It was August 1963, and I can see Fred T. "Pop" Long pacing the practice field. That bass voice still booms in my ears: "What the hell's wrong with you, Florida? Get your butt moving, boy." He called me Florida because I hailed from Florida. Your home state or hometown was your name if you were not a Texan. The Texans were called by their given names.
Pop was my head football coach at historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. I was a freshman middle linebacker battling for a spot on the team. Although Pop's tone and words were harsh, we knew he had made himself our legal guardian. For some of my teammates, he was their first father figure.
After weeks of hearing the awful news from Penn State University and the firing of Joe Paterno, I was reminded of my experiences with Pop and another great college coach I have known as a player and as a professor.
Pop's influence was a main reason that Wiley College, home to Denzel Washington's film The Great Debaters, was a special place. He would show up in a classroom unannounced to make sure his players were in their seats. Pop's caring went beyond his players. He would walk around campus looking for students who were not athletes but, as he called it, "wasting valuable time." He always told idlers, especially males: "Go hit the books right now."
My fondest memory of Pop is what he did during my first homecoming week. I was slated to start in the game, and he asked if my mother was coming to see me play. I told him she did not have the money to travel. Pop wired my mother money for a round-trip train ticket from Fort Lauderdale to Marshall. Although we lost to Texas Southern University, my mother saw me make a good share of tackles.
I left Wiley in 1966 without graduating to join the Marine Corps. Pop died that same year at age 72.
Theophilus Danzy is the other college coach in my life. I met him in 2000, when I visited historically black Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as guest lecturer. The year before, Stillman's president, Ernest McNealey, hired the then-68-year-old Danzy to revive the college's football program after a 50-year hiatus. Danzy, who had retired, had coached at five other colleges.
One of McNealey's main reasons for bringing back football was to increase the number of males on campus. During recent years, 70 percent of the student population, which averaged roughly 1,000, had been female. McNealey correctly believed football would help reverse that trend. During the first season, more than 200 males enrolled.
McNealey said the key to success was having the right coach: "I selected a coach that I thought would bring the same values … that are in the institution already. If athletes don't do their work, they will go home. If they don't behave, they go home. We fully expect our students to go to class. We fully expect them to graduate."
I asked Danzy why he had taken on the task of starting a program from scratch. "I had been reading that one in every three black males couldn't vote because they were in jail or in some other kind of situation where voting was taken away from them," he said. "I told myself the best way for me to help is to step in here at Stillman. I had been successful every place I worked.
"Everywhere I go, I see hundreds of men I recruited. I see successful professionals who, when I first got them, their teachers said they would never make it. And now, many are principals, business executives, attorneys, teachers, some even pastors. I feel that I have succeeded when they go back into the community they came from and produce, when they become functioning citizens. Football is a great sport for producing these kinds of results."
After I left the St. Petersburg Times in 2004 to teach at Stillman, I got to know Danzy as a colleague. At least once a week, he would stop by my office to check on players' attendance. On his office bulletin board, he had written "grade sign-off sheet." Players had to sign the sheet and indicate their grades on assignments.
"I try to see farther than they're looking," he told me. "I try to cultivate them in a way that will bring them into society and show them the value of doing a good job. Simply, I want to build character among young black men."
To Theophilus Danzy and Pop Long, football was more than a game. It was real life.