Minutes before the final game of the 1961 NFL preseason, Tom Landry stood before his rookie right tackle from Southern University, prepared to issue one more steep challenge — the toughest yet for young Charlie Granger.
The icy, mild-mannered Dallas Cowboys coach liked what he’d seen from Granger, but the regular season loomed, which meant that roster spots were in high demand and short supply.
This last exhibition game, against the mighty Baltimore Colts, was Granger’s biggest test yet. And maybe his last chance.
“I’ll never forget (Landry) saying to me: ‘Granger, tonight, I’m going to find out if you can play in the NFL,’” he recalled.
Granger’s assignment: block Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti, a future Hall of Famer and seven-time All-Pro.
Right. No pressure there.
Granger admits he took a severe beating that night. But he stood firm against Marchetti, and after the game, the Dallas staff gave him a grade of 100 percent.
He made the final cut, and, in doing so, became the first black man to start on the Cowboys offensive line.
“It was a real job. It was intense. Very tough,” Granger said. “But I knew all along I could play professional football.”
Fifty years later, filmmaker Cindy Hurst sat in a Baton Rouge coffee shop, smiling as she recalled Granger’s journey from Lake Charles to Southern, from Southern to pro football, from the pros to teaching, and finally, to the lead role of a new documentary Hurst has produced and directed.
Quite a journey, she said. Quite a story.
Months after Granger approached her out of the blue, Hurst will unveil a 52-minute documentary called “Remembering a Forgotten First: The Story of Charlie Granger.”
The film premieres at 7 p.m. June 11 in the Smith-Brown Memorial Student Union. It’s a fitting time and place for the big film about a big man.
One hour later, Southern will hold its annual Sports Hall of Fame Banquet. Granger has been chair of the Hall of Fame committee since 2003.
“Unless you were ‘Mean’ Joe Greene or one of the really famous players, you usually got overlooked,” Hurst said, referring to black players who made it to pro football in the 1950s and ’60s. “I really wanted to put a face on the guys who paved the way.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Granger nudged her along.
Now 72 and thick around the middle, with glasses, white hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, Granger rarely has a problem talking about his athletic career.
He was a three-year starter at Southern, part of a program that beat Grambling three times, and a recently inducted member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame.
Through her lectures and interviews, Granger had heard about Hurst, a Baton Rouge native who’d just started her new career as an independent filmmaker.
Granger asked Hurst if she could help chronicle his life. And admittedly, she had her doubts.
“I don’t think he was looking for a documentary,” Hurst said, “and I told Granger, ‘I don’t do books.’”
Still, Hurst was intrigued. She fell in love with filmmaking two years ago, and after a month-long stint at film school in Prague, dove headfirst into the business.
The Granger piece is her third film, and as Hurst puts it, her work is meant to spark dialogue in African-American communities.
One other thing: She’s a Southern alum, with a natural connection to Granger.
Together, they collected old photos, ran down teammates and formed the outline of a documentary.
Hurst decided she had quite a story.
Born in Lake Charles, Granger grew up poor, raised by his mother and great-grandmother, without much of a male influence. He was searching for direction in life when he found sports.
Granger played basketball and football and ran track at Booker T. Washington High in Lake Charles, coached mostly by men who earned college degrees from one of two places — Grambling or Southern.
In 1957, when Eddie Robinson came looking for players, he found Granger — or, at least, what was left of him. An agile, well-built tackle who played at 190 pounds in high school, Granger was volunteering at the morgue after Hurricane Audrey tore his hometown apart. He spent days on end with a machete, cutting open bloated bodies to pour lime inside, giving doctors a better chance to identify the bodies.
Granger hadn’t eaten well in months, and by then, he was down to 160 pounds.
Grambling didn’t have a place for a lineman like that.
He came to Baton Rouge as a freshman without a scholarship. SU’s legendary coach, A.W. Mumford, flatly told Granger he didn’t have the size to play college football. He was stuck on the third team.
From there, Granger focused on one thing: eating. His future wife, a Port Allen native, brought goodies from the family cupboard: whole chicken, loaves of bread, gallons of milk.
“You could put it this way: I was one greedy person,” he said, laughing.
Granger bulked up to 240 pounds and became a mainstay at right tackle. An old teammate, flanker Jesse J. Jackson, once called Granger “Mr. Reliable” at last year’s sports banquet, adding that if players got behind him, they had an easy path to another first down.
Southern dropped archrival Grambling three straight times from 1958-60, and Granger outsmarted some of the nation’s best-known talents — among them, Buck Buchanan and Ernie Ladd, both future Pro Bowlers.
But his life in pro football was very short.
Granger played eight games with the Cowboys before they shipped him to St. Louis in a midseason trade. The following year, the Cardinals wanted to make him a defensive tackle. He balked, went back to his offseason home in Chicago and waited for the phone to ring.
Granger never played another down in the NFL.
He returned to Baton Rouge and coached a semipro team to a 28-4 record in four years. He spent much of the next three decades teaching in East Baton Rouge Parish. Now retired, Granger is a fixture at Southern events, known at home, but almost forgotten elsewhere.
“It would’ve been tragic for him to leave this earth and have his story not be told,” Hurst said. “He’s going to get his day. And I’m excited for him.”