Coach Eddie Robinson's Most Unlikely Friend

William KeithContributor IFebruary 15, 2009

I was thinking about my days living in Louisiana last night and I remembered an event that has always stayed with me.  In 1987 or 1988 (dates escape me these days) the late great Coach Eddie Robinson was still the Head Coach and Athletic Director of the Grambling Tigers. 

The event was a baseball game between the Grambling Tigers and the New York Yankees. But more on that later.

Beginning around 1970 the New York Urban League underwrote and sponsored the New York Urban League Football Classic to benefit the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Scholarship Program to provide scholarships to black athletes.  Grambling was a participant in the annual event for many years. 

However, the New York Urban League began to experience financial problems and the game needed financial help or be cancelled.  Coach Robinson with the help of Howard Cosell, the broadcaster, convinced George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, to underwrite the game.  As far as I know, Mr. Steinbrenner is still involved financially with the Classic to this day.  

Mr. Steinbrenner eventually ran into legal problems with the U. S. Government for illegal campaign contributions to the Richard Nixon presidential campaign.  He was convicted and prior to his sentencing Coach Robinson sent a letter to the judge in the case as to the moral character of Mr. Steinbrenner.  The bond between these two men was forever formed.

With that as a background, during spring training Mr. Steinbrenner and most of the New York Yankee baseball team flew into Monroe and made the 35 mile bus trip to Grambling, Louisiana.  I took my 10 year old son out of school that day and drove over to see the game.  

Rickey Henderson, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, Mr. Steinbrenner himself and most of the other members of the team mingled with the small crowd that had gathered to watch the exhibition game.  I remember Mr. Steinbrenner in his dark blue blazer and grey hair as if it were yesterday. 

He was extremely approachable and gladly signed autographs for any and all.  What struck me that day was how much fun Mr. Steinbrenner was having being with his old friend and how not so thrilled some of the Yankee ballplayers were.

The irony of that relationship always interested me.  One of the most powerful sports owners in the United States was thanking and paying tribute to a black head coach in rural Louisiana.  It was a life lesson for me; try to stay humble, help out your fellow man and always be color blind.