Call it an interactive lunch. Herman Boone — who addressed Southern Nazarene University’s Peer Learning Network on Thursday at the Petroleum Club — asked guests to shake a neighbor’s hand, and then place their respective free hands atop their joined hands and raise them skyward.
“Feel the warmth and intensity?” he asked.
Boone — the legendary black football coach portrayed in Disney’s 2000 movie “Remember the Titans” — said he used the exercise to help successfully unite the segregated rival football teams of three Alexandria, Va.-based high schools forced to integrate into T.C. Williams High School in 1971.
“Black hands shook white hands, and white hands shook black hands — for the first time,” said Boone, who was portrayed in the movie by Denzel Washington.
“The first step toward building and sustaining a winning team is getting people to talk to one another,” said Boone, 77. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t like each other, but you’ve got to respect each other.”
Racial tensions ran high in the early ‘70s, Boone said, when he was promoted from assistant to head coach at T.C. Williams over Coach Bill Yoast, a white coach who had more seniority and a favorable following in the community.
The breakthrough toward unification, he said, is when the team of 14 assistant coaches and some 65 players went off to a two-week training camp.
One more thing
“We lived together, ate together, practiced together and prayed together. But when I noticed white and black players still weren’t sitting together at meals in the cafeteria, I told them I’d had enough, and to get up right then and get on the bus. It was 8 or 9 at night and we drove to the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where I explained thousands, their same age, had died over the same fight.”
“If we didn’t come together on this hallowed land,” I said, “we too would be destroyed.”
By the time the team headed home, black and white players voluntarily sat together, played cards and similarly enjoyed each other, he said. “When a black kid jumped into the aisle to dance to a country-and-western song, I knew we had a football team,” Boone said.
Uniting teachers, administrators, their parents and the entire community, the team went on to post a 13-0 season and take the state championship.
“My definition of team is having one objective, one vision, but — more than anything — one heartbeat,” Boone said. “As team leader, you have to be true to your mission, core values and self. But mainly you have to care,” he said, “because you can’t fake caring.”
Pretty much all of the ‘71 Titans went on to excel in life, as mayors, brain surgeons, lawyers and other professionals, Boone said. The players, coaches and cheerleaders have formed a nonprofit (71originaltitans.com) to help high school students in depressed areas pursue college educations.
Boone closed his speech with a checklist of questions executives can ask themselves daily about whether they’re successful team leaders.
“Did you recognize someone on your team today? Motivate or counsel someone? Listen to someone?” he asked.
“You mustn’t wait, but act now on your beliefs,” he said, “because your beliefs become your character.”