Thousands pay respects to Robinson at Capitol

Associated Press • Apr 10, 2007 at 12:39 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. - Thousands of mourners passed the open casket of Eddie Robinson on Monday in the Louisiana Capitol, where the famed Grambling State football coach viewed the body of slain political titan Huey Long more than 70 years ago.

Robinson, who endured the indignities of the Jim Crow era while building tiny and predominantly black Grambling into a football power, died last week at 88.

His body was carried up a long stretch of granite steps by dozens of white-gloved former players, including former Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams.

Doris Robinson, Robinson's wife of 67 years, sat beside the open coffin during a private morning memorial service for players and coaches. She placed a football in the coffin and rested her hand on Robinson's head.

"I'm doing OK," she said later. "I already miss him so much, but I can't keep breaking down."

An abbreviated version of the renowned Grambling band played the national anthem after the casket was placed at one end of Memorial Hall, the two-story, marble- and bronze-trimmed space between the Capitol's House and Senate chambers.

Robinson is believed to be just the fifth person to lie in repose at the Capitol. Others include Long, the former governor and senator, and his brother, Earl, also a former governor.

When Huey Long died in 1935, the coach and his wife, then teenage sweethearts, made it a point to go to the Louisiana Capitol, grandson Eddie Robinson III said.

"She told me how they walked hand in hand across town just to view the body," the grandson said.

Since his death, the man often referred to as "Coach Rob," has been eulogized across the nation as a heroic figure: a patriot tested in the segregation era; a coach who built a football institution; a leader who set a life's example for young black men.

A steady stream of mourners passed the casket, more than 5,600 by late afternoon, many pulling out cameras or cell phones to take pictures of Robinson. The casket remained there for public viewing until nearly 5 p.m., when it was closed and moved to the House Chamber for a second memorial service attended by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and several other political leaders.

"He used the gridiron to bring us together and he became one of the greatest civil rights pioneers in all of Louisiana," said Blanco, who presented Robinson's family with an American flag that had flown in the state Capitol. "Over the years, Coach Rob leveled the playing field both in football and in life for all of us. He always said, ‘In America, anything is possible.'" Williams spoke on behalf of the players. "I know there's some heavy hearts ... but today was a great day," Williams said. "It's been a great day for so many people to pass by, to take pictures and shake hands, to see parents bring kids, because the only way they're going to know who Eddie Robinson is, what Eddie Robinson is, and what Eddie Robinson will always be, is for us to tell them." The body was to be returned to Grambling for a wake today and burial Wednesday, where large crowds were expected as well. "We're on spring break so we only got people back that live in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas," band director Larry Pannell said. "They'll be in from all over by Wednesday." Robinson retired in 1997, with 57 years of coaching and 408 victories to his name, and the majority of his players left Grambling with degrees. "If you didn't have it when you left, he kept at you until you came back and got it," said former Dallas Cowboys star Everson Walls, one of the more than 200 players Robinson sent to the NFL. Adolph Byrd, 85, was a tackle at Grambling beginning in 1942, and called Robinson "my life." "He caused me to be in the position I'm in now," he said. Byrd said he needed seven years to graduate from high school because of his financial situation. Robinson, who was only three years older, showed him how he could get a college degree. "After I finished high school I had no where to go, and he came and got me off the corner and told me to come go to Grambling," Byrd said. "He said it was only a two-year school. I could work in the morning from 6 to 8:30 and go to school from 9 to 3 and work from 3:30 to 6. And that's what I did." Byrd served in World War II and returned to Grambling, which by then had become a four-year school. He graduated with a degree in elementary education in 1949. He later earned his master's and doctorate and worked for more than 30 years in Louisiana school systems.

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