"I'll ask the first question for you," said retired high school football coach Herman Boone during the press conference that preceded his Tuesday evening lecture at Northwest Missouri State University. "Was the movie true? Yes it was."
"The movie," of course, is "Remember the Titans," a 2000 based-on-a-true-story sports drama starring Denzel Washington as Boone, who, in 1971, coached the T.C. Williams High School football team to a Virginia state championship amid the racial divides of a still-desegregating South.
Affable and dapper in a white shirt, red tie and blue sports coat — decorated with a "71 Original Titans Coach Boone" pocket patch — the 76-year-old coach now enjoys a second career as a popular motivational speaker.
And he was obviously in his element regaling a small group of reporters with stories about his hard-scrabble youth in Rocky Mount, N.C., his subsequent career as a teacher and coach and the legacy of the Titans football team.
For those who haven't seen the movie, Boone was hired as head football coach in the recently reorganized Alexandria, Va., school district, which, under a federal desegregation order, had consolidated three racially divided four-year high schools into a single, integrated two-year school teaching solely juniors and seniors.
Hiring a black coach was an attempt by the district to show the federal government that it was acting in good faith by selecting Boone over popular white coach Bill Yoast.
Yoast was at first reluctant to accept Boone's offer of an assistant coaching spot, but relented when white players, several of whom were scholarship prospects on a powerhouse, all-star squad, threatened to boycott the team.
In the end, Yoast signed on, and the two men led the Titans to a championship 13-0 season.
However, as was apparent during the press conference and his presentation later that evening, there is a lot more to Boone than the Titans.
Already a top coach when he took the Alexandria job, Boone led the E.J. Hayes High School football team in Williamston, N.C., to five state championships in the 1960s, compiling a record of 99 wins and 8 losses over a nine-year period.
His 1966 squad was recognized by "Scholastic Coach’s Magazine" as the best team in the country. Still, he was fired in 1969 after being told that Williamston "was not ready for a black head coach."
Asked about the simmering, and often violent, racial climate in North Carolina and Virginia during the 1960s and '70s, Boone said his forced exit from Williamston followed by the move to Alexandria was like going "out of the pot and into the fire."
His eyes flashed, and the curtain of his gracious manner dropped for a moment when he recalled how "discrimination and segregation were widespread just a few miles south of the nation's capitol."
Page 2 of 2 - Since that time, however, Boone said he thinks the nation has made significant strides toward racial harmony. He dismissed race hatred in the current presidential campaign as a motivation for only "a small minority."
"I think there has been a great deal of harmony and a huge step forward (on race issues) under this president," Boone said. "I didn't come here to be political, but President Obama has said that, 'I am the president of all the people, and the other guy is talking about the 47 percent, how they don't matter, and that's not true."