So Herman Boone is a little ticked off. Or maybe not. Maybe he's just pretending. Maybe he just likes to hear his booming voice echo through the halls of T.C. Williams High School as he berates some poor photographer in absentia, the way he used to berate his football players some 30 years ago.
"I'm the storm! I'm the storm!" Boone hollers, and it's not immediately discernible what his storminess has to do with the missing photographer, but across the way, Bill Yoast--better known as "the calm"--is chuckling quietly to himself. He gets it. They may have met in the most strained of circumstances three decades back, but by now, he knows Boone. Knows him better than most.
"I tell you," Yoast says, a little while later, "sometimes I feel like I'm a constant guest on 'The Herman Boone Talk Show.' "
Yoast is used to playing the sidekick: the aide-de-camp to Boone's general. In 1971, Yoast was passed over for the position of head football coach at T.C. Williams in favor of Boone, taking an assistant's role instead.
It was a time of racial unrest in Alexandria. Federal officials had warned Alexandria school board members to increase black enrollment in certain sectors of the city or face an aid cutoff. The redistricting--and merging of some schools--angered both blacks and whites.
Boone's appointment was widely seen as a gesture of goodwill to the black community. It angered Yoast's supporters and--at least in the beginning--Yoast himself. Boone, a decorated head coach in his home state of North Carolina, had been serving as assistant coach at T.C. Williams at the time, while Yoast had been a respected head coach at Hammond High School for a number of years. But the two forged a tentative friendship, and their team made up of white and black players from the merged high schools captured the heart of the city by winning the state championship that fall.
Their story--and the story of the young men who played for them that season--has been memorialized in the movie "Remember the Titans," which gets a red-carpet premiere at the Uptown Theater tonight and opens nationwide on Friday. Denzel Washington plays Boone and Will Patton plays Yoast.
"What did we do?" Boone says. "We won a state championship? Well, there have been 30 more state champions since then. What's the big deal?
"Little did I know," Boone continued, his voice softening a bit, "that this wasn't a movie about a state championship. It was about how human beings can come together, and a state championship was just the icing on the cake."
Little Big Man
Now 75, Yoast is a tall, thin man, soft-spoken, and--this is the point of the movie, after all--white. Boone, 64, is African American. Though no towering giant, with his booming voice and hand gestures and an incredible ability to filibuster on any topic--be it racism in America or the size of his premiere-night limousine--he projects much larger than he is. When Boone took over the T.C. Williams football program he drew attention for more than simply his skin color. He was then--and is now--simply impossible to ignore.
"You know, I'm hard-nosed, I'm a disciplinarian," says Boone. "If that makes me a fool or an old crotchety Jack, so be it. And those are some of the more beautiful names I've been called." Says Yoast: "I'm more Tom Landry, and [Boone's] more Vince Lomardi, or Woody Hayes. He's a yeller, a screamer, a kicker, a cusser."
"Herman is Shakespearean," says Titans screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard. "The beauty of Herman and what he did was that it was sort of unconscious. If you'd asked Herman when he took over T.C. Williams, 'Were you trying to make a point with these kids?' he would have said, 'No, I just want to win football games.' He had to get the players to get along to win football games. And it worked for just that reason--because it wasn't self-conscious. He did something quite great beyond what even he realized."
Then Howard breaks into a deep-throated laugh.
"Of course now," he says, "the modern Herman realizes, 'Yeah! I did something!' "
Hollywood Comes Knocking
When Howard--who moved to Alexandria from Los Angeles in 1996, in part to get away from the racial volatility of L.A.--showed up at T.C. Williams, looking to tell Boone's story, Boone was skeptical. Very skeptical.
"I was out at the track," Boone remembers, "when the assistant principal came and told me that there was a Hollywood screenwriter here who wanted to write a movie about me. I thought it was a practical joke."
He had reason. One of his fellow teachers at Williams had recently been humiliated by an elaborate practical joke played on him by some colleagues.
Not about to be the next victim, Boone stood Howard up. Howard pushed on, and once he won over Boone's wife, Carol, he was in, securing rights from both Boone and Yoast.
A few years, and a lot of film studio rejections later, Howard got Jerry Bruckheimer interested in the story. ("A shock," Howard admits.) Suddenly, the project was a go.
"I read the script and it was so emotional," says Bruckheimer, who's known for big-budget, car-crashing, building-exploding films. "I felt it was a story about two men who made a difference for their time and their school and their city and needed to be remembered for that."
Bruckheimer's people contacted Denzel Washington. And that's how one of America's favorite actors came to be on Boone's Alexandria doorstep two years ago.
"It was like going over to your uncle's house," Washington says now, and he still laughs at the memory. "Meeting his family. Getting to know Herman. He's a strong personality. He's a character. But once it got down to nuts and bolts, he was so happy. He just couldn't believe the film was being made."
Washington swears that it was his meeting with Boone that persuaded him to sign on to the project, despite his misgivings over playing in another biography-driven piece immediately after his role as Ruben Carter in "The Hurricane," a part that earned him an Oscar nomination.
"We're sitting there," Washington says, "and [Boone's] telling me that when he dies, he wants Frank Sinatra's 'I Did it My Way' played all day long. He said it was in his will. He looked at his wife and said, 'Honey, tell him,' and his wife was like, 'Yes, it is.' That's Herman. He's a hard-headed guy."
This story is enough to make Yoast break into laughter--after all, he's been calling Boone "hard-headed" forever.
At this point, though, he says it with great affection. Boone and Yoast now act like two old guys at the barbershop, finishing each other's sentences, ripping on each other's jokes. It wasn't always that way.
"We disagreed in the beginning, that's for certain," Boone says.
"Yeah," Yoast adds, "we had our discussions. And sometimes they got a little, ahem, vociferous."
Boone smiles. So does Yoast.
"Herman," Yoast says, "can be a little loud."
They laugh some more, then Yoast turns serious.
"The movie glamorizes certain aspects of the story," he says. "It's a movie, after all. But they did pretty much stick to the facts.
"Herman got the job, and I didn't. That's a fact.
"The whites and blacks came together as a team for the first time. That's a fact, too.
"And the way Herman and I came together? Well, I almost disagreed with Herman without saying a word, and Will Patton is good at portraying that. But it shows how we learned from each other, how we learned by listening to each other. That's a fact, too."
Boone doesn't disagree. And when he says nothing, that says a lot.
Nobody claims that "Remember the Titans" is completely faithful to the facts of that time in Alexandria's history--not even Howard, who describes "Titans" as "true to the essence of the story, if not the exact facts." No one is pretending, either, that this is an Oscar-caliber film--not even Bruckheimer or the people at Disney (though they are quick to say that Washington's portrayal of Boone is worthy of an Oscar nod). They don't even deny that "Titans" can be perceived as something of a simplistic, Disneyfied look at a complex subject: race.
"Nothing is very easily put out there on the screen," says Disney Studios Chairman Peter Schneider. "We're in the entertainment business, yes, but if you can at least ask the questions and talk about the issues, that's an important step. [This movie] doesn't say, 'This is the panacea for the world.' It just says, 'We can come together.' This is an entertaining, emotional movie that is fun.
"But even if this doesn't make a big global statement," Schneider continues, "this is about two coaches who came to fundamentally understand each other and, in doing so, changed other people's lives."
"You ever heard the term 'cracking'?"
Boone almost cackles when he says this, so enamored is he of this topic. He has just been asked when he first sensed that the 1971 Titans were actually becoming a team, in the true locker-room-chemistry, on-field-bonding sense of the word.
"You have to understand what it was like then," Boone says. "White kids didn't crack on black kids, and black kids would rather not crack on white kids. They crack on each other, and that's it. But when we went in the locker room and saw white kids cracking on black kids and vice-versa, when they started nicknaming each other--when you nickname somebody, it's out of friendship--we knew that we had the beginnings of a team that was trying to overcome their fears. Fears that were taught to them."
It was a difficult thing to achieve, but also a necessary one. Boone not only was expected to lead the team without full support from the other coaches, players and community, he was expected to win a state championship. Anything less would have been considered a failure.
"I felt uneasy, not about being around any particular individuals, but I felt uneasy about the whole situation, the way it was organized," he says of his first days on the job. "The way they portrayed it to the city, as 'All will be well. The black Moses is going to lead us to the water.' I told them . . . 'I'm not a black coach, I'm a coach who was born black. If you're going to play for me, you're going to play based on talent and character.' "
The movie's romanticism is inescapable, but to use the term employed both by Howard and Schneider, it does capture some of the "essence" of what happened with that 1971 team. Reports in The Washington Post from that time credit a decrease in racial disturbances at the local schools on "factors ranging from a quick crackdown on misbehavior to a good high school football team." And Boone is full of tales that bolster the film's contention that the bonds that grew between his white and black players changed the school and the community.
"We found out that the players were inviting each other to their homes--black kids going off to the West End for pool parties, with the cops even watching out for them when they left the neighborhood. I heard about parents throwing away silverware the black kids had used, and later those same parents talk about how proud they are of those kids. It showed how people can change, and in the film, they tried to get that across--how the kids started to get together."
When Boone first told Yoast about the possibility of the film, Yoast's biggest concern was how it would portray their relationship. Sure, now they're both retired golf nuts--Boone still in Alexandria, Yoast in Bethany Beach, Del.--who play together occasionally and always keep in touch, but if they go back to the beginning, well . . .
"I figured they were going to make us out to be rednecks," Yoast says, "and I would be racist and a cracker, and we'd fight all the time and then, at the end of the movie, we'd just love each other."
Across an old, cracked table in a T.C. Williams teachers' lounge, Boone grins at the thought. He starts to say something--but Yoast isn't finished.
"And that's when I told Herman," Yoast says, a bit of the devil in his eye, " 'Hey, it's going to take a lot more than a movie to make us love each other. They should know that!' "
And off they go again, in gales of laughter.
According to Boone, he and Yoast were summoned to meet with film executives prior to embarking on a publicity junket for the movie because, he says, "they wanted to make sure we could talk and everything." They both found this to be hilarious. So, to tease Bruckheimer, they walked into the room for the first meeting limping and lisping.
Given the uniqueness of this movie--both for Disney and for Bruckheimer--the marketing machine has been working full force, with Bruckheimer going so far as to travel the country over the last month, introducing the film at special advance screenings to build word of mouth. And Boone and Yoast have found themselves in the middle of a publicity storm, being presented to the world only as a team--Disney public relations folks refuse to allow them to be interviewed separately.
"When they told me that," Yoast says, "I told Herman, 'Okay, I'll interview with you, but I'll twitch every time you lie.' Let me tell you: I've been twitching all the time!"
They've also been practically living together over the past few weeks, smiling for the networks during a media blitz at Williams one recent Friday morning and traveling to New York for a big-time weekend publicity junket, the kind where 900 media outlets get six minutes each to ask questions.
"I had two bathrooms!" Boone says of his New York hotel suite.
"So did I!" Yoast replies.
Still, there's only so much time they can spend together before their, ahem, personality differences start to chafe.
"Somebody said they're talking about a sequel," Yoast says, "and I said, 'Get somebody else!' Or, better yet, get somebody else to play his part. I've spent enough time with him!"
Boone doesn't hear this, because he's off on another seven-minute treatise on some other subject, prompting Yoast to give a little lift of the eyebrows. Oh, Boone so loves a soapbox. And Yoast has been listening now for 30 years.
How did they ever wind up friends, someone wonders aloud.
This, Boone hears, quite clearly.
"You ever heard the term cracking?" he roars.