By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
This story has been updated with the Times’ full obituary for Herman Boone.
Herman Boone, the legendary football coach who led the 1971 T.C. Williams High School football team on an undefeated run to a state championship victory that was immortalized in the film “Remember the Titans,” died on Dec. 18 from lung cancer. He was 84.
In 1971, when Alexandria City Public Schools was undergoing integration and racial tension was high, Boone was brought on as coach to unite black and white students from Francis C. Hammond and George Washington high schools to play under the T.C. Williams Titans banner.
With his hard-nosed, confrontational style of coaching, Boone motivated and challenged his players to respect one another on and off the field. Decades later, Boone’s work as a coach who made strides to heal a racial divide continues to inspire the city and country.
“I think that the biggest contribution that he made to us was helping us understand some of the racial inequalities that we had in the City of Alexandria and really bridging that gap between segregation and integration and helping us to go into integrated schools or having schools accepting that within our school division,” ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., said.
Boone was born Oct. 28, 1935 to Frank and Daisy Boone in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and was one of 12 children. His parents died early in his life, and his older siblings were largely responsible for raising him.
Boone got a B.A. and M.S. in physical education from North Carolina Central University. In 1958, Boone’s passion for teaching young athletes took him to Luther H. Foster High School in Blackstone, Virginia where he coached football, basketball and baseball.
Boone also met his wife, Carol, in Blackstone as well, Jerry Harris, the defensive back and third string quarterback for the 1971 team, said.
“He first met Carol, his wife, and he was saying how he remembered hearing these heels walking down the hallway, and when he saw her, that was it,” Harris said.
In 1961, Boone moved back to his home state to take on a coaching position for the E.J. Hayes High School football team in Williamston, North Carolina. During Boone’s nine years as an assistant coach, his teams racked up a 99-8 record.
However, Boone resigned from the school in 1969, after the school board informed him the town wasn’t ready for a black head coach, Boone said during a talk at Salisbury University.
His experience at Williamston didn’t stop him from accepting an assistant coaching position at T.C. Williams in 1969. ACPS had officially integrated the school system in 1965, but in 1971 the city decided to take a more meaningful step forward and bring together every high school student under one roof.
That year, Boone was appointed head coach over Bill Yoast, a white coach with many more years of seniority. Yoast stayed on as an assistant coach to ease the transition and simmering racial tensions that were start- ing to come to a boil.
Boone took the players to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for two weeks of preseason training as a way to forge bonds between players who didn’t know – or, in some cases, respect – each other.
There, the Titans became familiar with Boone’s intense coaching style. Kenny White, a Titans quarterback from 1972-1973, likened him to a drill sergeant.
“I was a little intimidated, but I did know how to deal with that regiment that he portrayed,” White said. “… You learned to get the message and weed out anything else that might come along with it.”
Boone expected a lot from his players because he knew what they were capable of, Harris said. Boone would have his players run plays over and over again until they got it right; if they didn’t, he would go out and run it himself.
Under Boone, the team was less a democracy and more a benevolent dictatorship, but his ability as a leader, a teacher and a motivator was unmatched, according to his players.
He was a master storyteller and regularly pulled from his own stories to inspire his players – even if the veracity of those stories was stretched a bit here and there.
“Bill Yoast used to argue he would change the stories from time to time to make them even better,” John Porter, former principal at T.C. Williams, said. “Bill once said, ‘Herman, if I got a quarter for every time that story has changed, I’d be rich.’”
With Boone leading the offense with fire and fury and Yoast spearheading the defense with a quiet reserve, the Titans went undefeated during the 1971-1972 season. The team shut out eight of their 12 opponents before defeating Andrew Lewis High School in the state championship.
The Titans’ success was a landmark moment in the city’s racial and social history.
“I think it was really a defining moment for the school and the community,” Porter said. “It was either gonna work or it wasn’t gonna work and, lord knows, it worked. The football program and the team really helped pull [the city] together.”
In 2000, Disney released the film “Remember the Titans,” a dramatization of the events of the legendary 1971 season, with Denzel Washington playing Boone.
Boone’s players haven’t forgotten the values he taught them: respect, responsibility and, for White, punctuality.
During one memorable incident, White recalled how he was running late to the team bus on game day. Outside the bus, White shouted to Boone that he was going to grab his equipment that he had left in his car. But when he turned around, the buses had started driving away.
“I thought he was joking, so I kind of stood there laughing, and they made a left turn on King Street and kept going,” White said. “I’m looking like, ‘He’ll come back. He’s gotta come back. I’m the starting quarterback.’ And he didn’t.”
White now tells his children that story to remind them always to be on time.
Boone was fired as head coach in 1979 for his treatment of players and coaching staff. He went on to teach physical education and driver’s education at T.C. Williams.
In the years after his time as head coach, Boone enjoyed golfing and taking his boat up the Potomac River alongside family and former players, who he remained close with up until his death, Harris said.
“It was like we were a big family,” Harris said. “We would call the guys and they would call to see how he was doing. He would always ask about certain ones on the team. He was like a father type figure.”
Up until recently, Boone and players from the 1971 team travelled to college campuses, telling their story and speaking about the unifying power of sports. Through it all, Boone always acknowledged his players, White said.
“I asked, ‘Coach, why do you do that all the time.’ And one of his little sayings is, ‘Well, a jockey should always acknowledge his horse,’” White said. “… If you’ve won championships, you didn’t get there because you ran the ball, so he would acknowledge his players whenever the opportunity presented itself.”
As a coach Boone challenged and pushed his players, school and community to be better, to respect people regardless of their race. His legacy lives on, even if the work isn’t done yet, White said.
“[His] legacy, to me, would be one of respect because to him it didn’t matter what you looked like, who you were. You have to learn to respect one another. … And that goes beyond football,” White said.
Boone is predeceased by his wife Carol, who died in March, and his daughter, Donna Dulaney, who died in 2014. Boone is survived by his daughters Sharon Henderson of Alexandria and Monica Merritt of Plymouth, Michigan, six grandchildren and two great granddaughters.
Boone is one of four members of the legendary 1971 Titans to die in 2019. Julius Campbell, 65, captain of the team, died on Jan. 25; Yoast, 94, died on May 23; and Petey Jones, 65, fullback, died on July 1.
(Read more: Julius Campbell dies at 65)