ESPN, Spike Lee pay tribute to Howard U's soccer heroes with documentary

WASHINGTON – The Howard University teams of the early 1970s might just be the best soccer story most fans of the beautiful game have never heard. But that's about to change.

The Undefeated, ESPN's project on the intersections of race, sports and culture, is set to make its long-awaited debut next month. The gripping tale of the 1971 and 1974 NCAA national championship-winning Bison teams will be one of its first feature subjects–with a big assist from none other than Spike Lee.

A crowd flocked to Howard's Cramton Auditorium on Tuesday evening to watch the world premiere of Redemption Song, a short film directed by Kenan Holley as part of Lee's Lil Joints series which will air on ESPN's SportsCenter on June 7. The work brings the amazing achievements of the Bison's multi-national squad and their legendary coach Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips to a global audience.

Phillips rose to prominence in the nation's capital during a particularly contentious stage of the civil rights movement. Amid that, he utilized Howard's large population of overseas students from Africa and the Caribbean to build a pacey, skillful, and aggressive team. In 1971, they made history as the first historically black college to win an NCAA national championship.

But the celebrations would be short-lived--they would be stripped of their title, and banned from post-season competition for a season, for eligibility violations related to four players' participation in amateur competitions in their native lands. These were obscure procedural grounds that were widely perceived to be applied unfairly amid the polarizing racial politics of the moment.

Even the beneficiary of the NCAA's harsh punishment, runners-up St. Louis University, were unimpressed. Their iconic coach, 1950 US World Cup participant Harry Keough, refused to accept the resulting championship trophy.

As shown in Redemption Song, the Bison stayed determined to win back the trophy they felt had been unfairly snatched from them. Shortly after, in 1974, they inspired their entire campus with an undefeated season, marked by a blistering 19-0 record with 63 goals scored and just six allowed.

Their stadium packed to capacity at every home game, filled with the rhythms of African drums, Howard's teams both entertained the fans and demolished the opposition. It all culminated in a dramatic, quadruple-overtime national championship rematch at Busch Stadium with mighty St. Louis, who'd won nine of the 15 NCAA Division I men's soccer titles contested up to that point.

Phillips, himself a star goalkeeper from Trinidad & Tobago who faced off against the likes of Pele in the old NASL, was just 29 years old when he took the helm of the program. He would go on to earn his undergraduate's degree–even taking some of the same classes as his players–during his coaching tenure, which set him on the path to a distinguished second career that continues today.

“It allows the student-athletes of today to see what we can be like at Howard,” said HU athletic director Kery Davis of Redemption Song. (Naturally, both Howard's men's and women's soccer teams attended the premiere.) “The soccer team at that time galvanized the university. It was a source of pride; everyone came out. The seats were filled.”

The charismatic Phillips, naturally, drew warm, repeated applause from the audience when he joined Holley and Redemption Song producer Mark W. Wright on stage at Tuesday's premiere. With the 1974 NCAA trophy proudly displayed behind them, they discussed the team and the film. Both will figure prominently on The Undefeated when the site officially launches under new editor Kevin Merida on May 17.

“They moved so quickly, these two guys,” said Phillips of Wright's and Holley's handling of the Bison's inspiring tale.

Merida has also said that beyond being the permanent home of the documentary, the Undefeated will present new reporting on the specifics behind the NCAA's 1971 eligibility case against Howard when Redemption Song launches this summer.

Tuesday's premiere also gathered many members of those teams, who, to Phillips' great pride, went on to carve out successful careers in life after facing down virulent racism both on the field and in the streets.

“They are still winning,” said Phillips, “and it's a legacy I hope will not be buried.”

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