Herman Boone knows what it feels like to be scared and have what seems like everyone against you. Of course, Herman Boone also understands the importance of determination, perseverance and most importantly, the will from within.
“Was I afraid? Yes. But I didn’t let that stop me. We’re all children of God and nobody can take that away from me,” said Boone to a group of University of San Diego students who attended the former T.C. Williams High School football coach’s talk about lessons in diversity on Monday night in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Theatre.
Boone, for the unfamiliar, was head coach of the T.C. Williams team that went 13-0 and won the 1971 state championship in Alexandria, Va. He was thrust into the coaching role when the town consolidated three high schools into one desegregated school, causing racial tensions throughout the community, including the school’s football program.
Boone, who is from North Carolina and is black, was promoted from assistant after one season to head coach, and was chosen over the town’s overwhelming local favorite, Bill Yoast, who is white. The tension caused by this decision in a state passionate for football was difficult. But instead of giving up, Boone took this opportunity to teach a group of 16- and 17-year-old young boys a valuable life lesson, bringing white and black players who were once rivals at different schools, together as one.
“You might not like each other, but you can respect each other,” Boone said. He proceeded to diffuse tension by putting players in situations where they had to work together in order to come together. White and black players sat side by side on the team bus. They sat together for meals. They got to know each other’s culture.
Sure, he said, there was competition amongst the players, but what Boone and his diverse staff did was to mold “one team with one vision and one heartbeat, to win,” he said. “My goal was to change the letter ‘i’ in bitter, to an ‘e’ to make it better.”
It not only worked, but Boone’s story became the inspiration for the popular 2000 film “Remember the Titans,” which stars Denzel Washington as Boone.
Boone, now 76, still inspires college audiences nationally through his public speaking appearances. His thoughts on a variety of topics Monday made a favorable impression on the mostly student audience. Members of USD’s Pioneer Football League championship team and USD’s West Coast Conference championship women’s soccer team and athletics department staff were in attendance and met with him before and after (pictured, left) it. Comments ranged from saying his “vibrant words” resonated and it was “about not losing faith in humanity.” When he spoke, Julieta Barrios, a senior Ethnic Studies major, said Boone “came across to me as very fatherly, I instantly felt very comfortable listening to him.”
“I think my favorite part was when he described diversity as being not about the color of your skin, but rather who you are as an individual,” said sophomore Natasha Mahapatro, an International Relations major and Multicultural and Arts Coordinator for the Torero Program Board.
A few of the more poignant moments came when he answered questions from the audience.
Who was Boone’s greatest inspiration? “My father was my inspiration,” he said. “He had a great sense of humor and was one of the most normal human beings I’ve ever known. He taught me to accept people for who they are and told me that education is the key to freedom, because if you’re educated, you can never be a slave.”
David Bergheim, marketing director for USD’s School of Business Administration, came to hear Boone speak and renew his acquaintance with his former driver’s education teacher at T.C. Williams High. Boone immediately recognized Bergheim in the audience and they spoke after the event. They discussed Bergheim’s father, “a leader in the city’s civil rights movement and a strong advocate of the integration that led to the story,” David Bergheim said. His father served on the Alexandria City Council and was later its vice mayor.
But the biggest response came when a student inquired about Boone’s thoughts about famous civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mentioning briefly a violent encounter he had with Klu Klux Klan members in North Carolina that injured him to the extent that “I still have knots in the back of my head,” he was later paid a special visit by the leader he later marched with and in support of civil rights.
“When he said he had been able to sit down to breakfast with Dr. King (in 1961), that was amazing,” said Joshua Williams, a freshman mechanical engineering major. “He did something that so many others in the world can only dream of doing.”
Boone continues to live King’s dream. His inspirational talks connect to people. He promotes the importance of inclusion and the strength of diversity as a powerful educational tool for good.
“It’s a responsibility that all people should be able to live, in peace within themselves and with dignity at every university. We’re like a quilt. It’s made up of different threads and colors, but we’re all stitched together. We’re one mosaic, different shapes and colors that are painted by the hand of God.”
— Ryan T. Blystone