Robinson, Stingley and the Game of Football

Long-time Grambling State football coach Eddie Robinson died this week at the age of 88. Former NFL wide receiver Darryl Stingley was 55 when he died two days later. Their lives offer two different windows on the sport.

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Football lost two significant figures this week. Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson died at the age of 88. Former NFL wide receiver Darryl Stingley was 55. Their life stories reflect both the best and worst parts of the game. But in the many people they touched, Robinson and Stingley leave very similar legacies.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: Coach Rob, as Eddie Robinson was known, lived about as full a football life as one man can. He coached for over a half century at Grambling State in Louisiana and was celebrated for his 408 career victories, a record until recently.

The numbers Robinson valued most were the hundreds of players at the predominantly African-American school who learned from their coach how to succeed in a hostile world, the way Robison had growing up as a black kid in a segregated South.

Instead of taking his players to civil rights protests, Robinson taught them how to win in football and life. Every Grambling victory showed what young African-American men could. And former Grambling quarterback Doug Williams says every pre-game speech was like a sermon.

Mr. DOUG WILLIAMS (Former Quarterback, Grambling State): He can make you realize that you'll go run through that brick wall and you won't even know it. You know, by time he get through saying his pre-game talk and turn his back on you and kick the floor couple of times and turn around and tears running out his eyes, you know, you be ready to play.

GOLDMAN: Darryl Stingley moved people with his lack of tears, because if anyone had reason to cry - from sadness, from rage - it was Stingley. In 1978, he was a talented 26-year-old wide receiver for the New England Patriots. During a pre-season game, he reached for an errant pass and collided by Jack Tatum, a hard-hitting defensive back for Oakland Raiders who was nicknamed The Assassin. In an instant, Stingley was paralyzed, permanently.

Mr. DARRYL STINGLEY (Former Wide Receiver, New England Patriots): Life not worth living was never a question or an option with me.

GOLDMAN: Stingley did an interview with ESPN radio a few years ago. He said certainly there were tears at the beginning, but he ultimately got a lot of strength from growing up in a family that stressed discipline and love.

Mr. STINGLEY: I always say that everything that happened before that accident prepared me to deal with it afterwards. And as a result, you know, I just feel like I'm still an athlete in heart and in mind. So my nature is to compete again - so I decided to compete on a day-to-day basis, and I've been doing that for the last 25 years.

GOLDMAN: He went on to get his degree from Purdue University. He started a foundation to help inner-city kids in Chicago. And Stingley learned to forgive Jack Tatum, who never directly apologized for his role in the accident. An autopsy this week found that quadriplegia and spinal cord injury were factors in Stingley's death. In a statement released by his former team, Tatum said Darryl will be forever remembered for his strength and courage.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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