College coaching great struggles with Alzheimer's disease

Posted: Tuesday, August 03, 2004

GRAMBLING, La. Eddie Robinson shuffles into the room, hunched over a cane a shadow of the charismatic coach who made little Grambling State University famous.

Then he catches the eye of a visitor, and a familiar smile lights his face, just as it always has.

''I feel good,'' Robinson said, before drifting off into silence.

The smile is almost all that remains of one of the greatest coaches in college football history.

Once the most ebullient of men, Robinson has become quiet and distant as Alzheimer's disease isolates him from all that was once important to him.

''We tried to watch the Bayou Classic he founded that game,'' said Robinson's wife, Doris, referring to the annual game between Grambling and archrival Southern played at the Superdome in New Orleans. ''But he couldn't stay with it.''

Robinson, 85, now sits quietly, answering questions with short replies or looks of consternation.

He retired in 1997 as the winningest coach in college football history with 408 victories at Grambling. Shortly after his 56-year coaching career at the historically black school ended, symptoms of the disease began to show.

''He just didn't feel too well,'' Doris said. ''Then it was like he was just slipping away. Every day a little more was gone.''

These days, Robinson lives in a gray twilight. His wife of 63 years and his son are the only things that break into his conscience.

''This is the hardest thing I've ever gone through in my life,'' Doris said. ''We had such a great marriage. We did everything with such enthusiasm. We had our kids, we had his football, and he took me with him all the way.''

Doris is still with the man she fell in love with when they were eighth-graders in a segregated school.

Robinson was selling newspapers and shining shoes to make money when Doris' aunt, on a visit to what was then called the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, spoke to the school's president about her niece's fiance. The school needed a coach, and she suggested Robinson for the job.

Robinson scraped together the money to go to a coaching school in Chicago. Then he returned to Grambling and gave the football program and the little town an identity.

''When I go to conventions, everyone knows about Grambling because of Coach Rob,'' said Jean Smith, a longtime Grambling resident and friend of the Robinsons. ''Now that word about his condition is out, people ask about him.''

There was more to Robinson's career than his incredible record (408-165-15), however.

James Harris played quarterback for Robinson from 1965-69, before a long career in the NFL as a player and then an executive. He is now vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

''Most players that played for him truly felt he is the person outside their families that influenced them most,'' Harris said. ''You always hear about the football players he turned out, but he turned out a lot of doctors and lawyers and college graduates. Because of him, a lot of men can support families better because they got educations.''

Robinson spends his days in the red-brick house he and his wife built in 1953.

''He still comes to the table for meals, but he wants to go right back to bed,'' Doris said.

The couple's son, Eddie Jr., visits every day, helping his father walk around the house or taking him for car rides.

''He just gets tired quickly,'' the younger Robinson said.

People still visit the Robinson house almost daily fans, reporters, former players.

''Most times they can't see him because he's in bed,'' Doris says. ''People still want him to autograph things, but he can't do that any more.''

The Robinson house is still full of memorabilia: pictures with players, coaches, Alabama coach Bear Bryant and President Clinton. Enough to fill two 18-wheelers has been put in storage. There's been talk of a museum for years.

''We're hopeful,'' Doris says. ''The state said they were going to build one.''

One memory, at least, remains for Robinson.

''He always wants me with him,'' Doris said. ''We still sleep together. Sometimes he calls me during the day: 'Babe, come here, I don't feel good.' And when I get there, there's nothing wrong. He just wants me there. So I lie down beside him and stay there.''

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