Former 'Titans' coach congratulates Wakefield QB Connor Mitch

tstevens@newsobserver.comNovember 6, 2012 

Herman Boone, the Alexandria (Va.) T.C. Williams football coach of “Remember the Titans” fame, sent a message to Wakefield High quarterback Connor Mitch last week as soon as Boone learned of Mitch’s nine touchdown passes earlier this season against Broughton.

Mitch’s accomplishment set the state record. Among the players who had shared the record with eight touchdowns passes in a game was Ricky Lanier, who played for Boone at Williamston E.J. Hayes.

“You tell Connor Mitch that I congratulate him and that I am proud of him,” Boone said by phone. “Ricky Lanier was a tremendous quarterback, the best in the country his senior year. And for someone to break that record is a great achievement.

“But tell Connor Mitch to concentrate on his academics. That lasts longer than football.”

Boone, 77, is a native of Rocky Mount and graduated from Booker T. Washington High and N.C. Central University. He retired from coaching in 1987 and now travels the country as a speaker.

He talks about his years with the Titans and his years at E.J. Hayes, and about the importance of doing the right thing, working hard and persevering.

Boone built a nine-year coaching record of 99-8 at Hayes and led the Tigers to five N.C. High School Athletic Conference 2A championships before being fired after the 1969 season.

“I was in the bank cashing my pay check on Dec. 21, 1969, and I ran into the superintendent,” Boone recalled. “Martin County was building a new integrated high school for $1.4 million and the superintendent said it was going to win a lot of football games with me as Dink Mills’ assistant.”

Boone thought he had misunderstood, but he was told the community wasn’t ready for a black head football coach.

“I told him that I wasn’t a black head coach,” Boone said. “I was a football coach who was black, and proud of it. If I was the coach, I’d be the coach of the black players and the white players.”

Boone was in Washington, D.C., the next January, when the Alexandria, Va., system offered him $14,785 to be the coach of the first integrated team at Williams. Boone was undecided about taking the job until his wife kicked him in the shin and told him they were moving.

“It was a lot more money, but they didn’t tell me that my rent went from about $25 a month to $1,200 a month in Alexandria,” he said.

The Titans won the Virginia championship and was later depicted in the film “Remember the Titans.”

Hayes remembers his days at Williamston, though, and he remembers Lanier as one of his best players. Lanier, who later played at the University of North Carolina, still holds the state record for touchdown responsibility in a game with eight touchdown passes and four touchdown rushes in an 80-0 victory over Snow Hill.

“Ricky had no skills as a quarterback when we first saw him,” Boone recalled. “He was only playing football because his parents made him. He wanted to play basketball.

“But he worked at football. By the time he was a senior he was the best high school quarterback in the country. He was 6-2 and could throw the football the length of the field. Our offense was set for Ricky Lanier to get us to the end zone.”

Hayes ran a veer option offense long before it gained national popularity. With Lanier at quarterback, the 1966 Hayes team was called “The Number One Football Team in the Country” by Scholastic Coach Magazine.

“I was going to just play basketball,” said Lanier, who now lives in Greensboro after 26 years with IBM in California. “But the coach encouraged me to come out and play football. Coach Boone was more than a great coach, he was a great person. He made a big difference in my life.”

Lanier doesn’t remember many of the Williamston games, but he remembers the practices – “It would get dark and we’d be running the plays in the dark,” he said – and he remembers Boone’s concern for each player.

Lanier thinks Boone helped prepare him to become the first black scholarship football player at the University of North Carolina. Lanier decided to go to UNC after talking with UNC basketball star Charlie Scott and assistant basketball coach Larry Brown.

“There were about nine African-Americans there then and we’d get together and we’d go to (North Carolina) A&T or North Carolina Central,” Lanier said. “Coach (Bill) Dooley was great.”

Road games were more difficult, Lanier said. He remembered a game at the University of Florida when his parents were about the only blacks in the stadium.

“But Coach Boone was a great teacher,” Lanier said. “He prepared his players for life, not just for a game.”

Boone said it was important for players to realize their playing days are numbered.

Athletics are great, Boone said, but the academics are more lasting.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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