Saying Goodbye to Black America’s Greatest Generation

The best of our culture were produced by the worst of our times, and now the best of our times is robbing us blind.

The best of our culture were produced by the worst of our times, and now the best of our times is robbing us blind.

There will never be another Ed Temple, and that’s not a statement made in the “he was so great that his accomplishments will never be duplicated” vein. That’s realizing that this caliber of black talent in coaching and athlete will never again be assembled on one college campus, and specifically, at an HBCU.

That’s a lot to be sad about, because there are a whole lot of black people throughout the African Diaspora that we, black folks, will claim in in the public sports sphere. We’ll cheer them in the World Series, the Super Bowl, during March Madness, and during the NBA and WNBA Playoffs.

And less than one percent of those hundreds of beautiful, spectacular men and women will have HBCU ties beyond their familial bloodlines of uncles, cousins and grandparents who we can claim as graduates. They all will have ‘gotten away’ as we like to say, because the times, the money and the stakes are too dramatically different to decide otherwise.

The Nation Sports Editor Dave Zirin did a wonderful job encapsulating the importance of Ed Temple, who like Eddie Robinson, Clarence ‘Big House’ Gaines, Eddie Hurt, Jake Gaither and others, built by hand the historically black athletic temples worshiped at by so many in our communities between the 1920’s and the 1970’s. And even as integration and economics collided in the 1980’s and 1990’s, creating a war on drugs, a war on race and the rise of new blackness, HBCUs were silently rising in their academic and social value to Black America, while their athletic prominence was just beginning to fade out of view.

White people and lawmakers throughout the south were just starting to discover HBCU homecomings as an economic commodity, the CIAA basketball tournament was gathering momentum as the premier black sporting event in the country. Walter Payton, Doug Williams, Jerry Rice, Aeneas Williams, Michael Strahan, Steve McNair — all in that order.

And somewhere in between them, references to Hillman College on ‘The Cosby Show,’ became a place we actually could see and feel, once a week.

We never paid real attention to how college sports was becoming big business on television and in the stands, and how black athletes were at the forefront of the movement of millions on college campuses around the country. But black colleges weren’t a part of it. And by the time we realized it in the late 2000’s, the damage had been done.

As silly as it sounds, millions of us never pictured Eddie Robinson retiring, or dying. We never imagined a day where black families with HBCU colors coursing through their veins, would be lured away from the institutions which served as the original co-signors on generations of black professionals. We never imagined that we would be out-recruited, outbid, outclassed by the same white schools and white coaches who just 60 years prior, wanted us nowhere near their fields and courts.

And now Ed Temple is gone, the original architect of American speed will be laid to rest this Friday. Dozens of gold medals, millions of Olympic dreams etched in the minds of black children growing up in the 1960’s, and hundreds of victory notches scratched into the walls of Tennessee State’s track and field history. Buildings throughout Nashville painted the sky TSU Blue in his honor after his death.

We can cry for him, we can honor him, we can place him in every Hall of Fame and create 40 new ones to come halfway in respecting his value to American sports history, and Black American history. But we’ll never get him back, because his talent, and the talent willing to be molded by somebody like him, will never be back on an HBCU campus.

And that’s bigger than death. Death provides a memory, a faded recollection that still yields emotion from the sights and sounds and feelings you once knew. This is worse. This is the realization that he, and perhaps our institutions, can’t be born again.