Movie tells of fight to integrate high school football; plays in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Catholic school’s fight to integrate Louisiana high school football is just one part of a movie that premieres this weekend at the New Orleans Film Festival. It is also the story of a black high school coach who was running what’s now known as the West Coast offense a decade before Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers made it famous.

“I want the country and the world to know that our coach was an innovator,” said writer, producer and director Oyd Craddock, who played on traditionally all-black St. Augustine High School’s first state championship team in 1975 and is now finishing a term as the school’s president.

Walsh, who coached the 49ers from 1979-88, was dubbed “The Genius” for developing the offense.

Otis Washington, who became an assistant coach at St. Aug in 1961 and was 113-17-1 over 11 seasons starting in 1969, deserves equal credit, Craddock said.

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“I want it to be known that at this little high school in New Orleans, this black coach in the late ’60s and ’70s was running concepts of the West Coast offense,” Craddock said. “That was a major reason he was so successful under such adversity. He was ahead of his time.”

Which is why the movie showing Saturday has a title that needs explaining to those who don’t know much about football: “Before the West Coast: A Sports Civil Rights Story.”

Washington, in a telephone interview after Saturday’s premiere, said he’d recommend it to others to see.

“I thought it was great,” said Washington, now 77. “I was just telling my wife, she missed something really great. It was true. It’s modern. It’s fresh. You know we see a lot of football films and stories, but none like this that tell the story of an entire school. I really enjoyed it.”

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The civil rights story begins in 1962, when the Rev. Robert Grant, then the principal at St. Aug, petitioned the all-white Catholic League for admission. The Catholic League said it was governed by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, which was also all-white. Grant petitioned and eventually sued the association, winning admission in 1967.

The first year, 19 players were ruled ineligible because the school used Time Magazine rather than a state-approved textbook to teach a civics class on current events. Officials called penalties so often against St. Aug that the team began practicing first downs from 25 yards back rather than 10.

Players had to shrug off racial insults. About 18,000 to 20,000 people, most of them African-American, came out to see their games. “The community inspired us as players,” Craddock said.

Craddock remembers a game when the opposing team’s band repeatedly played “Dixie” while fans waved Confederate flags. Each time, Craddock said, St. Augustine’s band answered with “America the Beautiful.”

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His movie is among about 220 films in seven categories at the 27th festival, which started Thursday and runs through Oct. 20.

Nearly 4,000 films were submitted this year, up from 509 in 2009, programming director Clint Bowie said. “Every year we think, ‘Surely we can’t get any bigger,’ and we do,” he said.

Bowie and his staff of seven watch them all. Most are nowhere near ready, but there are still too many good movies to show them all, even with nine venues, he said.

More than 90 percent of the films are new or early works, he said. Bowie said the festival takes pride in being able to help films find distributors or financial backing to help move their project along.

“Before the West Coast” is among nine films competing for best Louisiana feature, a category that includes both documentaries and fictional stories. Other categories are documentary feature, narrative feature, animated, narrative, documentary, experimental and Louisiana shorts, and web series.

“Before the West Coast” has both an exciting subject and excellent production values, Bowie said.

“It’s an important story that I think is even relevant today,” he said.

Craddock said he began interviewing Washington and his players as president of the school’s alumni association in Atlanta, planning to sell a CD to raise money for the school, which now has a handful of students of other ethnicities, including Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian.

He found the story so compelling that he went after more viewpoints — an opposing coach, reporters who had covered the team, a college coach and civil rights activists. It became a documentary. Craddock, whose background is in business and management, found people who knew movies to put it together.

“I engaged the artists to help me get this captured,” he said.