I just watched a private viewing of a film that brought back memories of my formative years as a sportswriter in New Orleans.
The 62-minute documentary is titled, “Before the West Coast.” Its secondary title is more fitting to the intent of its theme: “A Sports Civil Rights Film.”
It was about five years ago that St. Augustine alumnus Oyd Craddock asked me to be part of a film he was working on about the years Otis Washington coached the Purple Knights’ football team. I sat through an interview with Craddock at Tad Gormley Stadium, and for about 40 minutes we talked on film about that era.
I was a small part of 13 interviews the man who would become St. Augustine’s president conducted.
What he produced was a professional masterpiece about the man who built the football team into a power during a trying period of time when the Civil Rights movement was changing the way of life in the South. It was a difficult task at the time, as reflected by those who appear in the film.
One was former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, whose father Dutch was the first African American elected to the state Legislature in 1967 and later became New Orleans major.
In the 1960s, Marc Morial said, “schools, churches, buses and lunch counters were segregated by race.”
In 1966, St. Augustine became the first African-American school to join the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA). But it took a federal court ruling to make this possible.
Major part of the movement
Josephite Father Robert Grant, the school’s principal, had applied for admission, but was turned down.
And to be frank, some of the principals of local Catholic schools were not comfortable with an all-black school competing in the Catholic League, in which St. Augustine would be a part.
“But it was a major part of the Civil Rights movement,” noted media colleague Ro Brown. “Because sports is so visible, you actually saw whites and blacks competing on the field. You could look, see and feel what was going on.”
The late coach, Henry Rando, who spent time as an assistant coach at Jesuit and Archbishop Rummel and later as the head man at St. John Vianney and Holy Cross, felt the social impact of St. Aug’s entry was greater than the sports impact.
“This was the first time a black school competed in the Catholic League, and everybody in the black community rallied around the school because (their principal) had the guts to make that transformation.”
But the school was dealt several hard blows.
After beginning the 1967 football season, its first in the LHSAA, the state association launched an investigation and discovered that a current events course had no textbook. Students were learning by reading the newspaper.
“The LHSAA made 19 players ineligible,” Rando noted. “I don’t know what’s more current than what you read in the daily newspaper.”
The head coach was a legend in the former LIALO (black school association that was equal, but separate from the LHSAA). But his teams were having a difficult time competing in the Catholic League, and Father Grant had to do something about it.
“My phone rang at 3 a.m.,” Washington recalled. “It was Father Grant, saying, ‘We’re making a change, and you are the new head coach. Then he hung up.’”
Washington was the man who inspired Craddock’s film.
The Washington era begins
During the next 11 years, St. Augustine would become a statewide football power.
“My first LHSAA meeting consisted of 400 white schools and one African-American school,” Washington recounted. “The only coaches who talked to me were Catholic League coaches.
“The next day at a coaches’ meeting there were 15 rows open around me and our AD, Emmitt Moton. It was like siting on an island.
“I made a promise to myself that one day everyone sitting in here is going to know the name St. Augustine because I’m going to beat the hell out of everyone we play.”
He practically did. He studied the University of Houston’s West Coast offense and replicated it perfectly. St. Aug was the only school passing the ball out of that particular offense.
For the next 11 years, the Purple Knights posted a record of 114 wins, 29 losses and a tie.
Otis’ teams won seven district titles and state championships in 1975, 1978 and 1979, his final high school season.
His offense was hard to stop because it didn’t have a back the caliber of a Leonard Fournette or a Leroy Hoard or a Benjarvis Green-Ellis, upon whom a defense could focus.
“I had six backs. Each gained 400 yards. It kept everybody happy. I only had one 1,000-yard rusher in Burnell Quinn.”
Quinn was the featured back on the 1975 team that went 15-0.
Planting the seed
Craddock, who had a successful 31-year career as an IBM executive, had a story to tell. The idea came during the 2012 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductions, at which Washington became an inductee.
“I felt the coach’s induction was long overdue, and I wanted his (our) success to be known and remembered,” Craddock said.
Craddock spent time with Washington and his former classmates, recalling his days as youth.
“Those interviews compelled me to tell the story about our feelings that were much deeper than the football part. I was inspired to tell the story of the adversity we faced and how we responded,” Craddock added.
He said overcoming that adversity served him as a businessman. “As I worked on the project, I developed the hope that today’s young people would benefit from learning about our passion and perseverance. Great life lessons are learned from stories.”
Craddock’s film has been shown at film festivals in New Mexico and Maryland. Today he is seeking a national market in which to show this important history lesson.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.