For all that has changed at T.C. Williams, many of the racial divisions portrayed at the start of the movie exist today. "The story that nobody in the school system or the community wants to tell is that 30 years have gone by since the events in that movie, and nothing has changed," says Thurston McClain, one of Ellison's first-year assistants and also an Alexandria fireman. "It's still 1971."
In 1996 screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard was fed up with living in LA and moved to Alexandria, where he began casting about for a new project. "I was sort of scrambling for an idea," he recalls. "I couldn't help but notice that Alexandria seemed to be a very integrated city. I asked people how it happened. They kept talking about this football team back in 1971."
Howard researched the '71 Titans and made contact with Herman Boone, the black man who coached T.C. Williams at the time and whose character, portrayed by Denzel Washington, is at the center of the movie. Boone, a proud man, resisted. "This guy called, said he wanted to make a movie, and I didn't believe him," Boone says. Howard wore him down, and Boone eventually helped him work through the pipeline of flummoxed former Titans who were just as shocked that Hollywood would be interested in their story.
The resulting movie is a fairy-tale treatise on race, youth and football. It is full of hoary clich�s and cartoonish characters (the bigoted white girlfriend of the star white linebacker, the redneck assistant coach) but succeeds as wholesome entertainment and what Howard calls "a different paradigm on race: You don't have to like each other to get along; you just have to respect each other." A quick summary: The two high schools are joined; the no-nonsense black man is named coach instead of the legendary white coach (Bill Yoast, played by Will Patton). Players rebel, then bond and win all their games amid social unrest. A divided city celebrates as one. Fade to black.
Those who lived the '71 season can nit-pick the celluloid version of their lives, but they are virtually unanimous in their overall assessment of the film: "The movie captures the spirit of the team and the time," says Rufus Littlejohn, a starting linebacker in '71. The movie has brought the players together in a sort of nonstop reunion. They have a website. Groups of them drive together to speak to community groups and the like. The movie is shown and, afterward, questions are answered by the Real Original Titans.
Nobody, however, has been affected as much as Boone. A crusty man given to speech-making to even the smallest audience (one listener will do), he was signed last fall by the American Program Bureau, a Boston-based agency that counts Mikhail Gorbachev and Johnnie Cochran among its more than 200 speakers. Boone makes speeches at colleges, high schools and corporate team-building seminars more than 20 times a month for fees as high as $12,000 per appearance. "We thought demand out when people for Herman would die out when stopped going to the movie," says Trinity Ray, who represents Boone. "It's been the opposite. He's developed a following almost separate from his character in the film."
Yoast accompanies Boone roughly four times a month, and the two men, close friends, work the audience together. "I have to pinch myself," Boone says. "I really do."
Best of all—better than small fame or big money for any of these men—is the knowledge that the message of the movie is real. Coming together in 1971 had been every bit as difficult for them as the film conveys. At the end of the previous school year, administrators had brought together returning football players from all three of the schools that were being merged. (In real life T.C. Williams, George Washington High and Francis C. Hammond High were joined, not two schools.) The players sat on the tiered risers in the T.C. Williams band room in three distinct groups, segregated mostly by the colors of their skin and of their school shirts. "I was one of the last to walk in, saw where everybody was sitting and thought, Oh, yeah, this is going to work real well," says Jerry Buck, who was a starting offensive lineman on the '71 team.
Players fought even more than those in the movie. "Vicious fights," says Carl Turner, a running back on the '71 team who teaches middle school in Alexandria and coaches jayvee basketball at T.C. Williams. "Black guys fighting white guys, black guys from G.W. fighting black guys from T.C, white guys from Hammond fighting white guys from G.W." In the end, though, says Boone, "the film is about diversity and trust and courage, and that's what we found."
And the part about uniting a city? Many say it's true. "There had been, for several years, a great deal of adult tension in the city," says Melvin Miller, a retired Alexandria attorney who was active in the city's roiling civil rights movement in the '60s and '70s and later served as chairman of the city's school board. "That football team helped soothe tempers. It's true. It really brought the city together."