President Clinton hugged Coach Herman Boone on Tuesday night. More like a bear hug. Then the president hugged Coach Bill Yoast. Tightly. He then invited all the tuxedoed Titans up to the front of the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C.
He hugged all of them seemingly at once and thanked them for what they had done for Alexandria, Va., and what the movie about their high school football team - their beloved T.C. Williams High Titans - would do for the country.
Love changes everything. So does a movie.
Four years ago, I moved to Alexandria, a town of 100,000 across the Potomac River from Washington D.C.. I moved here to get away from the stress and racial tension of Los Angeles. I chose Alexandria at the suggestion of relatives who lived here. They described it as 'livable, friendly, well-integrated."
Once in Alexandria, I found it to be all those things, but I was most struck by the integrated part. This town is more socially integrated than anywhere I've ever been or seen. I wondered why. Then I began talking with the locals, and always they referred back to a football team that brought the city together. The 1971 T.C. Williams High Titans - the Singing Titans as they were known.
I did some preliminary research toward the end of 1996 and got the names of the two coaches, Boone and Yoast. After some fits and starts, I turned the story of the coaches and this remarkable team into a screenplay, then sold it to mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer after every studio passed. The film "Remember the Titans," has just been released by Disney. And my little adopted city may never be the same.
"Did you see the TV commercial?" "I like the new one better - it's funnier." This is the kind of conversation that races through the streets of this city, previously known as a lesser bedroom community of D.C.. Old, 250 years in fact, by city standards and settled, it has none of the high-tech glitz of Arlington or the upscale buzz of Falls Church, the next towns over. Alexandria is the blue-collar member of the northern Virginia clutch of towns that forms a semicircle around D.C.
Thirty years ago, Alexandria was a segregated town. Whites lived on Seminary Ridge, Blacks lived in "the Berg" near the waterfront. They did not "mix," a common term used then. According to Herman, "If you were black you didn't go up on the Ridge, particularly at night." During the summer of 1971 a black teenager was killed by a convenience store owner who said, "He looked dangerous." Intense protests followed and many felt the town was on the verge of exploding, like Watts or Detroit.
And in a state where high school football coaches are community leaders, every head coach in the Alexandria system was white. To calm the black community, Alexandria hired Boone as head football coach of the new high school, T.C. Williams - consolidated from three segregated schools, one white and two black. In hiring Boone the school board passed over the senior coach in the system, Yoast, a white coach who was a regional championship winner. The first integrating that had to be done was Yoast accepting the assistant head coach job under Boone. That 1971 T.C. Titans Football team turned this town around, integrated it by winning football games and showing this city that race mixing could work.
Over at the high school, principal John Porter allocates a good part of his day doing phone interviews and coordinating the Alexandria screening to benefit the T.C. Williams Scholarship Fund. And the students at T.C. Williams High School look bored as yet another group of reporters tramp over the legendary field.
"When is Denzel coming? That's what I'm waiting for," is the most popular line of the day, referring, of course, to Denzel Washington, who plays Coach Boone in the film. (Will Patton plays Coach Yoast.)
I make a call to the Boone home to check on the family. "Herman's gone a little crazy," says Carol Boone, Herman's wife of nearly 40 years. "But, you know, that's Herman."
Yes, I do know. I have dealt with him more than anyone outside his family. Carol tells me that the phone has been ringing off the hook. It seems everybody wants to talk to Herman.
"There's the man who made it all possible," he yells as he walks toward me with Yoast on the track at T.C. Williams. Herman is the Titans' snake charmer, and lately there've been a lot of snakes to charm. On this day alone, Court TV, BET, Fox Network's "Going Deep," U.S. News and World Report, Associated Press.
Denzel; Bill Clinton, limos, fancy hotels, first-class travel, expensive meals, daily media interviews, autograph seekers, groupies. Who knew it would all turn into this?
Four years ago, when I first called Herman to interview him, he made an appointment for 1 p.m. at T.C. Williams High School. I went to meet him. He stood me up. He thought it was a practical joke.
Teachers at T.C. Williams pull elaborate practical jokes on one another. There was a teacher whose nickname was "Chef." He sported a full beard for 20 years, of which he was inordinately proud. One day Chef got a call from a "reporter from Time magazine" telling him he had been selected as teacher of the year. They wanted to shoot a picture of him but thought he would look better without his beloved beard. Chef chopped off the beard. Big joke on Chef.
So Herman thought he was being set up as Chef II. Weeks went by. Numerous phone calls, more appointments, more skepticism. Finally, Herman invited me to his home. "I still think it's [nonsense], but I'm gonna take you home to meet Momma," he tells me.
"Momma" was Herman's adoring wife Carol. She laid out a wonderful meal and, after a few mild questions, but mostly going by her intuition proclaimed, "Herman, I think he's serious and I believe him." And that was enough for Herman.
Hours and hours of interviews followed. The format was simple: He'd roll on and on and on until his battery died down, pepper me with queries to make sure I didn't miss anything, then I'd be dismissed.
For his part, Yoast is a Southern gentleman in the finest tradition - courtly, solicitous, polite and genteel. He was the unintentional good cop to Herman's very intentional bad cop. He had been a head coach in the Alexandria system for more than a decade when the school board integrated and consolidated the schools into on mega-school - T.C. Williams in 1971.
Alexandria had a seniority system: senor coach automatically got the head job. But Yoast was passed over for what he thought was the best high school coaching job in the country - and it hurt. "I had to get over the ego trip - and that's what it was - of being head man," Yoast recalls. "But I was concerned about my boys, so I accepted Herman's offer."
In the town itself, people seem to react to the "Remember the Titans" baseball cap. Before, when I wore this cap, people would ask me if I was a member of the Tennessee Titans of the NFL. Not anymore. Now they know, Old, young, black, white, now everybody knows.
A 16-year old white girl at an Alexandria drugstore explains the premise to a co-worker. "See, back in the day, Hammond High was black [not true, Hammond High was actually white] and G.W. was all-white [all black]. Then there was T.C. which was a little of both. T.C. won some football games and then everybody in town was cool. And Denzel plays Coach Boone, the black coach."
In the little shops that line the cobblestone streets of Old Town, everybody is talking about the movie and, in varying degrees of accuracy, discussing it, analyzing it. The team was so huge - nearly 90 players - that virtually everyone in town was related to someone on the team, or had a friend of a friend of someone on the team.
The current Titans football team is good, but not great. The state championships are a distant memory. It seems the basketball team is better now and gets more attention. The school itself is now, according to President Clinton, "the most racially diverse high school in America." There are students from virtually every country in the world all joined together by baggy clothes and hip-hop music. Apparently there are many races but only one youth culture.
The town remains well-integrated. There are no ghettos or slums in Alexandria. The Berg, which used to be a ghetto, is now gentrified, but not to the exclusion of blacks. In fact, half-million-dollar townhomes sit across the street from public housing.
As a result, there is no disenfranchised angry minority group here. We all get along. The 1971 Titans won that battle brilliantly.
The town is buzzing about the movie and this is the sad part for me. The town is now very self-aware, almost self-important. I hope the movie passes and this little burg can once again return to its innocence, but even as I say that, I know it is wishful thinking. Yesterday, the postman asked me for a Titans' baseball cap for his son. Yeah, right.