Gregory Allen Howard, the Hollywood screenwriter best known for the inspirational movie, “Remember the Titans,” as well as the film, “Harriet,” died on Friday in Miami. He was a day shy of 71.
The stepson of a Navy father, Howard moved around quite a bit as a child. He was born in Virginia and graduated from Princeton University with a degree in history.
“I didn’t know what my path would be, but it had to involve reading and writing history” he once said. Howard wound up working on Wall Street for a season following college, but eventually headed to California to pursue a screenwriting career. Once on the west coast, he wrote for television and began writing a movie centered on the life of Harriet Tubman, the legendary abolitionist. But he couldn’t find an agent, and studio after studio declined to pick up the treatment.
But then came a decision that would change Gregory Howard’s life.
Moving back to Virginia, the struggling writer was struck by how well white and black people got along in his new town of Alexandria. He wondered why and began asking questions. People kept telling him about Herman Boone, who coached T.C. Williams High School’s first integrated football team back in 1971.
Herman Boone was from North Carolina, but his coaching and teaching would bring him to Virginia. It was 1969 when Boone was hired to run the junior varsity wrestling program at T.C. Williams. By 1971, two other public high schools in the city merged with T.C. Williams, and Boone was elevated to head coach of their varsity football team – the state’s first integrated team. Boone wound up taking the team all the way to victory in the state championship that first season.
The story of how he did it and how he handled the players and the community moved Gregory Howard, both as a black man and as a writer. You’ll remember Denzel Washington was cast to portray the role of Herman Boone in Allen Howard’s blockbuster film, “Remember the Titans.”
Gregory Howard’s film would go on to gross over $130 million. Speaking about why the movie did so well, the screenwriter suggested it had something to do with tapping into nostalgia.
”For a lot of people, high school was the apex of their live,” he reflected. “It was when everything worked. There was an innocence about it, a sense of community. So anytime you get back into that realm, it’s fine. ‘Remember the Titans’ strike a nerve simply because ‘a lot of guys played high school football, and before that, Pop Warner football. You’re talking about millions of guys. It’s a bonding experience like you can’t believe, and for a lot of men it was the last time they were important or heroic. It touches a nerve of a time when I was last innocent.”
It seems Howard was understating the true emotional draw of the film. When Focus on the Family’s Bob Smithouser reviewed “Remember the Titans” for Plugged In, he wrote:
“Motivational speeches and virtuous behavior project an old-fashioned respect for discipline, integrity and Christian faith. Specifically, a coach stands up to corruption and makes a supreme personal sacrifice. A tragically injured player refuses to wallow in self-pity. Even minor characters experience growth. But most impressive of all is how Titans captures the passion of its subject matter without resorting to deeply offensive slurs or locker-room vulgarity.”
With the inspiring hit, Howard found his niche, which was telling stories about the struggles of black men and women in America. It would take years for “Harriet” to hit the big screen, but his vision was eventually realized.
The legacy of Gregory Allen Howard is that he was talented and tenacious, and he never gave up advocating for what he believed. None of his screenplays, including “Remember the Titans,” sold right away. Howard kept writing and like his subjects, he didn’t give up. He showed us what’s possible for people who have passion and purpose.