Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights
Samuel G. Freedman, Simon & Schuster, 2013, $28
As spectators by the tens of thousands flocked to the Orange Bowl from Overtown and Liberty City on a balmy Dec. 2, 1967, evening, they likely had little idea that they were walking into history.
They were there for football, the Orange Blossom Classic, the annual game equivalent to a national championship for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) at a time when, at least in the South, Jim Crow still barred them from playing white teams.The game pitted longtime rivals Florida A&M and Grambling State University – then known as Grambling College – and culminated a week of festivities in Miami’s then-thriving black neighborhoods that drew tourists from around the country.
Facing off in the game between the FAMU Rattlers and the Grambling Tigers were two legendary coaches, Alonzo S. “Jake” Gaither of the Florida school and Eddie Robinson of Louisiana’s Grambling.
On the field the teams were led by Grambling’s James Harris, later to become the first black starting quarterback in the NFL, and FAMU’s Ken Riley, who spent 15 seasons as a defensive back with the Cincinnati Bengals.
In Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights (Simon & Schuster), New York Times columnist and Columbia University journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman chronicles that game – as well as the 60 years of black college football that led to it; and two years later, the first college game in the South between the mostly white University of Tampa Spartans and FAMU.
Breaking the Line is Freedman’s seventh book and third on a specifically ethnic topic. Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church profiled the Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood and his work as pastor of Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in the troubled East New York section of Brooklyn.
Jew vs. Jew examined the American Jewish community’s internal schisms, divisions invisible to many outsiders.
The Inheritance, on the evolution of white ethnic Americans from Roosevelt Democrats to Reagan Republicans, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
How did a white Jewish journalist from New Jersey come to write about black churches and HBCU football? Through a lifelong passion for football, his parents who paid close attention to the civil rights movement and his enduring desire to closely examine the tapestry of American society.
“I always wanted to write one book in my writing career about football, but football and something else,” he says. “Race is an issue that’s a huge factor in American sports.”
Freedman’s facility in writing about a community not his comes from his experience writing Upon This Rock and in particular a conversation with playwright August Wilson, who he came to know while covering theater for the Times.
“I asked him whether a white Jewish guy can write this book about a black church,” Freedman recalls. “He said, ‘You can do it as long as you understand it’s not up to you to validate the black church, it was valid all along.’”
Freedman said he brought the same attitude to Breaking the Line. “The world of black college football and the movement has validity on its own,” he says. “I’m here just in service to this story and this experience that was lived out by these talented and valorous African Americans.”
Freedman said he put six years into the book and was three years into the project before deciding he knew enough to send a proposal to his publisher.
Along the way he viewed hundreds of hours of game film; pored through black community newspaper archives; interviewed scores of major figures including Robinson, Harris and Riley, along with their relatives and friends; and reviewed countless hours of oral history from the likes of Gaither and others.
With that background he delves deeply into:
• The role of historically black colleges as they produced leaders and foot soldiers for the civil rights movement, and the challenges the movement posed for student athletes and leaders.
• The realities of coaching in an era of segregation when coaches at HBCUs often were better educated and smarter than their white college colleagues.
• How coaches mentored their team members into well-rounded and educated young men and leaders, a far cry from what some see as today’s exploitation of college athletes at the expense of their educations.
There’s also a play-by-play rendition of the ’67 Orange Blossom Classic worthy of the best sportswriters. Freedman throughout his career has used his prodigious talent for lyrical writing and scholarly research to create intimate portraits of people emblematic of larger issues in society.
“I’m drawn to the interplay between one’s own identity and heritage and how that fits into the American polyglot,” he says. “I’ve always felt that non-famous individuals are important actors in making and changing history.”
In Breaking the Line, Freedman portrays a perhaps little-known slice of history whose implications extend even to today.
Neil Reisner, a professor of journalism at Florida International University, has known Sam Freedman for nearly 30 years.