Throughout the years, Ike Boone has gotten accustomed to telling his story.
So on the night of his 78th birthday, he did just that — recounting memories revolving around growing up in Rocky Mount and attending North Carolina Central University, then named North Carolina College at Durham.
But while telling his story, a ringing phone interrupted him.
“Hey,” Boone said before taking a long pause. “Thank you!”
After hanging up the phone, Boone revealed who it was.
“That was the white coach from the movie,” Boone said.
Legendary Virginia high school football coach Bill Yoast called to wish Boone a happy birthday. Yoast was depicted in the 2001 film “Remember the Titans” — a movie based upon coach Herman Ike Boone’s 1971 state championship winning season at the then newly-integrated T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.
But through all his encounters with racism, his plethora of wins and the Disney movie made about him, Boone prides himself on still being the same person that his parents raised, as he specifically remembers one thing his father would always tell him.
“My father used to say, ‘Boy, you ain’t gon control the break of day. And when day does come, and you do not plan to make a difference, then take your ass back to sleep,’” Boone said. “That may not mean anything to someone, but if you looked at that in depth, it will say to you that life is full of challenges, and the world is waiting for your talent. Everybody has talent, but the world is waiting for those who are willing to make a difference.
“And throughout my struggles at NCC, we all had challenges. But my love of sports literally brought me to where I am.”
Opening the door
Boone immediately got a taste of adversity upon getting to Durham for his first year at NCC. Growing up in segregated black schools, Boone says he wasn’t taught study techniques needed to be successful. And learning through hand-me-down, out-dated books from the white schools, Boone was simply not taught certain material — such as algebra — which college students were also expected to know.
“The first semester in, the dean called me in and said, ‘Son, you’re in the wrong place. Unless you get yourself together, I’m afraid we’re going to part company here,’” Boone said. “And for the first time in my life, I realized what study habits were.”
“Now, it’s different because we came from segregated schools and today with the integration of high schools and elementary schools, teachers can’t keep anything away from you. So you’re exposed to the necessary subjects that you need to succeed in college. My math teacher in high school sat over there by the radiator went to sleep, and we were glad because we could sleep or sneak out of her class — go down to the bathroom and shoot craps. Well, that caught up with you.”
But Boone didn’t let these challenges get the best of him. Failing has never been an option, and more importantly at the time he knew he couldn’t let down his parents, who had worked hard to get him to college.
“We came from poor parents — parents who wanted before for us than they had,” Boone said. “So it meant that, unless you wanted to let them down, you had to work hard, work extremely hard.
“I must say that we had the instructors at North Carolina College, who dared not let us fail. They didn’t give us anything, but they showed us the way. And it’s like James Brown used to say, ‘I don’t want you to give me anything. I just want you to open the door.’”
And when Boone’s door opened, he did everything it took to keep it that way. He started by quitting the NCC basketball team, even after going to a tryout with 700 students and making it, to get a job filling Pepsi-Cola machines so that he could stay in college.
He said the average scholarship for an athlete at the time was $125 year, and the only thing that separated athletes from regular students was that, at meals, they received two milk cartons instead of one. So for Boone, playing sports took a back seat, because in order to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a football coach, there was another requirement.
“We were taught if you want to get a less severe sentence, wear a necktie to court. If you want to get a loan from a banker, wear a necktie to the bank. If you want to get a job, in an interview, wear a necktie. A coach’s whistle was his neck tie,” Boone said. “ Today, anybody can be a coach, as long as they can get to the field by three o’clock, but when we came along in order for you to be a coach, you had to finish college, and you had to be a teacher.”
The toll of integration
After graduating from NCC in 1958, Boone taught and coached at a Virginia high school before returning to his home state to do the same at E.J. Hayes High School in Williamston.
Though he led the E.J. Hayes football program to 99 wins and only nine losses, five state championships and the distinction as Scholastic Coach’s Magazine’s “Number One Football Team in America” in 1966, racism in the conservative community threatened to close the door that had been open so long for Boone.
With Martin County preparing to build an integrated high school in Williamston, the superintendent informed Boone he would not be at the helm of the new school’s football program, asking him to work under a much younger white coach, who had lost all 10 games the year prior.
“The superintendent called me in and wanted to congratulate me for winning the fifth state championship and how much pride and dignity that I brought to the town of Williamston,” Boone recounted. “Then he said, ‘We’re going to build an integrated school. Much to our regret, we have to. And with you assisting Dink Mills, we can’t help but win, can we?’
“I said, ‘So you’re saying to me now, Mr. Superintendent, that I’m going to have to assist this young man, 22 years old, when I’ve been at E.J. Hayes for 10 years, have won 99 football games and lost nine … because I’m black? No.’”
More than a movie
But Boone didn’t let racism close his door of opportunity. In 1971, he moved north to coach at the newly-integrated T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.
Earl Cook, a former player on the T.C. Williams football team, remembers the first time he and other members of the team met their new coach, just like it was yesterday.
“He was very easy, very direct,” said Cook, the current police chief of Alexandria. “You can’t talk about the coach though without contextually talking about the circumstances with the apprehension and unknown going on with the consolidation of that high school. We probably would have been nervous with anybody but I would have to say, easily the first impression of coach Boone was he was indeed the man in charge.
“Never did you question his leadership as the decision-maker, or the person who’s going to be leading us forward.”
And no one did. In his first year in at T.C. Williams, Boone led the Titans to an undefeated, state title season.
And the rest is history.
Years later, Boone garnered the attention of actor Denzel Washington, who played him in the film “Remember the Titans,” not just because of that 1971 season or his overall strength on the football field during his career. Though some only recognize the wins, off the field, Boone dealt with much racial prejudice during his journey, having confronted the Ku Klux Klan and seen his neighbor’s house burnt down after people mistook for his own.
Now, while he may travel more and share his life story with more people than the average 78-year-old, the fame hasn’t changed Boone.
“Coach is a character,” said Maggie Alderson, wife of offensive tackle Fred Alderson from the 1971 T.C. Williams team. “We’re in Arizona now, but any time he’s close he makes it over here for dinner.”
Cook also still sees Boone no differently, as he addresses him the same way he did the first time he met the coach.
“I don’t see a different coach Boone today in terms of what his values are, what he thinks are important — family, and friends and players,” Cook said. “I think, out of respect, 40 years later I still call him Coach because I respect what he was and what he does and the values that he has.”
Ask Boone, and it takes him a while to mention the movie, because things are the same from before the camera started rolling. During evenings when he’s not traveling, he sits in his home in Alexandria, talking and watching TV with his wife, Carol, who he calls “Mama.” Not even Disney could change that.
“How does it feel to have a movie made about you? If I sat and thought about it, I would say it’s fantastic,” Boone said. “But my classmates would say he has not allowed it change him one bit, and I have not forgotten from whence I’ve come.”
“I remain just plain ole Ike Boone. I’m nobody but plain ole Ike Boone.”