In 1968, James Gregory became the first white high school quarterback to enroll at Grambling State University to play on the all-black football team as a freshman receiver. Grambling State University had "a national reputation for consistently graduating talented young men who became successful professional football players."
'My Little Brother's Coming Tomorrow' by Bruce Behrenburg was published in 1971. Based on a true life story, Zev Cohen, William Attaway and Lou Potter co-wrote the screenplay for the 1981 TV movie, 'Grambling's White Tiger'. The movie was directed by Georg Sanford Brown, produced by Jenner-Wallach Productions in association with Interplanetary Productions and Abby Mann Productions and starred the 1976 Olympic gold medallist in the decathlon (played in Montreal), Bruce Jenner, LeVar Burton as his roommate Charlie "Tank" Smith and Harry Belafonte as coach Eddie Robinson, who joined the Grambling College faculty in 1941 as its only coach.
'Grambling's White Tiger', Bruce Jenner insisted at the time, "isn't a football story. I'd say it's 10% about football and 90% about human relations, relationships between the players, dating relationships." Harry Belafonte added, "Bruce Jenner is the star and that doesn't bother me. What was important to me is that it's worthwhile. They have come up with something that satisifies my terms. The film is also about a price Grambling had to pay to fulfill a certain demand made upon it at a certain time in history.
"When Jim Gregory entered Grambling in 1968, the entire college community as well as the football community felt the impact. He didn't have to adjust to just Grambling but to a whole new world. It's socially important and pays tribute to Grambling and coach Robinson, both institutions that have been too long overlooked. Everybody in sports knows Eddie Robinson. I think he is second only to Notre Dame in the number of professional players he's sent to the pros and look at what Notre Dame has behind it – its facilities, its money, its power. Grambling is struggling to keep 2 or 3 doors open. Neither black America or white America knows what this man has done. Here's a chance to put his information on record."
Shot on location at the campus in Grambling, northern Louisiana, Georg Sanford Brown spent 18 days in April 1981 to film the 2-hour movie for the "NBC world premiere" in September 1981. Georg remembered, "There were times during pre-production when I thought we'd never get the project under way and there were times after we started shooting when I didn't think we could finish." LeVar Burton recalled, "It's a good location. I'd never spent that much time in that part of the South. It's really country. It's (Grambling State University) about 5 miles from Louisiana Tech at Ruston, where we filmed a few scenes. You can really see the difference in the facilities. Grambling is pretty meager compared with Tech. It's really glaring because they're so close."
As at 1981, Grambling State University had 4 whites among its 3200 students. Of the movie, LeVar recounted, "Charlie was the one person that first year who looked at Jim Gregory as a human being instead of a white hotshot from California. I guess their bond was that they were both country boys. Charlie told me he had been raised to look on people as people. He had never been around white people much. He wasn't going to let the rest of the team intimidate him (Jim). And he admired Jim's courage.
"Charlie's easy-going. Football was everything in his life. That was another bond with Jim. Football was his life, too. It was the feeling of the faculty and administration that if they could integrate the school they would get more money from the federal and state governments. This was in 1968, and the school is still predominantly black. There was a lot of hostility toward Gregory. Coach Robinson was looking to the football players to give him acceptance. But they gave him a hard way to go. Everybody did."
Of the reception from the students and faculty when filming the movie in April 1981, LeVar noted, "There was some apprehension by the student government about how the school's image would be presented to the public. So we listened to all their comments. A copy of the script got into the hands of the student government and it caused a big uproar. They were worried that the school would be presented as just a football factory. None of them were acquainted with the problems of altering a script. They were very narrow-minded. The company made a supreme effort to accommodate them and changes were made in the script."
In an interview with Steve Walz of the 'Evening News' in October 1981, Bruce Jenner spoke frankly, "I've known about the story for some time, and I went out and spent some time with Jim and got to know him. He would have to be somewhat of a rebel to do what he did, but he kept his composure. Personally, I doubt I would have done what he did. I'd look for an easier road to take. I mean sticking your neck out like that and the whole social aspect … Jim even dated a black girl on campus!
"Now, I always said I wouldn't do an athletic character because everybody expects you to do it, but this is a legitimate acting role. It's a human interest story, not a football story. It's about reverse integration and how blacks react to a white in their community. So I went out and bought the project for my production company. When we went down South to film the project, both the black and white populations were very touchy and concerned. One white guy didn't want us filming in his town so we had to shoot in another place."
Harry Belafonte told Diane Haithman of Knight-Ridder Newspapers in July 1981 about the "uproar" over the script, "I don't think any film is ever completely accurate. But by and large what attracted me to the film was the story itself, and the overriding humanity that had to be expressed in the relationship between the black students and the white player. Seeing a white student trying to integrate a black facility is a different point of view. In the final analysis, one will come away from the picture feeling that whether you're black or you're white, all people go through the same problems, that race is really the least of it when it comes to important human experiences."