Herman Boone has died, and if you don’t know who Herman Boone was, all you really need to know is that he was portrayed by Denzel Washington in a movie. And that ain’t bad.
In 1971, Boone was the head coach of the T.C. Williams High football team in Alexandria, Va., as desegregation hit the state for the first time. The black and white players managed to overcome their differences and bonded to win a state championship, and that story was told in the 2000 film Remember the Titans.
The Oscar-winning Washington played the role of Boone, the tough-as-nails African-American coach who made it all work. Boone was 84 when he died of cancer on Wednesday in Alexandria.
Boone and 1971 Virginia state football champions honored in Seaford, Delaware
Remember the Titans became a big hit and, afterward, members of that T.C. Williams team used to get together for fun and fundraisers. In 2007, that brought them to the Western Sussex Boys and Girls Club in Seaford, where they were the featured guests at a charity event that honored the achievements of local kids.
Also in attendance that night was Bill Yoast, a white man who was Boone’s top assistant in 1971 after Boone replaced him as head coach. Prior to integration, Yoast coached at Alexandria’s all-white Francis C. Hammon High School. Yoast, who was portrayed by Will Patton in the movie, lived in Bethany Beach at the time, hence the local connection to Seaford. Yoast died in May at the age of 94.
Anyhow, I was there to write a column about the coaches, players and their movie, as well as the way they used their fame to give back to the community. And one of the first things I noticed was that the real coaches acted just like the movie coaches.
Boone was surly and short-tempered and impatient, just as Washington portrayed him. And Yoast was nice and soft-spoken and cooperative, just as Patton portrayed him.
Football facts, Hollywood fiction
My “hook’’ for the column was that I was going to ask the coaches and players what they considered the most realistic aspect of the movie, and what they considered the most contrived or “Hollywood” part of the movie. And there were plenty of the latter, including the fact that the film had the Titans winning the championship game on a last-second trick play, whereas they really rolled to a 27-0 victory to finish the season 13-0. And the Titans didn’t break much of a sweat in the other 12 games, either, despite what the movie claimed – they posted nine shutouts and outscored their opponents by an average of 33-4 per game.
That seemed like a good story idea at the time and most of the people I interviewed gave good answers. Interestingly, many of them said the most made-up part of the movie was the inter-racial tensions it showed between the players. In truth, they got along well and most of the community supported them and there wasn’t nearly as much tension as the film would have you believe.
Of course, Boone wasn’t quite so magnanimous with his answer. When I asked him that question, he snapped “It was just a movie!” and walked away.
Later, Boone showed again what a good job Denzel Washington did showing his angry side (of course, just about every character that Washington plays has an angry side). For the most part, the players at the Seaford event were guys I never heard of because they had no real role in the movie – they were just regular players.
But then I saw the name tag that said “Julius Campbell,” and I knew I had hit the jackpot. Campbell, portrayed by Wood Harris, had a prominent role in the movie and was one of its real stars. In case you don’t remember Campbell, he was the big black kid who became friends with the big white kid. Campbell also died this year, in January, at the age of 65.
That night in Seaford, Campbell was a retired grandfather in his mid-fifties who enjoyed going to these events and reconnecting with old friends. But then it became apparent some things never change. As I was interviewing Campbell, everyone started to head to their seats to get the event started. Boone spotted us and growled at Campbell “Julius, let’s go!”
And this retired grandfather immediately lowered his head and dutifully obeyed his coach.
Some things never change. And even though three of the main characters in this story have recently passed away, they leave knowing that, thanks to them, people will always remember the Titans.
“That movie is my legacy,” Campbell said back in 2007. “Through that movie, the 1971 Titans will live forever. And that’s a powerful thing.”