Not long after the release of Remember the Titans, the uplifting 2000 blockbuster about the integration of the T.C. Williams High School football team, former coach Herman Boone ceased to be the Titan his players all remembered. Instead, in public appearances, he began to play the role of Herman Boone playing Denzel Washington playing Herman Boone.
From his home in Alexandria, Va., Greg Paspatis watched the transformation of the former coach with rising outrage. Paspatis went to T.C., as it's known around the Beltway, and was a kicker on Boone's 1977 team. That was a few years after the events depicted in Remember the Titans took place, and a season before Boone left his coaching job in disgrace following a player mutiny, the very public defection of several assistants, and accusations of verbal and physical abuse.
Apart from the name, little about the celluloid Boone rings true to Paspatis. The Boone of the movie is an inspiring leader whose righteous efforts unified a community that, until he showed up, had been divided along racial lines. But Paspatis has long argued that Boone was an egalitarian only in one sense. "Herman Boone treated everybody horribly, no matter what race," says Paspatis.
And Paspatis still wants people to know it. He has a history degree and is historian for the local Alexandria Sportsman's Club, and for a decade beginning in the mid-1990s he served as the T.C. football program's volunteer stats guy. For years now, he's been collecting and copying archival news clips and sending them out to anybody—colleges, journalists, bowl game organizers—who has promoted the Boone myth or has otherwise taken the Hollywood script as scripture. Don't try telling Paspatis, "It's just a movie!" to excuse its fictions.
"I don't think," he says, "the movie should be more important than the truth."
Upon its release, Remember the Titans was hailed for its elevating message and, to a lesser degree, chided for its posturing as a historical document. "History is written by the winners," went the tag line on Titans posters, and Disney promoted the movie as a true tale about a high school football team. But screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard couldn't cull enough material from T.C.'s dominant state championship run in 1971 for the parable he wanted to tell. So he recast Alexandria circa 1971 as Birmingham circa 1963. And he posed the 1971 consolidation of Alexandria's high schools, which turned three full-sized high schools into one giant high school, as the racial integration of the city's schools, though in reality all three schools had been racially integrated years before their merger. The real record shows that T.C. had black and white students when it opened in 1965.
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Past these broad historical inaccuracies, Howard wrote Boone—who had already coached both black and white players for the two seasons he served as an assistant at T.C. before taking over as head coach in 1971—as an amalgam of Vince Lombardi and Martin Luther King Jr.
"In reality," says Paspatis, "Boone was a combination of the worst of Frank Kush and Woody Hayes and John Thompson," referring to the dictatorial—and, in the cases of Kush and Hayes, violent—college coaches from Boone's era.
Bill Simmons was among those who sniffed out the artifice. "Denzel's Coach Boone was a cartoon character," Simmons wrote in 2005. "Unlike Hackman in Hoosiers, Russell in Miracle or even the guy who played Coach Fenstock in Teen Wolf, there isn't one moment in 'Titans' where you say to yourself, 'Hey, this guy seems like a real person.'"
Paspatis has never quibbled about the greatness of that Titans team, which destroyed opponents all year long, going 13-0 and posting a 357-45 scoring differential, with nine shutouts. He asserts to anybody who'll listen, though, that the greatness was a function of numbers and existing talent, not anything Boone cultivated. The merger of three full-sized high schools gave T.C. by far the biggest talent pool in the state. In a 1972 story in the Washington Post, Thomas Boswell wrote that there were 4,427 high school students in Alexandria, meaning the total number of potential athletes at T.C. was "more than double that of any other" school in the region. Because of that built-in competitive advantage, local athletic commissioners agreed to shift T.C. to a different scholastic league every year after the consolidation until 1975. Boswell's story was inspired by coaches from the Great Falls District, which was scheduled to admit T.C. in 1973, drafting and sending a letter to area principals threatening to boycott games against the Titans unless the team was split into two varsity squads. No such split took place, but the Great Falls coaches never followed through.
The 1971 Titans' best player, linebacker Gerry Bertier, had been a starter two seasons earlier for the regional champion team from Hammond High, one of the consolidated schools. There was no state tournament that season. (Bertier's 1971 numbers, via Paspatis's record-keeping, seem the stuff of fiction: In 13 games, he had 42 quarterback sacks and threw opposing backs for 432 yards in losses. Bertier was paralyzed in an auto accident after the 1971 season, and not, as Howard's script led viewers to believe, before the state championship game.) Paspatis still keeps a clipping from the Alexandria Gazette from after the season showing that Boone finished fifth in the 1971 Coach of the Year poll of local varsity coaches.
Paspatis doesn't make the school or city out to be a bastion of racial harmony, either. "Alexandria had racial problems in the 1970s," he says. His claim is just that Boone didn't do anything to make things better.
Lots of folks, though, bought into the movie's version of history and its good-guy portrayal of Boone. During a February 2008 stop at T.C. on the presidential campaign, for one shining example, then-Sen. Barack Obama opened a rally in the gym by thanking Boone for coming and saying he was honored to have him around because the movie made "men cry." A reporter for Time covering the appearance noted that Obama sought out Boone and wrote that he was coach during "the 1971 integration of T.C. Williams High School." (Obama chose the Titans theme as his exit music after making his victory speech on election night in 2008.)
Yet once the movie came out, Boone was suddenly getting lucrative dates on the speaking circuit, and he's still on it, with peak demand coming around Martin Luther King Day. Eliot Gunner, a vice president of Keppler Speakers, a bureau based in Arlington, Va., says that Boone's standard rate over the past decade was $15,000 for corporate speeches and $10,000 per college gig. (Boone, 78 years old, could probably be had for less now, Gunner says.)
And to meet the demand, the once-disgraced coach re-invented himself into the racial martyr that Denzel Washington had played and the speakers bureaus sold to schools and conventions.
In an interview with the Washington Post that ran midway through the 1971 season, Boone was asked about the role race played in his selection as head coach. The piece pointed out that Boone had been "one of the most successful" high school head coaches in North Carolina before coming to T.C. as an assistant two years earlier. Yet some folks in Alexandria, the writer noted, were floating rumors that Boone, who is black, got the job "because of his color." Boone pooh-poohed any such talk.
"All I know is that if I were selected for this position solely on the basis of color, I would never have taken the job," Boone said back in the day. "I couldn't sleep at night."
Boone changed his tune pretty quick after the movie's release. During a February 2001 speech for Black History Month at the University of North Carolina, he told the crowd that he had initially turned down the head coaching job at T.C. because, well, he'd gotten the offer because of his color.
"They didn't want me," he said. "They just wanted a black coach." He's been telling audiences he was strictly an affirmative action hire ever since.
In that same 1971 Post interview, Boone also said that the merger of the three high schools was going smoothly because "the people in this city have really joined in to make this thing [the consolidation] work."
"I get calls before each game from businessmen wishing us well," he said. "After a game, my phone doesn't stop ringing with people offering congratulations. If prejudices are there, the people who hold them should be in Hollywood, Calif., because they're some damn good actors."
But ever since that damn good actor out in Hollywood, Denzel Washington, made him famous, Boone stopped acknowledging the locals who embraced him from the beginning. Speaking to a Dartmouth audience at an MLK birthday event in 2012, Boone instead said that his being named T.C.'s coach spawned such hate that even his family was targeted for violence. "I told my children, who were chased home every day by men riding in trucks who wanted to beat up on them because they were my children, and I said that life is not easy and you will experience adversity," Boone said.
In response to Boone's radical transformation, Paspatis shifted into truther gear. He put together a package to send out whenever he learned Boone was booked to speak or was being honored as a humanitarian or written about as a racial harmonizer. That package includes a July 1978 clip from the Washington Star about the tumult under Boone (headline: "Three Aides Resign over Coach's Methods at T.C. Williams"), in which one of the resignees says Boone's words and actions were often abusive and "detrimental to the kids involved." It also contains another Star clip from June 1979, after Boone had been fired, in which a player named Michael Crawford says he quit the team because of the coach's behavior and that a change at the top "had to happen."
He's sent his informational kit to, among others, organizers of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a high school all-star game, to tell them they were wrong to name the winners' trophy the Herman Boone Trophy. And he wrote to the Washington Post every time they confused the celluloid history with reality. "I've probably already sent something about this to every section at the Post," he says. When the newspaper in 2009 profiled Alexandria Sheriff Earl Cook, a player on the 1971 Titans, and said Cook "transferred to T.C. Williams High School after it was integrated," he sent old newspaper clippings to the metro editor pointing out that T.C. Williams was racially integrated when it opened in 1965. He's already sent his clip file on the Titans and Boone to the paper's obituary section, just in case.
When Gettysburg College, where T.C. used to hold summer football camps, brought in Boone in April 2012 for a ceremony dedicating an oak tree on campus to the "newly integrated" football team that won a state title back in 1971, they got the same care package.
And Paspatis is still at it. Late in the 2014 spring semester, Boone was invited to talk at the University of Findlay, an Ohio Christian school, for a rescheduled MLK Day celebration. The college promoted the appearance via a press release that introduced Boone as a guy who found success as the "newly appointed" football coach for T.C. Williams "during its first season as a racially integrated group." Paspatis made copies of the offending document, underlined the most hokum-filled passages, and added handwritten commentary in the margins and any available whitespace. ("Wrong!" he wrote. "Alexandria integrated its high school football teams in the mid-1960s.") Then, as per usual, he snail-mailed the annotated reproductions to media members he thinks might help get the real story told. (I'm on his mailing list. I got the Paspatis treatment in 2001, when he wrote into Washington City Paper pointing out several errors I'd made in a column about … T.C. Williams. I've been an admirer ever since.)
Paspatis isn't the only guy aware of the inaccuracies, of course. Brad "Bubba" Smith, a dominant Titans tight end on the 1971 team, also knows how phony the movie was. He started playing varsity at T.C. as a freshman in 1969, so he remembers Boone as an assistant coach for an integrated squad two seasons before the one in which movie was set. He also wishes they'd shown T.C. winning the 1971 state championship game in a rout (27-0), not a nailbiter. "That's not cool," says Smith, who was an all-region player that season and a statewide all-star his senior year. He's still perturbed that he was left completely out of Howard's script. But Smith, now a security guard at Gallaudet University in D.C., shows his displeasure with the historical revisionism in a less aggressive way than Paspatis.
"When the movie comes on my TV," Smith says, "I change the channel."
Paspatis has admitted to being "a little bitter" about how his senior season under Boone played out. The 1977 T.C. squad was the preseason No. 1 squad in the region in the Washington Post's poll, but didn't even make the playoffs. (Despite maintaining the massive enrollment advantage, T.C. made the postseason just twice in eight years under Boone.) The most notable event of the season, Paspatis says, was a player revolt sparked by Boone's locker-room tirade after an upset loss, one in which he blamed the defeat on specific players and invited them by name to quit. The entire squad walked out of school and threatened to sit out remaining games unless Boone apologized. He did.
But Paspatis says whatever bitterness he still holds isn't what motivates his enduring letter-writing campaign.
"I'm a historian," Paspatis said, "and this is my area of expertise. Boone spins history his way. My agenda is just to give an accurate history lesson. Nobody else wants to do it. That's my hobby."
Boone appealed his firing to the Alexandria School board in the late 1970s, only to have his removal upheld. He doesn't mention his departure from coaching during speaking engagements. Instead, Boone has gotten increasingly messianic. After telling the Dartmouth crowd in 2012 that he had "dedicated my life to the visions and dreams" of Martin Luther King "long before the movie Remember the Titans was made," Boone said he regarded himself as a successor to the slain civil rights leader.
"And I felt," Boone told the Ivy League audience, "that the torch was handed to me years ago."
Boone returned to the T.C. campus a few months ago to give a press conference for students in the school's Journalism 1 class. At that event, a T.C. freshman asked Boone what he would do differently if he could go back in time. He didn't mention his getting drummed out of a job or why that happened.
"I don't know if anything needed to be changed," Boone answered, "because what I thought we did we did for the benefit of mankind."
In 2007, I asked Boone, who has never denied using abusive language or getting physical with players, about the 1977 mutiny. He told me that it was led by "one or two" players who he had "jacked up" and "chastised." He said he always had a message for players who didn't approve of his hardball tactics: "Go find yourself a soccer team!" His downfall came, he said, when he allowed some players to "infiltrate the team with that hippie mentality."
There is evidence that Boone was indeed a role model to at least one of his players. After I wrote about the dispute over Remember the Titans in 2007 for Washington City Paper, the publication got an angry letter to the editor from one James Amps, who asserted that the movie captures the real Boone. Amps also advised Boone to sue over the story. I looked up Amps at that time and found that he was a Florida-based motivational speaker. He identified himself on his website as "an All-American Football and Track star at T.C. Williams High School and an Original Titan under Coach Herman Boone."
I knew where to go to check those facts. Paspatis told me that Amps's bio was as bogus as the one Disney drafted for Boone. Amps really had played at T.C., but all the rest was false. Amps was a backup running back on Boone's last teams, Paspatis told me. He scored one touchdown his senior year. "He wasn't an 'Original Titan' or anything like an All-American in football or any sport," Paspatis said. "He didn't get any honors from anywhere."
I called Amps to ask about all the puffery in his promotional materials. He quickly admitted that he wasn't an Original Titan, and said he'd fabricated his football and track accolades after the movie came out, hoping it would "get my speaking thing started." He said he'd talked to Boone about writing the letter to the editor before he sent it off. Paspatis, for his part, called me in 2011 to say that a friend had spotted Boone and Amps sitting together at a Redskins-Dolphins game in Miami.
Boone knows about Paspatis's efforts at correcting the record. But he remains defiant. At the recent T.C. kids press conference, he was asked if he thought the movie "captures the level of camaraderie" among players.
Boone said it does, then started ranting about folks who've questioned Titans's accuracy.
"One of them is a former student here who vehemently criticizes the movie," he said. And then, breaking into a whiny voice as if in imitation of his detractor, he added, "'You shouldn't revere the movie Remember the Titans! And Coach Boone was the worst coach in the history of football in Northern Virginia!' Then why is it that that movie capitalizes [sic] the hearts and souls of people in every city in America today every week?"
Paspatis's watchdog efforts, alas, haven't made Boone any tighter with his facts. He told the young journalists at T.C. that Titans had grossed $478 million—"that does not count the CDs and DVDs."
That's about four times higher than the $115.8 million the movie actually did at the box office.
Art by Tara Jacoby