May 25, 2009, Napa Valley Register by Kerana Todorov

Hollywood screen writer Gregory Allen Howard did not take the easy path to bring his original screenplay for Remember the Titans to the big screen.

Yet he persisted, even when movie powerhouse The Walt Disney Co. and other studios turned him down, time and time again. He believed that the story of a newly integrated high school football team from Alexandria, Va., in the early 1970s — a winning team that brought together a racially divided community — was simply too amazing to ignore.

After a four-year struggle, Remember the Titans starring Denzel Washington was made and released by Disney in 2000. The film ended up grossing more than $117 million, making it one of the most successful movie based on an original screenplay by a black writer.

Howard, whose film credits include Ali, a story on boxing great Muhammad Ali, came with a clear message — respect one another and pursue your dreams.

“The hardest thing — and the right thing — are always the same thing,” Howard told about 30 Silverado Middle School students at a Friday luncheon at the Silverado Country Club and Resort.

Under the guidance of their teacher, Patty Wyman, the students, members of the school’s leadership class, have raised more than $30,000 over the past two years, including $25,000 for two schools in Ecuador. Since 2007, the students became part of Winfrey’s O Ambassadors Club, the youth group of Oprah’s Angel Network and Free the Children Foundation, a philanthropic organization that raises money for charities worldwide.

Howard, who graduated from Vallejo High School and Princeton University, accepted the students’ invitation to speak after learning they had raised thousands of dollars to build the school in Ecuador. A Florida resident, Howard is staying temporarily in Santa Rosa.

As the students listened closely, Howard, who began his career in television in the 1980s by writing for such hits as 21 Jump Street, walked them through how he got the movie off the ground. The script was researched and written without any studio financial backing, explained Howard, who was living in Alexandria, Va., near Washington, D.C., when he read the story of the Titans, who used to sing on the field.

Coach Herman Boone at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School believed that Howard’s idea to bring the story of his high school’s 1971 football team to the big screen was a “practical joke.”

Boone only began to open up only after Boone’s wife sanctioned it, saying she believed this was no joke. Howard then had to track down an entire football team two decades after they had graduated from high school, as well as Boone’s assistant coach, Bill Yoast. All had to be interviewed and re-interviewed to prepare the script.

Howard, who had moved from Los Angeles to Alexandria in the 1990s, traveled cross-country to pitch the idea and then persuade a movie studio to make the film. Howard wrote the script on his own because no studio would back the project financially.

In the end, producer Jerry Bruckheimer took a chance and Disney backed the film after having it rejected three times. Denzel Washington, the star, signed on for a fraction of his usual salary.

And the movie became an instant hit.

“If you’re doing something that is right, that you know is right, that will help people, you just have to proceed, no matter what,” Howard told the students.

“The whole experience for me was amazing,” he said. “It’s been a remarkable journey for me. I’ve learned so much doing it because I followed my heart.”

As they ate their lunch, the Silverado Middle School students, who have seen Remember the Titans on DVD, found Howard’s efforts in making the movie impressive.

“He didn’t give up and kept on going,” said Lidice Garcia, 13, a seventh-grader.

Howard said he was also impressed at the kids’ efforts to raise money to build schools in Ecuador. The kids said they raised money different ways, including car washes and selling chocolate candies.

“I’m very proud of what they’ve done,” he said after his talk. “The youths, they are our future. And these kids are fantastic.”