People say that it can't work, black and white;
Well here we make it work, every day.
We have our disagreements, of course,
But before we reach for hate,
Always, always, we remember the Titans.
--CLOSING LINES FROM THE MOVIE Remember the Titans
On the first Friday in September, the eve of the 2001 football
season, the Titans of T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va.,
gather for a pregame meal in the school's ground-floor
cafeteria. It is a special evening for the players, symbolic of
their persistence and survival. They have been together through
a spartan, weeklong August training camp at a rural Virginia
military complex. No Game Boys. No television. No boom boxes. No
headphones. They have practiced twice a day back home in the
stifling late-summer heat. Now the Titans, wearing their
blood-red game jerseys, sit in hard-back plastic chairs. At one
o'clock the next afternoon they will face Chantilly High, and
their effort will be measured in cold numbers. For now everyone
is hopeful and all is right. The Titans are undefeated.
At the center of the room first-year coach Riki Ellison, a
41-year-old former NFL linebacker who won a collegiate national
championship at USC and three Super Bowl rings with the San
Francisco 49ers, stands and asks for quiet. His trademark Panama
hat is tipped back on his head, his dress shirt soaked with
sweat. "Everybody here at 10:30 tomorrow," Ellison says.
"Tonight, enjoy your friends, enjoy your food. Tomorrow we take
it to the house."
There are ripples of applause and supportive hoots. "Remember,"
adds Ellison, raising his right index finger into the air. "One
family. One team. One town."
October 14, 2001
His words are loaded with resonance. A year ago Disney released
Remember the Titans, a film based on the true story of how the
1971 T.C. Williams team overcame the racial tension created by
the combining of largely black and largely white high schools to
meet federal desegregation guidelines and won the Virginia state
Group AAA championship. The movie missed nary a note in
demonstrating that we can all just get along, and it was a huge
success, grossing $115 million nationwide.
A year later it is still impossible to walk the halls at T.C.
Williams High, a three-story brick building erected in 1965,
without feeling the presence of the '71 Titans. Movie posters
hang in many classrooms and offices. Tourists visiting
Washington, D.C., make the 15-minute trip across the Potomac
River to see the school. (They are often surprised to find that
it looks nothing like it did in the movie; in fact, the film was
made in Georgia.) During the summer a couple from Iowa pulled
into the parking lot and asked to take a picture of principal
John Porter, even though he had no connection to the '71 team.
"It didn't matter," says Porter. "They wanted a photo of a
One long glass trophy case in the school's carpeted lobby is
devoted to the achievements of '71 linebacker Gerry Bertier, who
became a world-class Paralympic athlete after a car accident left
him paralyzed from the waist down. Another display case honors
the '71 Titans and the movie. A visitor counts faces in the team
picture. Sure enough, 38 are white and 31 black, almost an even
split. They made it work.
So much has changed. T.C. Williams, still one of the largest
public high schools in Virginia (2,013 students in three grades),
now fields one of the weakest football teams in the state. T.C.
Williams was 1-9 in 2000, taunted at every game by opposing
crowds alluding to the movie and by opposing players motivated to
beat the Titans. A sign displayed during a game at Annandale High
read FORGET THE TITANS, REMEMBER THE ATOMS. The Titans have been
bad for a long time. T.C. Williams's 10-year record entering the
2001 season was 30-70. Its last winning season was 1995; its last
trip to the state playoffs, 1990.
Even more jarring, in light of the feel-good racial harmony at
the core of the movie, is the fact that T.C. Williams's football
team is almost entirely devoid of the racial balance that made
the '71 squad a beacon of social harmony in Alexandria. Of the
42 Titans who dressed for the first game this year, six are
white, and of those six only two were starters and only three
played before garbage time in the 31-6 opening-game loss to
Chantilly--a glaring homogeneity in a city whose population is
nearly 60% white.
Those numbers don't tell the whole story, either. For more than a
decade, T.C. Williams has held its athletes to higher academic
standards for eligibility than most high schools in Virginia,
requirements that are criticized emotionally in Alexandria and
blamed for reducing the school's talent pool. There is also
simmering resentment over the private funding lavished on the
school's predominantly white crew program.
For all that has changed at T.C. Williams, many of the racial
divisions portrayed at the start of the movie exist today. "The
story that nobody in the school system or the community wants to
tell is that 30 years have gone by since the events in that
movie, and nothing has changed," says Thurston McClain, one of
Ellison's first-year assistants and also an Alexandria fireman.
"It's still 1971."
In 1996 screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard was fed up with living
in L.A. and moved to Alexandria, where he began casting about for
a new project. "I was sort of scrambling for an idea," he
recalls. "I couldn't help but notice that Alexandria seemed to be
a very integrated city. I asked people how it happened. They kept
talking about this football team back in 1971."
Howard researched the '71 Titans and made contact with Herman
Boone, the black man who coached T.C. Williams at the time and
whose character, portrayed by Denzel Washington, is at the center
of the movie. Boone, a proud man, resisted. "This guy called,
said he wanted to make a movie, and I didn't believe him," Boone
says. Howard wore him down, and Boone eventually helped him work
through the pipeline of flummoxed former Titans who were just as
shocked that Hollywood would be interested in their story.
The resulting movie is a fairy-tale treatise on race, youth and
football. It is full of hoary cliches and cartoonish characters
(the bigoted white girlfriend of the star white linebacker, the
redneck assistant coach) but succeeds as wholesome entertainment
and what Howard calls "a different paradigm on race: You don't
have to like each other to get along; you just have to respect
each other." A quick summary: The two high schools are joined;
the no-nonsense black man is named coach instead of the legendary
white coach (Bill Yoast, played by Will Patton). Players rebel,
then bond and win all their games amid social unrest. A divided
city celebrates as one. Fade to black.
Those who lived the '71 season can nitpick the celluloid version
of their lives, but they are virtually unanimous in their overall
assessment of the film: "The movie captures the spirit of the
team and the time," says Rufus Littlejohn, a starting linebacker
in '71. The movie has brought the players together in a sort of
nonstop reunion. They have a website. Groups of them drive
together to speak to community groups and the like. The movie is
shown and, afterward, questions are answered by the Real Original
Nobody, however, has been affected as much as Boone. A crusty
man given to speech-making to even the smallest audience (one
listener will do), he was signed last fall by the American
Program Bureau, a Boston-based agency that counts Mikhail
Gorbachev and Johnnie Cochran among its more than 200 speakers.
Boone makes speeches at colleges, high schools and corporate
team-building seminars more than 20 times a month for fees as
high as $12,000 per appearance. "We thought demand for Herman
would die out when people stopped going to the movie," says
Trinity Ray, who represents Boone. "It's been the opposite. He's
developed a following almost separate from his character in the
Yoast accompanies Boone roughly four times a month, and the two
men, close friends, work the audience together. "I have to pinch
myself," Boone says. "I really do."
Best of all--better than small fame or big money for any of these
men--is the knowledge that the message of the movie is real.
Coming together in 1971 had been every bit as difficult for them
as the film conveys. At the end of the previous school year,
administrators had brought together returning football players
from all three of the schools that were being merged. (In real
life T.C. Williams, George Washington High and Francis C. Hammond
High were joined, not two schools.) The players sat on the tiered
risers in the T.C. Williams band room in three distinct groups,
segregated mostly by the colors of their skin and of their school
shirts. "I was one of the last to walk in, saw where everybody
was sitting and thought, Oh, yeah, this is going to work real
well," says Jerry Buck, who was a starting offensive lineman on
the '71 team.
Players fought even more than those in the movie. "Vicious
fights," says Carl Turner, a running back on the '71 team who
teaches middle school in Alexandria and coaches jayvee basketball
at T.C. Williams. "Black guys fighting white guys, black guys
from G.W. fighting black guys from T.C., white guys from Hammond
fighting white guys from G.W." In the end, though, says Boone,
"the film is about diversity and trust and courage, and that's
what we found."
And the part about uniting a city? Many say it's true. "There had
been, for several years, a great deal of adult tension in the
city," says Melvin Miller, a retired Alexandria attorney who was
active in the city's roiling civil rights movement in the '60s
and '70s and later served as chairman of the city's school board.
"That football team helped soothe tempers. It's true. It really
brought the city together."
Boone coached T.C. Williams for seven years after '71. His record
in Alexandria was a solid 62-19-4, but he never won another state
title, and the Titans went 4-5-1 in 1978, his last season. His
replacement was Paul (Doc) Hines, one of his assistant coaches,
who went 13-14-3 in three years before Glenn Furman, another
former Boone assistant, began a 10-year run that included state
championships in 1984 and '87. In the middle of the 1991 season
Furman's final team was 3-0 and nationally ranked, but it fell
apart in a five-game losing streak. That began a slide that has
continued until today, leaving little similarity between the
movie team and the current squad.
How did the Titans devolve from inspirational diversity and
on-field excellence to resegregated ineptitude? They had help.
Like many other U.S. cities, Alexandria has changed
demographically. The availability of affordable middle-class
housing diminished until the majority of the city's residents
were either very poor (and often members of a minority) or very
well-to-do (and often older, with grown children, or single and
childless). In 1970 Alexandria's population of 110,938 was 85%
white, and 77% of the students at T.C. Williams were white.
Today the city's population, 128,283, is still 60% white, but
the student population at T.C. Williams, the lone public high
school in Alexandria, is only 27% white. The mandatory school
desegregation portrayed in Remember the Titans has been
reversed, in part because many middle-class white families have
left the city. In 1970 more than 21,000 white couples owned
homes in Alexandria; now around 14,500 do.
By contrast, the number of low-income or publicly subsidized
housing units in the city, many of them populated by minority
families, has increased to 4,925 from 1,125 in the days of the
original Titans. "If you don't have a plan in place to keep
integration functioning, you'll get resegregation," says Gary
Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard
and co-director of Harvard's Civil Rights Project.
As the city's demographics changed, so did support for school
programs. Football, the sport with the need for the most
funding, suffered worst. "The school has let football slide, and
the community hasn't supported football," says Patrick Welsh,
who has taught English at T.C. Williams for 30 years. "The sport
has been left to die."
Another kind of trouble contributed to the decline. In the
winter of 1987, following Furman's second state title, all-state
linebacker Tracy Fells was arrested and charged with possession
of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. He was acquitted of
that charge, but he was later convicted of the same offense, and
in 1989 he was sentenced to a 20-year term (with a minimum of 17
years in prison). Later, another Titans player was arrested for
cocaine and handgun possession. Players from both the '84 and
'87 teams told SI that drug use and drug dealing were rampant
among the Titans throughout the middle of the decade. "I can
think of at least seven guys who were dealing drugs on the '84
team," says a starter on that year's squad, who spoke on
condition of anonymity.
Bill Dawes, who played on the '87 and '88 teams and is an actor
living in New York City, says, "On both of my teams there was
drug trafficking and drug use. You would hear conversations in
the locker room. Nobody was hiding anything. I used to give some
of my teammates rides home to the projects, and they talked
openly about the drug trafficking on the team, and it was by no
means limited to Tracy Fells."
Almost in concert with the rise and fall of Furman's teams in
the '80s, the Alexandria school board stiffened the academic
standards for T.C. Williams students participating in
interscholastic sports. Alexandria had always used the state
requirement that an athlete simply pass four courses, but in the
early '80s it raised the minimum grade point average to 1.55 for
the marking period prior to the relevant sports season (the
previous spring for football players). Before the 1991 football
season the minimum GPA was raised again, to 2.0 (a C average).
The issue was--and remains--controversial, because under
Virginia High School League rules athletes can play with a 1.0
average. Alexandria is one of the few school districts in the
state to have raised requirements on its own. Many people in the
city believed that the toughened standards were aimed at the
football program and its troubles. "There was a feeling of,
Let's not let the football team embarrass us anymore," says
Welsh. "The school board and the administration seemed to feel
that a harsh C rule would clean up the team."
Furman argued against the rule. Boone, who was retired from
coaching but still teaching driver's education in the district,
argued against it. Yoast, who was still working with the football
team, argued against it. "Nobody seemed to realize that the kids
who were going to be excluded by the rule were the ones who were
most in need of supervision between three and six o'clock," says
Paul Masem, the Alexandria superintendent from 1987 to '94,
brought the 2.0 rule to Alexandria after having implemented it in
the Little Rock school system, and he scoffs at the coaches'
claims. "The only people who complained were coaches afraid of
losing players," says Masem, who is white and who is now retired
after having worked as a superintendent in Cleveland Heights,
Ohio. "T.C. Williams is a big school with broad-based programs.
Students doing remedial work could qualify for sports. It isn't
Miller, the retired Alexandria attorney, who is black and who was
a member of the school board when it passed the 2.0 rule, agrees
with Masem. "Left alone, the system wouldn't have helped kids
below 2.0 get into college," says Miller. Yet the C rule remains
a lightning rod at T.C. Williams; it's one of the first factors
mentioned in any discussion of the football program's struggles.
As significant to the football program was the deterioration of
facilities. When Ellison took over last spring, he found his only
practice field was a mess of weeds and dirt. The blocking sleds
were decades old, rusted and nearly useless. Locker room showers
and toilets were filthy and so clogged that they couldn't be
used. "I was appalled by the condition of our facilities,
especially the locker room," says a former Alexandria
administrator who has left the district. "There had to have been
a complete breakdown in reporting and maintenance, from the
facilities manager to the athletic director to the principal of
Because football requires more equipment and more funding than
most sports, it was hardest hit by such neglect. The weight room,
according to Ellison, was a wreck. Often T.C. Williams's junior
varsity and freshman football teams are pushed off practice
fields by youth soccer teams. Funding for football is
approximately $12,500 a year, from an athletic budget of $65,000,
says athletic director Aly Khan Johnson, who in the mid-'80s was
the school's cross-country and track coach. "That figure has been
steady for many years," he says.
Eric Henderson, who was the football coach for two years before
Ellison took over (record: 4-16, including one forfeit for an
eligibility violation in 2000), says he spent $5,000 of his own
money to improve the program. "I asked for help from the school,
but I couldn't get any," says Henderson. "At one point I was told
to cut kids because the school didn't have enough equipment for
them." (Johnson denies that Henderson was asked to cut players.)
White participation, meanwhile, had waned. Neither of Furman's
state title teams had more than five white players who made
significant contributions. The '84 squad had a certain amount of
black-white unity, of the sort depicted in the hilarious scene in
Remember the Titans in which black players initiate Gerry Bertier
into the world of Yo Mama put-downs, in effect making him one of
their own. Mike Porterfield, a white starting offensive lineman
on the '84 team who would go on to row crew for the U.S. national
team and coach the women's pair (without coxswain) to a bronze
medal at the 2000 Olympics, says, "The experience I had at T.C.,
playing football with black guys, mixing with them every day, is
something I've never replicated. I loved it and I miss it. The Yo
Mama scene in the movie cut right to my heart, because that was
Three years later, however, Dawes, a starting wide receiver in
'88, had a different impression of the team. "By the time I came
through, it was clear that the team belonged to the black guys,"
Today it is rare to find a white player contributing to the
football program. "Most white kids around here wouldn't even
think of coming out for football," says Josh Freeman, a white
senior who has been in the football program for four years and
was T.C. Williams's starting center before a knee injury ended
his season in early September. "They think it's a black sport."
"That's a problem," says Yoast. "Not because you need white kids
to be a good football team--you don't--but because in Group AAA in
Virginia you need all your good athletes on the field. Some of
them are going to be white."
Says Marvin Watkins, a senior wide receiver on this year's team,
"Most of the good teams we play have big white guys and quick
black athletes. We don't."
Visitors to T.C. Williams are greeted by the lobby's Hall of
Nations, a display of flags representing the more than 80 birth
countries of the school's vastly diverse population. Diversity,
however, does not breed interaction. "Alexandria has a huge
inter- national community," says former superintendent Masem,
"but the community is socially split, and the school is socially
Inside T.C. Williams that dynamic produces something dangerously
close to separate-but-equal facilities. "There are no racial
clashes at T.C.," says Jay Blount, a Yale freshman who was
president of the school's student government last year. "There is
no anger, and nobody cares what your race or national origin is.
But people stick with their own social class. I saw lots of black
kids every day, but I hung out with my white friends, took my AP
[advanced placement] classes and rowed crew."
Alexandria city manager Phil Sunderland, who sent three children
through T.C. Williams, says, "T.C. tends to differentiate by
class and race and social network. We have to do a better job of
T.C. Williams has lost many white athletes to private schools.
Billy Schweitzer, a redshirt freshman quarterback on scholarship
at Virginia, was raised in Alexandria but attended St. Stephen's
& St. Agnes School there. "I grew up playing rec sports with T.C.
Williams kids," says Schweitzer, "but when it comes to high
school, you don't benefit athletically or academically from going
there. If your parents have the means to send you to private
school, you go."
Nothing, though, illustrates the struggle of the Titans football
program more than its comparison with crew. Thanks to aggressive
fund-raising outside the school budget by well-heeled Alexandria
parents, T.C. Williams's crew operation, with its $1.3 million
boathouse on the banks of the Potomac, would be the envy of many
colleges. "The crew program is outstanding," says Blount. "The
facilities are incredible. On a scale of one to 10, crew is a 10,
and the football program is about a two."
On a warm September afternoon the T.C. Williams boys' crew coach,
Mike Penn, stands on the floor of the cavernous Alexandria
Schools Rowing Facility, which was built by the city for the
school district in 1983. There are 25 four- and eight-oared
shells in large racks, along with several double shells. A fully
equipped eight-oared shell costs about $27,000, and with the help
of the parent-driven Alexandria Crew Boosters, the team buys one
eight-oared shell a year. The boosters sponsor six fund-raising
activities each year and operate an endowment worth almost
$40,000. "An awful lot of good people have given time to this
program," says Penn.
On the second floor of the boathouse is a sprawling weight room
that, by comparison, humbles the football team's musty basement
facility. Dozens of T.C. rowers have gone on to row in college.
There is little crossover between crew and football, despite the
former's preponderance of tall, strong athletes and the latter's
need for the same. Says Clayton Wynne, a 5'10", 175-pound senior
rower, "The football team isn't very good, and that's part of
the reason the white kids don't want to do it."
Black kids don't row, either. Penn says that of the 87 boys and
93 girls in the program, 12 are black. "I've been hassled about
the lack of participation by minority kids," says Penn. "I've
tried for years to get black kids to come out for crew. It's
difficult breaking down stereotypes. Plus, I've had several
African-American kids come to me who couldn't pass the swimming
test." (The test, says Penn, requires a 100-meter swim and an
unaided two-minute float.) When Penn attended a preseason
football meeting, black football assistants McClain and John
Morehead say they got into a heated debate with him over the lack
of cross-pollination between the sports.
"To make a generalization, the crew parents represent where the
money and power are," says Porterfield. "The parents in the
football program are not in the same position." Therefore, the
football program has had only the resources that the school
provided, and those were not enough.
After his team's opening loss to Chantilly, a defeat that would
be followed by three more losses by a combined score of 95-20,
Riki Ellison walked out the front door of T.C. Williams High,
shuffling under the weight of a heavy briefcase, an ink-jet
printer (for copying game plans and play selection cards) and 30
years of history. "We're going to get this done," he said. "I'm
not quitting until we do."
Ellison brings an eclectic resume to his job. Born in New
Zealand, he went to high school in Arizona before playing at USC
in the late '70s, when that program was producing some of the
most talented college teams in history. He also played 10 years
in the NFL (seven with the 49ers, three with the Los Angeles
Raiders) before retiring after the '92 season. An undersized
linebacker, he played on brains and guts, "and when the fight was
gone, it was gone," he says. After retirement Ellison lived for
four years in New Zealand with his wife and four children,
playing rugby and getting the NFL out of his system. In 1996,
divorced, he returned to the U.S. and took a consulting job with
Lockheed Martin, the defense and aerospace company, and moved to
As part of his work with the company's philanthropic efforts,
Ellison visited twice a week with students at T.C. Williams, and
in 2000 he sought a position as an assistant football coach. He
was not hired. He took a job helping coach at St. Albans School,
an exclusive prep school in D.C. It got him back in the game but
was unfulfilling. "I think the kids at St. Albans got something
from me, but it was nothing that could change their lives," says
Ellison. "They were incredibly bright, but privileged and
coddled. I wanted to do something more." The T.C. Williams job
opened up last winter, and this time Ellison was hired. He hasn't
stopped running since.
As part of his staff, Ellison hired Morehead, McClain, Tony Lee
and Steve Miner, black men with high school coaching experience
and with standing in the community. Meanwhile, Ellison courted
influential members of the community to exert pressure on the
school administration. A committee formed by departing Alexandria
superintendent Herb Berg recommended that $240,000 of the T.C.
Williams budget be allocated for athletics. A payment of $100,000
was eventually approved, of which $81,952 was immediately spent
on football. "If I had known we needed funds for athletics two or
three years ago, I would have found the money then," says Berg.
"T.C. Williams should showcase football."
With those funds the weight room was refurbished, blocking sleds
were replaced, the practice field was resodded and, for $15,000,
the Titans spent a week bonding at Fort Pickett in central
Virginia. The same committee recommended a change in the 2.0 GPA
standard, so that it goes into effect in an athlete's sophomore
year--in effect, giving freshmen a year to satisfy the
requirements. Grades remain an issue:
Ellison enticed 200 students to sign a preliminary tryout sheet
last spring, and 87 of them were ineligible. Of his 36 top
players 18 are at risk of falling below 2.0.
Community supporters have formed a football booster club, seeking
donations on the crew model. But with financial assistance from a
private foundation, Ellison has been able to start the Odyssey
Program, which will provide after-hours study halls and SAT prep
work, among other academic support, to football players. He also
is using other incentives to try to motivate his team. Players
who achieve a significant jump in their GPA will receive a pair
of basketball shoes. Those who reach the highest academic goals
set for them can earn a letterman's jacket. "Work for this,"
Ellison tells his players. "I'm hearing rumors that some of you
don't bring books home. Start."
Still, the team is too small, too weak and too inexperienced to
win in a strong suburban league, although last Friday night's
tough 13-6 loss to West Springfield High sounded the first
encouraging note of the season. "Not one player will play at any
level of college ball," says Donald Futrell, a former assistant
to Boone and Furman. (Ellison disagrees, and thinks that 6'2",
190-pound junior tailback Tony Hunt will play Division I-A
ball.) The school administration has asked Ellison to improve
the diversity of the program. Maybe it wants support from
affluent parents. Maybe it would like the team picture to look
more like that of the '71 Titans. "There's so much to do," says
Ellison. "Change the environment, make kids proud to play
football and, most important, make football a vehicle to take
them somewhere in life."
In the week before the football season began, Herman Boone sat on
the bleachers next to the T.C. Williams football field, recalling
another time. He lives with his wife of 39 years, Carol, in a
house not far from the school. It's the same house in which the
windows were broken by a toilet full of feces heaved into his
living room by his racist critics in that fall of 1971, the same
house in which Boone now writes speeches about bringing us all
together. "It makes me sad to see what's happened at T.C., with
so much trouble winning and so few white boys on the team," he
says. He pauses to look across the light-green late-summer grass
and continues, "Football can bring your school together, it
His words are a sweet, distant memory, re-formed as a wish.
T.C. Williams football is now almost devoid of the buoyant racial
balance that made the '71 team a beacon of social harmony.
"I was appalled by the condition of our facilities," says one
former city official. "There was a complete breakdown in
"The film is about diversity and trust and courage," says Boone,
the '71 coach, "and that's what we found."
"Most white kids wouldn't think of coming out for football,"
says one player. "They think it's a black sport."
"It's sad to see what's happened," says Boone. "Football can
bring your school together. It really can."