Legendary ‘Remember the Titans’ coach imparts words of wisdom at FHSU
By Randy Gonzales
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – The mission of Fort Hays State University’s Center for Civic Leadership is to nurture future civic leaders. CCL does this through several programs, including American Democracy Project, Global Leadership Project, Tigers in Service and Women’s Leadership Project.
As part of CCL’s “Embrace Difference” campaign, legendary football coach Herman Boone was on campus this week, imparting words of wisdom before a packed house at Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center.
Garden City graduate student Whitney Swenger, project coordinator for Center for Civic Leadership, helped bring Boone to the FHSU campus.
“We knew he would be a great speaker, talking about diversity,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Center for Civic Leadership started the “Embrace Difference” campaign in fall 2016 semester and continued it in the spring 2017 semester. Swenger said the campaign was scheduled to end this spring, but it now might continue. She said CCL has hosted at least a dozen “Embrace Difference” events so far. She added CCL will partner with the history department in bringing a Holocaust survivor to speak on campus next month.
Boone gained fame as the coach upon whom the 2000 movie, “Remember the Titans,” was based. He joked that those assembled likely would have preferred the film’s star who portrayed him, Denzel Washington, be on stage instead, but the coach’s powerful message of diversity spoke volumes.
In a 45-minute speech, Boone recounted examples of how his racially divided team bonded after a merger of three schools in Alexandria, Va., led to him, an African-American, becoming the head football coach at T.C. Williams High School — and a white coach was made his assistant. T.C. Williams went on to win the 1971 state championship.
Diversity means becoming open to what has been shut for others, Boone said. He told the assembled students their parents expected them to be engineers of bridges bringing people together.
“Build these bridges strong enough so that all people can feel free to walk across that bridge with dignity,” Boone said.
In a question-and-answer session after his talk, Boone was asked if his message would have still resonated if his team had not won that state title in Virginia. Boone said the message was the same when he coached in North Carolina in the early 1960s, when he joined his players in protest marches for civil rights — even though he was told he might be fired if he joined in.
“My mentality of civil rights, of accepting people for who they are, of not rejecting them for what they would look like, goes back a long time,” Boone said. “And it didn’t take a state championship to make me a man, a man of God. … It didn’t take a gold, brass trophy to determine who I am.”
Boone, wearing a black Stetson given to him by former Dallas Cowboys star running back Tony Dorsett, signed autographs for 45 minutes after his speech. Boone, who is 81 and lives in Deerfield Beach, Fla., said he gave 43 speeches last year and could give even more this year.
“I enjoy doing it for kids,” Boone said after the last autograph was signed, the last picture taken. “We can make a difference for kids, kids we can give a second chance, too.”
Sabrina Sales, Pueblo, Colo., senior, enjoyed the speech. She said she is not much of a football fan, but Boone’s message of diversity struck a chord with her.
“I just always had a heart for subjects such as this, on diversity,” she said. “My favorite part of the message was he told everybody we needed to speak up when we see something wrong. I think that’s a huge impact on a lot of the issues we have today, is not enough people speak up. I liked that he brought that to everyone’s attention.”
Freshmen Taylor Martin and Kyler Mick attended the lecture together. They later had Boone sign footballs they bought at Walmart after class earlier in the day.
“My dad was a football coach in high school, and this was his favorite movie,” Mick said. “Coach Boone was his biggest inspiration.”
Martin played football in high school under a veteran coach who also gave life lessons. Martin, too, is a “Remember the Titans” fan. “I thought it would be awesome to come here and meet the guy that the movie is about, that I like so much,” he said.
Mick said he has watched “Remember the Titans” countless times. “It’s awesome to meet one of those people you never think you will get to meet,” he said.
Mick and Martin showed off their newly autographed footballs, then safely tucked them away in their backpacks as they headed off into the night. Now, whenever they watch “Remember the Titans,” they will likely also remember the night they met Coach Herman Boone.