ST. PETERSBURG — The MYcroSchool of Pinellas punctuated its recognition of Black History Month by hosting the viewing of the award-winning documentary “Through The Tunnel” Wed., Feb 18.
The video highlights the legendary leadership of Coach Eddie Shannon and two-time Pro-Bowler Henry Lawrence of the Lincoln Memorial High Trojans, an all-black high school football team at the dawn of desegregation in Manatee County.
In order for the young men to get from their high school to the football field, they literally walked through a concrete tunnel underneath a Manatee Highway. The visual of the tunnel in the documentary explodes with the symbolic significance of the Underground Railroad that represented the path to the light of freedom.
For the Trojans, what awaited them on the other side of the tunnel and desegregation was a world of unimaginable ugliness, valor and victory on the gridiron of southern integration. Anything worth doing comes with a price tag.
“Gone were the Friday nights when the crisp, cool October air stirred young men into heroic feats on the football field,” said documentary narrator E.D. “Moody” Johnson as he recalled the end of the Lincoln Memorial Trojans as an all-black team because it would be integrated with Manatee High School. The fusion of the two schools would “unite the black and white community” as Shannon would say in the video.
“On that field there is no black or white because we must be a team,” said Shannon in the video. When Shannon addressed the packed media center at MYcroSchool, he said that he had already started prepping his African-American players for the future by instilling the value of education and discipline on and off the football field long before Lincoln and Manatee united to produce a nation powerhouse that produced the likes of Ray Bellamy, the first African-American player to sign with the Miami Hurricanes, and Henry Lawrence, a three-time Super Bowler who launched a stellar career with the Oakland Raiders.
Shannon, personal trainer of Althea Gibson before she would go on to be the first African-American to play at Wimbledon in 1951, was a walking and talking encyclopedia on the tenets of instilling discipline in his players over the 54-years of his legendary career.
Although Shannon talked about cruising the community at night and knocking on doors to make sure his players were in the house by the 10 p.m. curfew time, he placed a premium emphasis on the love young people must have for their parents.
“My thing for teaching young kids is that your dad and momma come first,” said Shannon as he looked around at some of the MYcroSchool students in the audience and continued talking directly to them.
“If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t be here. There’s a respect that you’ve got to have for them. There’s a love you’ve got to have for them. Once you start loving your mom and your pop, everything falls in place.”
The iconic coach paused, and then delivered the clincher like a quarterback throwing a bomb into the end zone.
“My thing was I’d make you love your mother and your father. I get in my car at night, get my paddle, and ride,” said Shannon as everyone laughed, the air was thick with admiration.
When Social Studies Teacher Glen Walker introduced Henry Lawrence, he talked about what was the determining factor for famed Coach John Madden’s decision to draft the former Lincoln lineman star.
“The story goes that when Coach John Madden went to the 1974 Senior Super Bowl, he was there to check out Ed “Too Tall” Jones, a highly promising defensive lineman who would be the number one pick in the NFL Draft,” said Walker who was responsible for hosting the event at MYcroSchool.
He continued: “But when he saw the man blocking “Too Tall” Jones, he ended up drafting him as the Oakland Raiders first pick. Madden was quoted as saying, ‘We’re going to get the guy who can block the number 1 guy in the NFL Draft.’ And that guy happened to be Henry Lawrence!”
When 2012 Florida Hall of Famer Lawrence came to the podium, he praised Judge Charles E. Williams as “one of the best legal minds that have come through this arena.” Judge Williams was one of the three directors of the documentary “Through the Tunnel.” The two other producers were Durand Adams and Charles Clapsaddle.
“Integration was somewhat of a double-sword because there was this concept that blacks were not capable mentally of doing what others were doing,” said Lawrence referring back to the time period captured in the documentary.
When Lawrence was in the process of being drafted, he learned that the NFL had two standards even in the 1970s years after segregation laws in the south were ruled unconstitutional by the Federal government.
“When I got drafted, the gentleman John Mackey was doing my contract… where it said it wanted this much money… basically they said, ‘We can’t give him that much money.’ And when we asked why, the answer was ‘Well, because he went to a little black school.’”
Lawrence’s experience with negotiation his first NFL contract was a lesson in not giving up, but to stay at the table until one gets what’s rightfully his or hers.
Lawrence and Shannon both received standing ovations for inspiring the MYcroSchool community.
The MYcroSchool, under the leadership of Principal Martina Green, is a charter high school that recruits at-promise students and prepares them for college and careers. The relationship-based, high-tech, and rigorous learning experiences are geared to re-engage struggling high school students and get them back on track. For any question about future events at the school, they can be reached at (727) 825-3710.