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GRAMBLING MAN MICHAEL KORNBLAU IS THE TIGERS' FIRST WHITE STARTING QUARTERBACK

Oct. 21, 1996
Oct. 21, 1996

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Oct. 21, 1996

GRAMBLING MAN MICHAEL KORNBLAU IS THE TIGERS' FIRST WHITE STARTING QUARTERBACK

Of the 104 graduates in the class of 1993 at Dalton, a
$17,000-a-year private school on the Upper East Side of
Manhattan, six went to Brown, eight went to Cornell, seven went
to Harvard....

This is an article from the Oct. 21, 1996 issue Original Layout

"And one went to Grambling," Eddie Robinson said, shaking his
77-year-old head. He said these words last Friday, on a bus, in
a red Southern dusk. The football team of Grambling State, the
predominantly black college in rural Louisiana that Robinson,
its football coach since 1941, put on the map, was on a blue
highway. The Tigers were headed for Itta Bena, Miss., home of
Mississippi Valley State, another historically black college.
Three rows behind the coach sat his quarterback, Michael
Kornblau, a member of Dalton's class of '93. Kornblau is the
first white starting quarterback that Grambling has ever had. He
is also the Tigers' first Jewish quarterback.

Kornblau's grandfathers were born in Eastern Europe, his father
in the Bronx, and his accent is pure New York, the city where he
has lived all his life. Sometimes it seems as if few people in
Lincoln Parish, where Grambling rises unassumingly from the
sandy soil, can understand the quarterback. But nobody cares--as
long as the Tigers win. On Friday night on the bus, Kornblau was
giving no thought to the onset of Shabbas. Beating the Delta
Devils was all that mattered.

Robinson looked to the back of the bus, his neck turning within
the starched collar of his white shirt, and checked in on his
team. A few players were watching a tape of Mike Tyson fights. A
few others were listening to music through headphones. (They
were not listening to rap; Robinson prohibits rap, along with
chin hair and profanity.) But most of the players on this long,
smooth ride were sleeping. Among them was the Tigers'
placekicker, Ayman Nawash, an Israeli-born Muslim who, in the
Grambling press guide, lists Allah as the person he most
admires. Nawash's roommate is Kornblau.

Sleeping peacefully in his seat, Kornblau looked like the
whitest man in the history of Caucasians, with his blond hair
and long, bony nose and pale blue eyes. When he has had too much
sun or not enough water, or when he's embarrassed, his face
turns bright red. But before long, it's pale again.

On Friday morning at practice, Robinson had given Kornblau a
public tutorial. "Your footwork's all wrong!" Robinson had
yelled at him. The coach is slightly stooped now, not as tall as
he once was, but his voice is still full and capable of fury.
Nobody dared laugh as he showed Kornblau how to take a first
step back from the line. Kornblau had listened intently, as if
he were getting it straight from God.

Kornblau has much to learn, and he and Robinson know it. His
best attributes are his height (6'5"), strength and lively arm,
and Robinson--loyal to the wing T, the formation he married in
1959--has always favored tall quarterbacks who can throw strikes
from insulated pockets. Kornblau's principal liabilities are
inexperience and slowness of foot.

During his first three years of high school, Kornblau attended
Browning, another Manhattan private school. But Browning had no
football team, and Kornblau, who had begun playing football in a
Harlem church league, was consumed by the game. So he
transferred to Dalton in '92, for his senior year. He won the
starting quarterback's job quickly but missed more than half the
season with a sprained right ankle. Dalton excels at SAT
preparation--the mean score in Kornblau's class was 1,250--but
it can't be good at everything, and the football team had few
receivers who could hold on to Kornblau's bullets. "His film
showed a bunch of good passes that nobody caught," Dalton coach
Roy Samuelson says. The big programs weren't interested.

Kornblau enrolled at the University of Rochester, a Division III
school that produces accomplished scholars by the score and
professional athletes almost never. He played football and
basketball as a freshman, but he had dreams of the big time, and
Rochester wasn't fulfilling them. Back home in New York the
summer after his freshman year, Kornblau tore a knee ligament
while playing pickup basketball. The injury required surgery,
and he never returned to Rochester. He stayed in the city,
taking night classes at New York University, working as a
doorman at a West Side apartment building. A Grambling bird dog
who had seen Kornblau play at Dalton ran into him in December
1995 and was surprised to learn that he had no football home.
The recruiter called Robinson, who agreed to take a look.

Kornblau threw for Coach Rob during a January visit to Grambling
and was offered a scholarship on the spot. He was also promised
a chance to earn the Tigers' starting job, which became his
after the season opener during which Grambling's first-string
quarterback, a Mississippian named Chiron Applewhite, broke his
arm. The NCAA regards Kornblau, who turns 22 on Oct. 29, as a
sophomore. There are surely many high school sophomores who have
spent more than the four years Kornblau has spent in organized
football, but he can't do anything about that. He is the
starting quarterback for one of the most celebrated teams in
college football. Across Lincoln Parish, he's the man. Grambling
is his to lead.

"So you're the new white Tiger," the doctor said.

Kornblau hates hearing that. He heard it last Friday, after
practice. He was sprawled on a hospital bed in Ruston, La., just
down the road from Grambling. A week earlier his left leg had
been gouged by a spike, and the wound was infected. The flesh
around it was grotesquely inflated, as if a slice of melon were
attached to his leg. Kornblau was in the hospital for
intravenous antibiotic treatment. The doctor was chatting him up.

Kornblau says he never anticipated anybody's caring that a black
school had a white quarterback. He figured those days were over.
His father, Charles, a financially secure, 59-year-old retired
lingerie manufacturer, likes to point out that Mike, born and
raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, grew up in one of the
most liberal congressional districts in the U.S. But so far
Mike, one of about 375 minorities at Grambling, is known for his
race. In a student body of 7,600, he's the new white guy.

The first white Tiger was a Californian, Jim Gregory, who played
quarterback for Robinson from 1968 to '71, although he never
started. In '81 there was a made-for-TV movie called Grambling's
White Tiger. Bruce Jenner played Gregory. Harry Belafonte played
Robinson. Kornblau had never heard of Gregory until he arrived
at Grambling. Gregory had never heard of Kornblau until Kornblau
started his first game, on Sept. 14. Lately Gregory's mind has
been drifting back pleasantly to his Grambling days. "When I
arrived, I had a lot more trouble with the white community than
the black community," says Gregory, who is a high school art
teacher and football coach in Reedley, Calif. "But a lot changed
during my years there. Bear Bryant got his first black player at
Alabama in 1970." And after that, the deep South was never the
same.

As Kornblau drove his blue Ford Taurus from the hospital back to
school on Friday, he talked about his Grambling experience. His
driving skill is about the same as Annie Hall's in the eponymous
movie by Woody Allen. He steps on the gas and turns the steering
wheel with the same sputtering rhythm that marks his excited,
nervous speech, although this ride smoothed out when he released
the emergency brake. When he arrived at the campus and belly
flopped the Taurus into a parking space, a powerful statement
about the state of race relations was made. The women of
Grambling were all over him.

A female student leaned into the Taurus's open window. "Hey,
Mike," she said, her voice dripping with flirtatiousness.

"Whasup," Kornblau said.

"I ain't seen you around," she cooed.

"You didn't visit me when I was in the hospital," he replied.

"Yeah, well, how's your leg?"

The candid answer was that his leg was awful, that if Robinson
had any options at all, he would start somebody else.

For Robinson, Kornblau and the other Tigers, Friday night passed
into Saturday morning during team meetings in the Delta Room of
the Ramada Inn in Greenwood, Miss. The earnest voices of
assistant coaches droned on, broken by an occasional question
from a player. Kornblau said not a word, staring at the
chalkboard, his eyes bulging with fatigue, nervousness and pain.

Mississippi Valley State was coming into the game with a win and
four losses and an 0-2 record in the Southwestern Athletic
Conference. Grambling was 1-3, 1-1 in the SWAC. Robinson has had
six losing seasons in 53 years. With a win on Saturday,
Grambling would be 2-1 in the conference and back on track. But
last year against this team Robinson notched his 400th career
win (no other coach has won as many games), and that was a piece
of football history the Delta Devils had wanted no part of.
Everybody was saying Mississippi Valley State would be coming
out on fire this year. A loss to the Devils--well, let's not
talk about a loss.

Saturday morning was blue and warm in the heart of the Delta,
but Kornblau barely touched his morning grits and steak. "Is he
limping? I heard he was," said Coach Junior, Eddie Robinson's
son, to a fellow passenger as the Grambling buses headed out for
Magnolia Stadium. "I'm going to have to check that out. He walks
kind of funny normally, you know."

Kornblau pulled his red-and-white jersey over his head and
headed out to the field, his limp pronounced. He kept to
himself. He's cordial with his teammates but not often playful.
He had won just one college game, and there was nothing
impressive about his passing statistics (39 of 110, 521 yards,
four touchdowns and five interceptions after Saturday). A
quarterback's most important skill--the ability to lead, to take
over a bus, a locker room, a team meeting, a play gone
haywire--is one Kornblau has not yet developed.

The game began, and Grambling failed to move the ball, in the
air or on the ground. At halftime the Tigers trailed 9-0. "We
should be winning this game 28-nothin'," Nawash grumbled at the
team meeting in the locker room. Kornblau's short passes had
lacked zip. His long ones were just heaves, windblown and
pointless. His line had not been very helpful to him. On the
bench he had been ignored. During halftime, as he sucked down
several cups of water, his hand trembled. His face was red. As
the players returned to the field, Tigers linebacker Jadetrick
James yelled, "Time to get dirty now, Corn-blow. Time to get
dirty now, Corn-blow." He was about the only person who
acknowledged Kornblau's existence.

A Devils field goal and a Grambling safety made the score 12-2.
Then, in the fourth quarter, something miraculous happened.
Kornblau started moving the ball. A sweet 14-yard,
over-the-middle pass to set up a touchdown. A two-point
conversion pass made it a game. Kornblau's teammates were all
over him. He was pounding fists on shoulder pads. The game was
alive.

There would be no happy ending. Several minutes later Kornblau
fumbled. It was not his fault; a pair of Devils converged on him
and threw him down hard. One of them picked up the ball and ran
it home. The Tigers went dead again. They lost 19-10.

O.K. (Buddy) Davis covered Grambling for the Ruston Daily Leader
when Gregory played there, and he covers the Tigers today. When
Coach Rob talked to Davis after Friday's practice, he put two
fingers in the waistband of Davis's dungarees and said to a
bystander, "I raised this man, this is my son." Davis, who is
white, knew exactly what was happening with Kornblau and the
Tigers. "If you're white or black or purple and you win, they're
going to run you for mayor," Davis said. "And if you don't,
they're going to boo you out of town. That's how it goes."

Following Saturday's loss, Robinson spoke to his young players
as they sat under their changing hooks. "C'mon, everybody hold
hands now," he said. Kornblau's hands were on his forehead. The
player to his left placed a large black hand on Kornblau's left
knee. Slowly, haltingly, Kornblau placed his throwing hand on
the shoulder of the teammate on his right. Somebody led the
Tigers in prayer. Long after it was over, Kornblau's eyes were
fixed on the concrete floor of the locker room, far, far from
home.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM SNYDER Though a long way from Manhattan's hustle and bustle, Kornblau is starting to feel at ease in his new surroundings. [Mike Kornblau and members of the Grambling State University football team]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM SNYDER Kornblau and the Tigers could use a pick-me-up after getting off to an uncharacteristic 1-4 start. [Grambling State University football players helping Mike Kornblau to his feet]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM SNYDER Robinson has 403 career victories; Kornblau has one. So when Robinson talks, Kornblau listens. [Mike Kornblau and Eddie Robinson]