On day to honor King, former T.C. Williams coach recalls his 'Titans' experience

Marcus Holt, 9, with brother Benjamin Holt, 17, beside him, shakes hands with William Yoast, the former T.C. Williams High School assistant football coach made famous in the film "Remember the Titans."
Marcus Holt, 9, with brother Benjamin Holt, 17, beside him, shakes hands with William Yoast, the former T.C. Williams High School assistant football coach made famous in the film "Remember the Titans." (James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

It has been nearly 40 years since Alexandria's high schools were combined into T.C. Williams High School, completing the integration required after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, but the lessons learned in 1971 live on.

T.C. Williams High School's former assistant football coach, William Yoast, was made famous by actor Will Patton in the 2000 film "Remember the Titans," which starred Denzel Washington as Coach Herman Boone. Yoast echoed the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, speaking of judging people by their character, not their skin color, at a prayer breakfast in King's honor at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

"When we came together, we thought we were going to coach a football team," Yoast said. He and Boone had to work "not just to win a football game but to help correct a mistake . . . segregation."

Alexandria public schools were desegregated in the 1960s, not in 1971 as the film portrayed. But before 1971, the T.C. Williams student population was only about 5 percent black, he said.

The school system risked losing federal funding if the high schools were not better integrated, so Alexandria reorganized its high schools, Frances C. Hammond and George Washington, Yoast said. In 1971, all of the city's juniors and seniors were enrolled at T.C. Williams, combining Alexandria's rival varsity football teams and creating a competitive tension on the field.

When the players came together at football camp, Yoast said, he and Boone worked to change attitudes by changing the players' behavior. Talent shows were held to help the players see what they had in common, and extra laps were run when the coaches saw more than three players of the same race hanging out together off the field.

"They bonded real quick," Yoast said, evoking laughter from the crowd.

The coaches visited players at home. They got to know their parents, backgrounds and study situations.

"You get to know the people," Yoast said.

Although struggles continued, the players learned to work together. As a result, the team became a powerhouse, having an undefeated season and winning the state championship in 1971.

The locker room in Roanoke after the championship game, with teammates and parents hugging one another, not only brought tears to both coaches, Yoast said, but would have made King proud.

Roughly quoting African American scientist George Washington Carver, Yoast said he thinks people's success depends on how they treat the young and the aged, how they tolerate the weak and strong. "Because someday in our lives, we will have been all of these," he said.

After Yoast's speech, Barbara Thompson, 66, said, "I think we should all heed to what he said and take it to heart."

Thompson, who was the first African American teacher at Great Mills Elementary School in St. Mary's County in 1967, continued, "We are all on the same planet. We all want the same things and we all want the best for each other."

Marcus Holt, 9, and his brother, Benjamin, 17, were eager to meet Yoast at the breakfast. Both play football, were fans of the movie and have friends of many races, which would not have happened if it weren't for the work that people such as Yoast had done, they said.

"We'd be in different schools," said Marcus, who is black, referring to his best friend, who is white. "He wouldn't respect me, and I wouldn't respect him, because that was how it was."

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