years in fact, by city standards and settled, it has none of the high-tech glitz of Arlington or the upscale buzz of Falls Church, the next towns over. Alexandria is the blue-collar member of the northern Virginia clutch of towns that forms a semicircle around D.C.

Thirty years ago, Alexandria was a segregated town. Whites lived on Seminary Ridge. Blacks lived in "the Berg" near the waterfront. They did not "mix," a common term used then. According to Herman, "If you were black you didn't go up on the Ridge, particularly at night." During the summer of 1971 a black teenager was killed by a convenience store owner who said, "He looked dangerous." Intense protests followed and many felt the town was on the verge of exploding, like Watts or Detroit.

And in a state where high school football coaches are community leaders, every head coach in the Alexandria system was white. To calm the black community, Alexandria hired Boone as head football coach of the new high school, T.C. Williams--consolidated from three segregated schools, one white and two black. In hiring Boone the school board passed over the senior coach in the system, Yoast, a white coach who was a regional championship winner. The first integrating that had to be done was Yoast accepting the assistant head coach job under Boone. That 1971 T.C. Titans Football team turned this town around, integrated it by winning football games and showing this city that race mixing could work.

Media Hordes

Over at the high school, principal John Porter allocates a good part of his day doing phone interviews and coordinating the Alexandria screening to benefit the T.C. Williams Scholarship Fund. And the students at T.C. Williams High School look bored as yet another group of reporters tramp over the legendary field.

"When is Denzel coming? That's what I'm waiting for," is the most popular line of the day, referring, of course, to Denzel Washington, who plays Coach Boone in the film. (Will Patton plays Coach Yoast.)

I make a call to the Boone home to check on the family. "Herman's gone a little crazy," says Carol Boone, Herman's wife of nearly 40 years. "But, you know, that's Herman."

Yes, I do know. I have dealt with him more than anyone outside his family. Carol tells me that the phone has been ringing off the hook. It seems everybody wants to talk to Herman.

"There's the man who made it all possible," he yells as he walks toward me with Yoast on the track at T.C. Williams. Herman is the Titans' snake charmer, and lately there've been a lot of snakes to charm. On this day alone, Court TV, BET, Fox Network's "Going Deep," U.S. News and World Report, Associated Press.

Denzel, Bill Clinton, limos, fancy hotels, first-class travel, expensive meals, daily media interviews, autograph seekers, groupies. Who knew it would all turn into this?

Wringing Out the Facts

Four years ago, when I first called Herman to interview him, he made an appointment for 1 p.m. at T.C. Williams High School. I went to meet him. He stood me up. He thought it was a practical joke.

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