“My parents always taught us that no person should be judged based on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character,” said Herman Boone, retired high school coach and inspiration for the lead character in Disney’s 2000 film, “Remember the Titans.” “I have always believed that and maintain that value today.”
Coach Boone, played by Denzel Washington in the movie, will speak twice at Union College—on Monday, Sept. 23 at 7:00 p.m. and Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 10:30 a.m. for the annual Union College Leadership Symposium. Retired from teaching, he travels around the country inspiring youth as he speaks at colleges and universities.
One of the youngest of twelve born in North Carolina, Boone graduated from North Carolina Central University in 1958 and moved to Virginia. A football player since high school, he was impressed to pursue coaching to impact the lives of the young. “There’s something fascinating about the whistle around a coach’s neck; it moves people, whether in the right direction or the wrong,” he said. “As a coach, I would be responsible for the attitudes and outcome of young people, and that amazed me.”
After the release of the film, Boone became an inspirational figure to youth worldwide. “I’ve received thousands of letters from people all over world telling me how the movie has motivated and stimulated them,” he said. “Things I charged and challenged my students have continued to affect people. It makes me feel good to answer their letters; although they don’t know me, I was able to impress their lives.”
The idea for the film arose when writer Gregory Allen Howard happened into Alexandria the same week Coach Boone and his football team, the Titans, held their 25-year anniversary. The local paper ran articles on the team daily, and as Howard grew more impressed at their achievements, he asked in a local barbershop if any of the team members were still around.
When he discovered that Coach Boone and many of the players were in town, Howard sought them out to interview them. “He became like a permanent piece of furniture in my house,” joked Boone. “He was struck by the accomplishments of the team, and once he started to write he became even more fascinated.”
The resultant “Remember the Titans” movie tells the story of the integration of Caucasian and African-American students at T.C. Williams High School in the early 1970s. Divided by rivalries and racial prejudice, the school’s football team learned to come together and trust one another under the authoritative leadership of Coach Boone.
While many events were highly dramatized for the big screen, Boone confirms the accuracy of the film’s depictions of the conflict between the families and students. “The team was made up of three high schools that were consolidated in thirty days,” he said. “All of a sudden kids couldn’t graduate from the same schools as their parents, and there were fierce rivalries between families. The whites told me they didn’t like the fact that I was black, and the black kids said I wasn’t black enough.”
Boone refused to tolerate racial prejudice among his players, bringing them to a camp at Gettysburg, Pa., to get to know each other and contemplate the past. Through his tough expectations and their mutual love for the game, the teammates grew closer and were like brothers. “I didn’t know my methods would work,” he said. “All I knew was what I believed in and to believe is to have faith. When you’re in a position to make a change, you make a commitment to what you will and will not accept. I was not going to accept what was against equality and what I believed was wrong before God. I made it clear to the team: if you or your family do not accept playing beside a person of another race or religion, you’d better hit the door ‘rat’ now.”
When the tight-knit group arrived back from Gettysburg, conflict still divided the school. But the team proved highly successful, at one point ranking second in the nation by national polls, and eventually united the people of Alexandria through their victories.
The Titan’s story of unification spoke to Denzel Washington, who, according to Boone, took a pay cut to star in the film as the coach. “He said he felt it was time for this message to resonate around the world,” said Boone. “Although he had never heard of me, he had heard of people like me and knew that I stood for right, decency and equality.”
The struggle for equality among persons of differing race, gender and orientation still rages today, and Boone has not yet finished fighting. “The most important improvement for us now among all races is education,” he said. “It feeds the minds of those who feel inferior or superior. We need to get rid of those two words with education so that no one feels as though they are less than a human being, less than anyone else. There is no reason anyone should feel superior or inferior based on the color of their skin.”
The Leadership Symposium is part of Union College’s leadership program and minor, which helps students develop their personal leadership potential. Students who enroll in the minor take advantage of classes focused on leadership, peer mentoring, weekly meetings and internship opportunities.
The College View Seventh-day Adventist Church is located on the corner of 48th Street and Prescott on the campus of Union College. All of the talks are free and open to the public with no registration required.