DLA HQ employees remember the real-life Titans

By Chris Erbe

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“We’re the Titans, the mighty, mighty Titans,” went the chant in “Remember the Titans,” starring Denzel Washington as Herman Boone, football coach at the recently integrated T.C. Williams High School. In the uplifting film, which takes place in 1971, the football players learned, through mutual suffering at the hands of their coaches, to come together as a team, overcome challenges of racism and bigotry and show the larger community how to get along.

The movie is based on a true story. T.C. Williams High School actually exists in Alexandria, Virginia, and many of the players from that team are still around. In fact, one of those players is an employee of the Defense Logistics Agency.

Five of the original Titans football players delivered a presentation on leadership to employees of the DLA Installation Support, Security and Emergency Services Office at the McNamara Headquarters Complex March 31. The presentation was part of a regular series hosted by the office to promote professional development in its employees.

The former players walked into the room dressed in Titans windbreakers and ball caps. Tailback Wayne “Hard Rock” Sanders, linebacker Rufus Littlejohn, guard Michael Lynch, offensive end Darryl “Blue” Stanton and defensive end Julius “Big Ju” Campbell talked informally about their experiences on the team and about how their lives changed after the movie became a hit.

Stanton, who works at DLA headquarters as a lead material handler, brought out some of the life lessons he and his teammates learned from their experiences. “What we encountered as young football players at T.C. Williams is basically what you all encounter on your job right now,” he said. “The movie is about football, but it’s also about coming together in this melting pot and learning to work together.”

Littlejohn noted that, from a leadership standpoint, sometimes you have to motivate people by reaching them where they are. For him, football was his motivation.

He then added a message about resiliency. “In football, you get hit with a lot of different challenges, and you just have to be resilient and bounce back,” he said. “Football is a good metaphor for the challenges you encounter in life, because we’re all getting pushed around by one thing or another.”

Lynch told the story about how he and Campbell were invited to the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut and found the school using the movie in its leadership development courses. “Who’d have thought that that little Disney movie would have such influence?” he wondered.

“They didn’t make this movie because we were good football players,” Lynch continued. “The message of the movie was that, as a bunch of 17-year-old kids, we decided to work together and get along and respect each other. When you do that, you can accomplish great things, and that’s what makes it such an enduring movie for so many people.”

Campbell was featured prominently in the movie as a black team leader who started out as a rival, but then became friends with the white team captain, Gary Bertier.

“At first, it was all about who wanted to be top dog — the leader of the pack,” Campbell said. “Once we came to the conclusion that we had the same goal — to win — all that other stuff was secondary. The rest of the guys just fell in line because we all wanted to win.”

Campbell recounted how Coach Boone contributed to the team’s successful integration that year. At first, the players self-segregated by race when traveling on the team buses. “Coach Boone told us to get off the bus and separated us by defense and offense. We didn’t realize what he was doing until we got on the bus and saw this mixture of colors. He was breaking up the cliques and gangs.”

Since the movie’s release in 2000, the former players have been invited all over the country to make motivational presentations. Lynch remembered making an impact with high school students in Wisconsin.

“Why did they make a movie about our team 30 years after it actually happened?” he asked the students. “People saw the decisions that we made and the way we acted and the way we treated each other and decided to tell our story. What if someone tells your story 30 years from now about the way you’re treating each other and the way you’re acting? What would that story be like?”

Campbell made the point that leadership is not always about the person in charge. “The people underneath have to be leaders, too,” he said. “We had five captains, but we had many more leaders. You don’t have to be the boss to be a leader.”

The former players took several more questions and informed the group about their website, 71originaltitans.com, which contains information about the team story, individual players, news items, frequently asked questions and more.

At the conclusion of the presentation, Stanton led the group in the familiar call-and-response chant made famous in the movie. HQC employees walking down the hallway outside of the room must have wondered what was going on when they heard the enthusiastic strains: “Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them, we’re the Titans, the mighty, mighty Titans!”