“Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”
The iconic request popularized in the old TV police drama “Dragnet” by Sergeant Joe Friday would likewise be appropriate for author Mark O’Connell and his latest release, “The Team The Titans Remember.”
After all, O’Connell had a 25-year career as a probation officer for the state of Virginia. He had plenty of experience in digging for the facts.
So, when the movie “Remember the Titans” starring Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Donald Faison and Nicole Ari Parker was released in 2000, O’Connell knew some things were significantly wrong.
He went on a major journey to set the record straight.
The movie, co-produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and released by Buena Vista Pictures is based on the true story of African-American coach Herman Boone, portrayed by Washington, and his attempt to integrate the T.C. Williams High School football team in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. Patton portrays Bill Yoast, Boone’s assistant coach.
The movie, which premiered in theaters nationwide on September 29, 2000, had a $30 million budget and grossed in excess of $136 million worldwide. It features songs from several well known recording artists including Marvin Gaye, James Taylor, The Temptations, Cat Stevens and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The plot centered around the 1971 desegregation of T.C. Williams High School, where a black head coach, Herman Boone, is hired to lead the school’s football team. Boone is assigned to the coaching team under current coach, Bill Yoast, who has been nominated to the Virginia High School Hall of Fame.
But, in an attempt to placate rising racial tensions and the fact that all other high schools are “white” only, Boone is assigned the head coach job. At first he refuses as he thinks it’s extremely unfair to Yoast, but he finally accepts when he sees what it means to the black community.
Yoast is offered an assistant’s job and initially refuses, but reconsiders after the white players pledge to boycott the team if he does not participate. Not wanting to see his players lose future scholarships, Yoast takes the defensive coordinator’s post.
The team battles racial tensions from training camp forward, both on and off the field. But, through Boone’s forceful coaching, he finally achieves racial harmony despite being told by the school board that he will be dismissed if the Titans lose a single game. The Titans go through an undefeated season and advance to the state championship game. That’s, more or less, where Hollywood takes over.
O’Connell knew things were wrong in the movie from the onset.
“I was 14, lived in Salem, and I was at the championship game that day, December 4, 1971,” O’Connell recalled in an early October interview. “The game was played at Victory Stadium in Roanoke. There were about 18,000 people there and T.C. Williams’ opponent in the championship game was Andrew Lewis High School, the forerunner to Salem High School.”
“I think the game is common memory for a lot of people, especially Salemites and Andrew Lewis fans, former players and coaches,” O’Connell notes. “I had watched the great Andrew Lewis teams, coached by Eddie Joyce, through the years growing up and I didn’t think of them being a small team, either in stature or numbers. But, here they were in Victory Stadium on the sideline and the T.C. Williams players came out of the locker room, and it was like they just kept coming and coming. It was a sea of red helmets and white jerseys. I remember thinking ‘how do all these players ever get into the game?’ As it turned out, their coach had lettered 66 players that year on a roster of 73 because they had six complete units: offense, defense, kickoff, kickoff return, punt team and punt return. Andrew Lewis had 38 players and several were two-way players.”
When “Remember the Titans” was released, O’Connell started thinking about writing his story. Hollywood had taken numerous liberties with the actual events on that December day.
“I was disappointed there was no mention of Andrew Lewis, Eddie Joyce, the Wolverine players or where the game was actually played,” O’Connell says. “When I watched the movie I kept thinking ‘Alright, I was at that game and I know about Andrew Lewis and the game.’ I kept waiting and waiting, but no mention. They had T.C. Williams playing George C. Marshall in the championship game and it going down to the final dramatic play. They had the game being played in fictitious Roanoke Stadium. I was disappointed because I knew the real story.”
In actuality, T.C. Williams defeated Andrew Lewis 27-0, but according to O’Connell that result wouldn’t fit the Hollywood script.
“The real outcome of the actual game, big team beats small team, is nothing special. How many tickets would you sell? People would not be impressed with that. The omission is what makes the movie great and gave my book the basis it has.”
O’Connell went the extra mile to search out former players from both teams to get their opinion. Not only does the book relate the history of Andrew Lewis football and the life of Joyce, it has extensive interviews with former players and coaches connected to the programs.
“Eddie Joyce is no longer living and some former players were initially disgruntled there had been no mention of the Andrew Lewis team,” O’Connell notes of his research. “Eddie Joyce set one player straight and said, ‘Hey, it’s just business and Hollywood. It’s a pretty good movie and you ought to go see it.’ ”
According to O’Connell, the remaining surviving coaches and players don’t have any grudges and they understand it’s just the movie business.
O’Connell says he started the book in January, 2016, typically working five hours per day. He submitted his initial manuscript on September 1, 2016 to the same publishing company that had published his two prior books, one on his memoirs as a probation officer and the other a crime novel based on a true story. After about four months, the initial publisher went out of business, forcing O’Connell to sign with another publisher.
“That was the good news,” O’Connell says with a chuckle. “The bad news was I had to start the process back over.”
“The new book is a purely factual non-fiction account and history of a high school football team,” O’Connell notes. “It’s really big, over 755 pages with 105 pictures. I like to use the word “we” when talking about writing the book because there were a lot of contributors to make it work. Like football itself, teamwork.”
And the true story of Andrew Lewis football, its championships throughout the 60’s and the memorable game from 1971. Just the facts.
O’Connell will be making several public appearances in Salem during the month of November.
He will conduct a book signing at The Salem Museum on East Main Street on November 6th beginning at 7:30 pm, and another at Sports Haven on West Main Street set for 10am-2pm on November 25th.
O’Connell will also appear as a guest speaker at the Monday, November 13 meeting of the Roanoke Valley Sports Club at the Salem Civic Center beginning at 5:45 pm.