Back in 2000, Rufus Littlejohn could not believe that anyone would ever want to make a movie about his life. Even after the Alexandria real-estate investor had spent three hours being interviewed by the screenwriter, a fellow Alexandria native with Hollywood credits to his name, Littlejohn thought the idea absurd. When he heard that some bigshot L.A. producer named Jerry Bruckheimer was interested in the script, Littlejohn wouldn’t consider the possibility. And when friends told him that Disney and Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington—names he had heard of—were said to be on board, Littlejohn was still skeptical.
Months later, on September 28, Littlejohn and his wife were sitting in the balcony of the Cineplex Odeon, near Cleveland Park in Washington, DC. Below, Denzel, a host of other movie stars, and even President Bill Clinton were also in attendance to watch the premiere of Remember the Titans, a film about the 1971 T.C. Williams High School football team, for which Littlejohn had played linebacker. The movie depicted the newly integrated team overcoming racial tensions, both from within and without, to win the state championship. But even as Littlejohn saw that year of his life dramatized on the big screen to the applause and cheers of a packed house, he still couldn’t quite grasp it as reality. “They’re going to make a movie about a high school football team that played 25 years ago? Somebody is dreaming,” says Littlejohn. “Somebody is crazy.”
Of course, the film went on to be insanely popular. It grossed $136.7 million at the box office on a $30 million budget and sold another 20 million DVDs. To this day, it plays practically on a loop on basic cable, and it streams on Disney+. It not only featured the legendary Washington as eccentric coach Herman Boone, but it also helped launch the careers of young actors like Ryan Gosling, Hayden Panettiere, and Ryan Hurst. The movie’s success made minor celebrities and motivational speakers of Boone, assistant coach Bill Yoast, and some of the standout players who were featured. And the film is a continued source of inspiration for legions who watch it.
But for Littlejohn and his teammates, and the cheerleaders, coaches, faculty, and other members of the community—the supporting cast who were replaced onscreen by unnamed extras—the movie stands as a slightly distorted snapshot of their collective past. They accept the liberties that Hollywood took with their story (of which there are many) because, in this case, the stubborn facts didn’t get in the way of the truth. Both the embellished and oversimplified script and the actual Titans’ memory of what really happened carry the same message: the idea of coming together to overcome adversity and accomplish a common goal. And Littlejohn and his teammates, schoolmates, and neighbors believe that lesson is at least as relevant today as it was when the movie was released or when the events actually took place, 50 years ago—if not more so.
Race is at the heart of the events of the movie. It got that critical fact right about the real story. In 1971, Alexandria was experiencing its share of racial tension. The embers left from the wildfire civil rights movement of the 1960s were still smoldering all over the country, especially in the South. In 1969, Alexandria public schools canceled Friday night football games due in part to vandalism and racial tension, which is why these Titans played their home games on Saturday afternoons. The flames were reignited a year later, when a Black 19-year-old named Robin Gibson was shot and killed by a white 7-Eleven employee, who suspected Gibson of stealing razor blades; he claimed that the youth had pulled a knife on him when confronted. A three-night riot ensued, resulting in 14 arrests and seven cases of arson. “Alexandria was subtle in its racism, but it was also in your face,” says Littlejohn. “I remember having to go around to a side window of the restaurant to get food. I remember having to sit at the back of the bus. I remember all that. But that was America.”
But the particulars of the movie’s narrative begin to diverge from reality within its first few minutes. The film depicts the creation of T.C. Williams High School as ground zero for the city’s latest fight, a new school that combined two older institutions—one all-Black and one all-white—into a newly integrated tinderbox. The real story involves a little more logistical complexity. T.C. Williams had actually opened as the city’s third high school back in 1965, and at that time, all three institutions were already integrated. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that busing was a means to further racial and economic desegregation, and Alexandria decided to shuffle its students around. T.C. Williams would accept all the city’s juniors and seniors, while the sophomores and freshmen were divided among the other two schools, George Washington and Francis Hammond.
As far as sports and other team activities, this meant that Alexandria would only field one varsity team instead of three. Overnight, three teams’ worth of players had to be combined into one cohesive unit. There was some racial friction in this; not all three schools had been integrated equally in terms of race or class. (Francis Hammond, where the wealthier kids had gone, had been more than 90 percent white.) But players remember team colors being a bigger issue between new teammates than skin color. “When they brought the three schools together, to me, it wasn’t a question of Black or white; I didn’t like that guy because he was my rival,” says Bob Luckett, senior offensive lineman for the Titans, who had gone to T.C. Williams for three years. “I can’t tell you that there weren’t people on the team that were affected by the race issue; there certainly were. But if you went to T.C. Williams, you grew up disliking Hammond and GW because of athletics. Today, we still talk about who would’ve had the better team that year.”
The consolidation also brought an element of interpersonal rivalry. Suddenly, there were three teams’ worth of players to cram into just one squad. Players accustomed to being starters and playing entire games on both offense and defense were left to wonder if they’d even have a spot on the bench. “There was uncertainty of who was going to play and at what position,” says Tim Morris, senior who had played on defense and special teams his first three years at T.C. Williams. “I had been a backup linebacker. I looked at the size of the new guys, and I thought, There’s no way.” (Morris went on to make special teams that season.)
In fact, the grueling summer practices depicted in the movie, the two-a-days and three-a-days in the punishing August Virginia heat, were likely less about bringing the team together over the color barrier and more about weeding out players who weren’t absolutely committed to making the team. “Coach Boone wasn’t going to cut anybody,” says Littlejohn. “He was going to run you away. The ones who were not serious, they were running away. By the end of the first week, the weak ones were gone. The strong survived.”
Of course, the football players weren’t the only ones impacted by the busing situation. And the Titans were always more than just the gridiron gladiators who were later mythologized on the big screen. That summer before the 1971–72 school year started, while the boys were sweating it out in training camp, the Titan cheerleaders (merely part of the backdrop in the movie) were also trying to come to terms with the new reality.
Marie Johnson Saadiqa-Turner was a junior who had attended GW for two years. She was one of four GW cheerleaders selected to be bused in from across town to join the newly consolidated T.C. Williams squad. She had been a schoolmate of Gibson, and the incident was fresh on her mind. “I wasn’t excited to go,” says Saadiqa-Turner. “We were all skeptical. GW was mainly a Black school. We weren’t used to having the whites and Blacks together. When we came together, we were skeptical of who they were and what cheers they did. We didn’t know what to expect.”
Every day that late summer, Saadiqa-Turner drove herself and her fellow GW cheerleaders to T.C. Williams, where the newly combined squad would practice outside the cafeteria. Each contingent had brought their own experience, their own cheers, and their own style to the mix. Saadiqa-Turner says that GW had used more soulful moves with their cheers, while the Hammond girls were more rigid. T.C. Williams was somewhere in between. So each group started by learning the others’ cheers. As the days went by, a common, amalgamated style emerged—along with an increasingly strong bond. “We didn’t think we’d be close at first. In fact, we wouldn’t even talk to each other,” says Saadiqa-Turner. “But by the second week of practice, we had come together. We became close, as a matter of fact.”
As the school year started, the on-field Titans also began to realize what they had by coming together. In combining the best players from three schools and culling the herd during training camp, they had essentially built an Alexandria all-star team. The coaches knew they had the talent to win a state championship, and they dangled that prize in front of their players as motivation to not only do their individual best in school, but also to make sure everyone else in the student body behaved as well. After all, the busing situation was still an experiment. “We were a sort of in-school security,” says Luckett. “We wore our jerseys to school and paired up, one Black player and one white player, and we’d walk the halls. They saw us working together. But if they were causing trouble, we’d also step in to say, ‘Don’t screw up our football season. You mess with that dude, you’re messing with the football team. You fight him, you’re fighting all of us.’ And it worked.”
That confidence gets to perhaps the movie’s most glaring inaccuracy: the depiction of the 1971 Titans as underdogs. In reality, the team more than lived up to its mythological mascot, going undefeated and outscoring opponents 265–31. Nine of their 13 wins were shutouts. (And unlike in the film, which claimed that T.C. Williams was playing strictly white opponents, all the competition was integrated just like the Titans.) They had one close match, against the vaunted Marshall from the film’s championship game. But the real Titans’ come-from-behind victory over Marshall came in the fifth game of the regular season, not the last. In the actual title game weeks later, T.C. Williams held Andrew Lewis to negative-5 yards of total offense en route to a 27–0 anticlimax and a state championship. The Titans finished their season ranked second in the nation.
Along the way, many in the community did rally around their team. Luckett remembers the stands full of people who had started the season keeping to their own, sitting according to race, and how they were soon mixed and united in rooting on the Titans as they rolled. Littlejohn counters that the feelings of togetherness had more to do with victory than with overcoming racism. “Winning makes everything acceptable,” says Littlejohn. “If the team had been a losing team, there would’ve been all sorts of increased [internal] turmoil.”
And while success helped bring the team, their fans, and even the school closer together, it probably didn’t have the widespread impact alluded to in the movie. “The day before game day, you’d wear your jersey around school and pump up some enthusiasm,” says Littlejohn. “But as far as the rest of Alexandria, it was sort of ho-hum. High school football might be big in Texas. But when you go to some of those small towns, there’s nothing else to do.”
Regardless, at the time, President Richard Nixon sent a letter to the school that said the team and its success saved the city—so the narrative long predated its Hollywood treatment. But the real-life Titans never needed a president or a big-shot producer to help them realize what they had accomplished and what it meant to them and their teammates. Long before Disney made them worldwide celebrities, they had moved on to build families and careers as real-estate investors (Littlejohn), fire investigators (Luckett), soldiers (Saadiqa-Turner), and salesmen (Morris). They used their experience as a foundation, telling themselves that hard work, diversity, and cooperation can help you accomplish anything.
They believe that those lessons are timeless and universal—whether they’re coming from the voice of an actor on your TV or the mouths of a motivational speaker who lived it. “I often think about what kind of ambassadors the Titans could be today,” says Luckett. “The coaches used to tell us: ‘Look, we don’t care what you go on to do in your life. We care about how you do it. Be professional. Take care of your family. Do the right thing.’ Do you think people need to hear that in this country today?”