Forty-five years ago, Herman Boone led what might be known as the most inspirational story of high school football in the United States.
A successful head coach in his home state of North Carolina, Boone moved his family to Alexandria, Va. He would become the head coach at T.C. Williams High School at a time when racial tension was at a high point and the school was going through desegregation and putting white and black students together. He was given the job over another successful coach, Bill Yoast, who is white and became Boone’s assistant. The story of that 1971 season is documented in the 2000 movie “Remember the Titans.” Boone was portrayed by Denzel Washington.
Now, retired and 81 years old, Boone travels across the country telling his story of being a part of that racially tense time and how he and the entire Titans football team overcame their differences to become one unit. The football team broke through their racial barriers and became state champions and one of the best programs in the nation. On Tuesday, Boone told his story of that season to a capacity-full audience at Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center on the Fort Hays State University campus. His appearance was part of a series sponsored by the FHSU Center for Civic Leadership department.
“When I was hired in Virginia, they had to hire me,” Boone told the audience. “They had to hire a black coach over a white coach, because if they would have hired Coach Yoast, every coach in the state hired would have been white.”
Boone’s appearance at FHSU was part of a full day in Hays. He arrived Monday evening and three hours before his speech, Boone took time to speak to a small group of college students and faculty for approximately 45 minutes in a conference room on the second floor of the Memorial Union. Boone sat in the room with what he called his cowboy hat on, what he called his “trademark.” He answered questions to the small group about his experience as the coach and about the movie.
“He just caught our attention with currently everything that is going on right now with some of the issues that are dividing us,” said Whitney Swender, project coordinator for the Center for Civic Leadership.
“We thought he was an idol, and he still is an idol from his time of the story with the movie. I think we saw that, and that’s what drew us to him and he can unite us.”
As he spoke to the audience at Beach/Schmidt, Boone talked in great detail about what the football team went through during that 1971 season. He talked about how important it was to stand out and speak up. He encouraged everyone in the audience to never be afraid to be that person that speaks up.
“The world will watch you young people for your dedication and your commitment and leadership,” Boone said. “For your commitment to accepting the soul of an individual rather rejecting that individual based on the color of his skin.
“I’ve found that diversity is simply about who we are as an individual, you — yourself.”
Boone spoke of his appreciation of the movie being made, and he joked about how pleased he was Washington took on the role. At the time, Washington was making approximately $12 million a movie. The entire budget for “Remember the Titans” was $16 million. After director Jerry Bruckheimer asked Washington to read the script, the actor hold him he wanted the part and would do it for almost nothing.
“He said, ‘At the end, just throw me some crumbs,’ … I wish I would have gotten some of those crumbs,” Boone said, making the crowd laugh.
At the end of his speech, Boone who recently had back surgery asked that a chair be brought out and he answered audience questions for another 20 minutes on stage. He the nsigned autographs.