The football field at William H. Greene Stadium was filled with row after row of folding chairs. A stage had been erected at one end, and workers were going through the final checks of a big-time sound system. The afternoon was warm, the second week of May in Washington, D.C., and students walked around the campus of Howard University with their parents, everyone ready for the graduation ceremony the next day that would feature Colin Powell as the speaker.
Steve Wilson was not ready. Not yet.
"I'm going to make it, though," said Wilson, the Howard football coach. "Just a few more cuts, a few more additions, then I'll get this thing printed, and I'll be done."
The "thing" in question, his work in progress, his movie, was being played on the large television set in front of him. Football players were flying across the screen and cheerleaders were cheering and then shots of a large civic celebration appeared on the screen, everyone yelling, "Whomp, there it is!" even Franklyn G. Jenifer, then Howard's president, and Washington mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, even Wilson himself. Over the past few weeks the coach had gone through 61 tapes and reels of film from the 1993 season, picking out meaningful moments, funny interviews, bizarre bounces and good band music in order to make this three-hour documentary that would have only a limited distribution: 75 copies, one for each person associated with the 1993 football team.
"It'll be something they can keep forever," Wilson said. "Ten years from now they can put it in the VCR and say, 'Wow, look at how slim I was.' "
"You do this every year for your kids?" he was asked.
"Oh, no," the coach replied. "This is the first time. But it's the first time I ever coached a team that was 11-0."
Eleven and 0? Howard? Isn't that the alma mater of the author Toni Morrison and the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, of Vernon Jordan of the National Urban League and politicians David Dinkins and Andrew Young and Douglas Wilder? Isn't that—you hate to use the term, but everybody around campus does—the "black Harvard"? Isn't that the place where Khalid Muhammad of the Nation of Islam gave an inflammatory speech last year that started a national debate about black-Jewish relations? Isn't academic discourse supposed to be the main contact sport at Howard? Football? At Howard? Eleven and 0?
"I told my coaches before the season that I wanted to challenge these kids," Wilson, 37, said. "I wanted to tell them we'd go 11-0. My coaches thought I was crazy. They said, 'What if we lose a game, what do we do then?' I said I didn't care. I thought we had the talent to go 11-0. That's what we talked about, from the first practice. That's what we talked about every day, 11-0."
This was a challenge with large teeth. Howard's classification is Division 1-AA, far from the headlines in most nationwide newspapers but part of the grand sub-rosa structure of black college football. Who doesn't know about the success of certain black colleges in football? Wilson was looking to change the landscape. Forget Grambling and Jackson State and Florida A&M and Alcorn State, familiar names that have sent long lines of players to the NFL. Think Howard.