What Robert Griffin III Has in Common With JFK: Books

Source: Twelve via Bloomberg

"Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, & Dixie's Last Quarter," by Randy Roberts & Ed Krzemienski. Close

"Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, & Dixie's Last Quarter," by Randy Roberts... Read More

Close
Open
Source: Twelve via Bloomberg

"Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, & Dixie's Last Quarter," by Randy Roberts & Ed Krzemienski.

The title of Dave Sheinin’s new book screams volumes. It’s simply “RG3,” and in those two letters and single digit lies the message that Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is famous enough to be identified by only three strokes on a keyboard (like a few players of that other Washington contact sport, politics).

Sheinin spent a year with the now 23-year-old rookie phenomenon and plainly hoped he was onto a pro-football analogue of John McPhee’s classic portrait of the young Bill Bradley, “A Sense of Where You Are.” RG3 isn’t as introspective as BB and Sheinin isn’t quite McPhee, but the result is worth a read. It’s a book of football worship and football worries, with the worries by far the more interesting.

Both of Griffin’s parents are retired Army sergeants. His childhood may have been modest, but there’s nothing modest about his potential (enormous), his challenge (resuscitate the Redskins) or this book (which describes its subject as “potentially an icon for the ages”).

Sheinin characterizes Griffin as newly wealthy but frugal, confident in the limelight but not addicted to it, overexposed but still dedicated to his family. This is a good thing because they are grounded while the world he occupies is not. Says his father: “It doesn’t matter if he was a janitor of a tall building or the president of a tall building. He’s still our son.”

Source: Blue Rider Press via Bloomberg

"RG3: The Promise," by Dave Sheinin. Close

"RG3: The Promise," by Dave Sheinin.

Close
Open
Source: Blue Rider Press via Bloomberg

"RG3: The Promise," by Dave Sheinin.

‘Breaking the Line’

Now look back 45 years to one of history’s forgotten but fateful crossroads. It was reached on Dec. 2, 1967, when the players at two black colleges, Florida A&M and Louisiana’s Grambling College, clashed in Miami’s Orange Bowl at the black college championship known as the Orange Blossom Classic.

The teams were led by coaches Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson, both later to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Their quarterbacks were Ken Riley, later a four-time All Pro, and James Harris, who became the first black player to start an NFL season at quarterback.

In “Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” Samuel G. Freedman takes these raw materials and mills them into a compelling narrative. Centered on that game, the book examines the effort to integrate the resistant sports world in the South.

“The titans of black college football resembled Duke Ellington and Count Basie and their bands,” Freedman writes. “Gaither and his Rattlers were Ellington -- urban, sophisticated, innovative. Robinson and his Tigers were Basie -- from somewhere out in ‘the territory,’ swinging the hell out of the basic riffs.”

Source: Simon & Schuster via Bloomberg

"Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights," by Samuel G. Freedman. Close

"Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and... Read More

Close
Open
Source: Simon & Schuster via Bloomberg

"Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights," by Samuel G. Freedman.

Important Game

Grambling won the game, but Florida A&M won another distinction: Two years later they played the first football game in the South pitting a black college against a white one, prevailing over the University of Tampa in what Gaither called “the most important game of my life.” It was also one of the most important games of ours.

Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Dixie’s Last Quarter” is one more excursion into sports and sociology, produced by two history professors, one from Purdue (Randy Roberts) and another from Ball State (Ed Krzemienski). It’s presented in an unusually approachable academic style.

The coach and the quarterback were transformational figures in a transitional era. When Namath moved from his home state of Pennsylvania to Tuscaloosa to play football for the University of Alabama, he encountered separate bus-station bathrooms, one for whites and one for “coloreds,” for the first time. Roberts and Krzemienski relate this affectingly and effectively.

Two Winners

“I ain’t never been nothin’ but a winner,” the Bear once said, and of course that was the Namath creed as well. Together they personified the rise of the South in college football and the ascension of Alabama in the football firmament.

But this volume is another reminder that neither the South nor Alabama could reach their potential, on the field or in the broader society, as long as they clung to segregation.

“For Bear Bryant,” the authors write, “history was fast becoming an inescapable burden.” In Alabama, in this time, football was more than a game. It was a metaphor.

“RG3” is published by Blue Rider Press (354 pages, $27.95). “Breaking the Line” is published by Simon & Schuster (318 pages, $28). “Rising Tide” is published by Twelve (437 pages, $28).

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music and Amanda Gordon’s Hampton’s Scene.

To contact the writer of this column: David M. Shribman at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.