“Breaking the Line,” by Samuel G. Freedman. Simon & Schuster, 2013. $28
College football, like most everything else, evolves. But at historically black colleges in the mid-1960s, it was as if time had stood still for decades.
Only black athletes played. Only black coaches coached. Only black people — and a few savvy National Football League scouts — seemed to care.
That wasn’t good enough for Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson.
The world now knows about Robinson, who broke national records for victories in his 57-year career at Grambling State University. Gaither is less famous, a fact that testifies more to the attitudes of his era’s fans than to his own accomplishments as head coach at Florida A&M University. Though giants in their world, Robinson and Gaither seldom stood on opposite sidelines.
In 1967, however, their careers intersected again for reasons other than the game itself. The times, according to a popular song of the era, were a-changing, and Robinson and Gaither were trying to give the times a nudge in the right direction.
Freedman’s book chronicles the 1967 football seasons at Grambling and FAMU through the lens of the coaches’ efforts to right historical wrongs.
For Robinson, it involved correcting the perception that black quarterbacks were insufficiently intelligent to make it in the NFL through the tutelage of James “Shack” Harris.
For Gaither, it meant trying to let Southern black college teams prove their worth against an integrated opponent.
In the meantime, they were coaching their teams to a meeting in that era’s penultimate game for black college football — the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami.
There is a lot of meat on the bones of this story — the personalities and individual triumphs of the two coaches, the impact of the civil rights movement on their campuses, the highlights of both teams’ seasons — and Freedman skillfully weaves all of the elements into the narrative.
The names of players who would later make names for themselves in the NFL like Ken Riley, Charlie Joiner, Mel Blount, Essex Johnson and Otis Taylor remind the reader of how historically black colleges were once a major pipeline of pro talent.
While “Breaking the Line” doesn’t entirely make the case stated in the book’s subtitle that this season “transformed the sport and changed the course of civil rights,” Freedman’s account will be interesting to anyone interested in civil rights, college football history or great men, which Robinson and Gaither surely were.