Of the 104 graduates in the class of 1993 at Dalton, a $17,000-a-year private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, six went to Brown, eight went to Cornell, seven went to Harvard....
"And one went to Grambling," Eddie Robinson said, shaking his 77-year-old head. He said these words last Friday, on a bus, in a red Southern dusk. The football team of Grambling State, the predominantly black college in rural Louisiana that Robinson, its football coach since 1941, put on the map, was on a blue highway. The Tigers were headed for Itta Bena, Miss., home of Mississippi Valley State, another historically black college. Three rows behind the coach sat his quarterback, Michael Kornblau, a member of Dalton's class of '93. Kornblau is the first white starting quarterback that Grambling has ever had. He is also the Tigers' first Jewish quarterback.
Kornblau's grandfathers were born in Eastern Europe, his father in the Bronx, and his accent is pure New York, the city where he has lived all his life. Sometimes it seems as if few people in Lincoln Parish, where Grambling rises unassumingly from the sandy soil, can understand the quarterback. But nobody cares—as long as the Tigers win. On Friday night on the bus, Kornblau was giving no thought to the onset of Shabbas. Beating the Delta Devils was all that mattered.
Robinson looked to the back of the bus, his neck turning within the starched collar of his white shirt, and checked in on his team. A few players were watching a tape of Mike Tyson fights. A few others were listening to music through headphones. (They were not listening to rap; Robinson prohibits rap, along with chin hair and profanity.) But most of the players on this long, smooth ride were sleeping. Among them was the Tigers' placekicker, Ayman Nawash, an Israeli-born Muslim who, in the Grambling press guide, lists Allah as the person he most admires. Nawash's roommate is Kornblau.
Sleeping peacefully in his seat, Kornblau looked like the whitest man in the history of Caucasians, with his blond hair and long, bony nose and pale blue eyes. When he has had too much sun or not enough water, or when he's embarrassed, his face turns bright red. But before long, it's pale again.
On Friday morning at practice, Robinson had given Kornblau a public tutorial. "Your footwork's all wrong!" Robinson had yelled at him. The coach is slightly stooped now, not as tall as he once was, but his voice is still full and capable of fury. Nobody dared laugh as he showed Kornblau how to take a first step back from the line. Kornblau had listened intently, as if he were getting it straight from God.
Kornblau has much to learn, and he and Robinson know it. His best attributes are his height (6'5"), strength and lively arm, and Robinson—loyal to the wing T, the formation he married in 1959—has always favored tall quarterbacks who can throw strikes from insulated pockets. Kornblau's principal liabilities are inexperience and slowness of foot.
During his first three years of high school, Kornblau attended Browning, another Manhattan private school. But Browning had no football team, and Kornblau, who had begun playing football in a Harlem church league, was consumed by the game. So he transferred to Dalton in '92, for his senior year. He won the starting quarterback's job quickly but missed more than half the season with a sprained right ankle. Dalton excels at SAT preparation—the mean score in Kornblau's class was 1,250—but it can't be good at everything, and the football team had few receivers who could hold on to Kornblau's bullets. "His film showed a bunch of good passes that nobody caught," Dalton coach Roy Samuelson says. The big programs weren't interested.
Kornblau enrolled at the University of Rochester, a Division III school that produces accomplished scholars by the score and professional athletes almost never. He played football and basketball as a freshman, but he had dreams of the big time, and Rochester wasn't fulfilling them. Back home in New York the summer after his freshman year, Kornblau tore a knee ligament while playing pickup basketball. The injury required surgery, and he never returned to Rochester. He stayed in the city, taking night classes at New York University, working as a doorman at a West Side apartment building. A Grambling bird dog who had seen Kornblau play at Dalton ran into him in December 1995 and was surprised to learn that he had no football home. The recruiter called Robinson, who agreed to take a look.
Kornblau threw for Coach Rob during a January visit to Grambling and was offered a scholarship on the spot. He was also promised a chance to earn the Tigers' starting job, which became his after the season opener during which Grambling's first-string quarterback, a Mississippian named Chiron Applewhite, broke his arm. The NCAA regards Kornblau, who turns 22 on Oct. 29, as a sophomore. There are surely many high school sophomores who have spent more than the four years Kornblau has spent in organized football, but he can't do anything about that. He is the starting quarterback for one of the most celebrated teams in college football. Across Lincoln Parish, he's the man. Grambling is his to lead.