People say that it can't work, black and white; Well here we make it work, every day. We have oar disagreements, of course, But before we reach for hate, Always, always, we remember the Titans.
—CLOSING LINES FROM THE MOVIE
Remember the Titans
On the first Friday in September, the eve of the 2001 football season, the Titans of T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va., gather for a pregame meal in the school's ground-floor cafeteria. It is a special evening for the players, symbolic of their persistence and survival. They have been together through a spartan, weeklong August training camp at a rural Virginia military complex. No Game Boys. No television. No boom boxes. No headphones. They have practiced twice a day back home in the stifling late-summer heat. Now the Titans, wearing their blood-red game jerseys, sit in hard-back plastic chairs. At one o'clock the next afternoon they will face Chantilly High, and their effort will be measured in cold numbers. For now everyone is hopeful and all is right. The Titans are undefeated.
At the center of the room first-year coach Riki Ellison, a 41-year-old former NFL linebacker who won a collegiate national championship at USC and three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers, stands and asks for quiet. His trademark Panama hat is tipped back on his head, his dress shirt soaked with sweat. "Everybody here at 10:30 tomorrow," Ellison says. "Tonight, enjoy your friends, enjoy your food. Tomorrow we take it to the house."
There are ripples of applause and supportive hoots. "Remember," adds Ellison, raising his right index finger into the air. "One family. One team. One town."
His words are loaded with resonance. A year ago Disney released Remember the Titans, a film based on the true story of how the 1971 T.C. Williams team overcame the racial tension created by the combining of largely black and largely white high schools to meet federal desegregation guidelines and won the Virginia state Group AAA championship. The movie missed nary a note in demonstrating that we can all just get along, and it was a huge success, grossing $115 million nationwide.
A year later it is still impossible to walk the halls at T.C. Williams High, a three-story brick building erected in 1965, without feeling the presence of the '71 Titans. Movie posters hang in many classrooms and offices. Tourists visiting Washington, D.C., make the 15-minute nip across the Potomac River to see the school. (They are often surprised to find that it looks nothing like it did in the movie; in fact, the film was made in Georgia.) During the summer a couple from Iowa pulled into the parking lot and asked to take a picture of principal John Porter, even though he had no connection to the '71 team. "It didn't matter," says Porter. "They wanted a photo of a Titan."
One long glass trophy case in the school's carpeted lobby is devoted to the achievements of '71 linebacker Gerry Bertier, who became a world-class Paralympic athlete after a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Another display case honors the '71 Titans and the movie. A visitor counts faces in the team picture. Sure enough, 38 are white and 31 black, almost an even split. They made it work.
So much has changed. T.C. Williams, still one of the largest public high schools in Virginia (2,013 students in three grades), now fields one of the weakest football teams in the state. T.C. Williams was 1-9 in 2000, taunted at every game by opposing crowds alluding to the movie and by opposing players motivated to beat the Titans. A sign displayed during a game at Annandale High read FORGET THE TITANS, REMEMBER THE ATOMS. The Titans have been bad for a long time. T.C. Williams's 10-year record entering the 2001 season was 30-70. Its last winning season was 1995; its last trip to the state playoffs, 1990.
Even more jarring, in light of the feel-good racial harmony at the core of the movie, is the fact that T.C. Williams's football team is almost entirely devoid of the racial balance that made the '71 squad a beacon of social harmony in Alexandria. Of the 42 Titans who dressed for the first game this year, six are white, and of those six only two were starters and only three played before garbage time in the 31-6 opening-game loss to Chantilly—a glaring homogeneity in a city whose population is nearly 60% white.
Those numbers don't tell the whole story, either. For more than a decade, T.C. Williams has held its athletes to higher academic standards for eligibility than most high schools in Virginia, requirements that are criticized emotionally in Alexandria and blamed for reducing the school's talent pool. There is also simmering resentment over the private funding lavished on the school's predominantly white crew program.