Reverend passes glory to real hero

Movie: Joseph Verrett, portrayed by TNT as the star of a civil rights fight, insists he was a more of a bench warmer.

February 20, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Joseph Verrett, as portrayed by Andre Braugher in the TNT movie "Passing Glory," airing at 8 p.m. tomorrow, is a fiery, radical young Josephite priest who wages the good fight for civil rights.

The real Verrett just has to chuckle.

"I'd like to believe I was that heroic and epochal a figure," says Verrett, who in retirement is associate pastor at St. Francis Xavier parish in East Baltimore and works in the Josephite Fathers missions office. "But I wasn't."

"Passing Glory" is the story of a ground-breaking basketball game between two Catholic schools in the segregated New Orleans of 1965: all-black St. Augustine and all-white Jesuit high schools. The game marked the beginning of athletic integration in Louisiana.

But it seems that the screenplay, written by former St. Augustine student and basketball player Harold Sylvester, takes a bit of artistic license.

As the film opens, Verrett is being sent from Baltimore, where he had been raised by relatives and served as a young assistant pastor, to St. Augustine as punishment for organizing parishioners to oppose a building project he thought was a waste of money.

"But no, that's all fictitious," he says. In fact, Varrett was born and raised in New Orleans, never got into trouble with the Baltimore Archdio- cese and didn't move to Baltimore until much later. After a career that included stints as a school administrator, parish priest, seminary dean and a drug and alcohol counselor, including eight and half years as executive director of Baltimore's Tuerk House, he retired here in 1996.

But the film's depiction of the struggle against segregation was right on, he says.

"We had a lot of kids who had a lot of potential to go to college on athletic scholarships, but no one knew about these kids," he says. "The press in New Orleans just didn't cover black schools, period."

Verrett, who was assistant principal of St. Augustine in the 1960s, would take the basketball statistics to the local daily newspapers in an effort to get something published. "Of course, they never did," he says.

In 1965, St. Augustine had the best team in the black league, and it was the principal, the Rev. Robert H. Grant, played in the film by Rip Torn, who came up with the idea for a game with the top white team.

Jesuit High agreed, but only if there were no spectators and the game were kept secret.

And unlike the film, in which Andre Braugher's Verrett is the basketball coach inspiring his players to think of themselves as the other team's equals, the real Verrett did not attend the game.

"I did not go because I was really offended by the secrecy thing," he says.

It was Grant, who in the film is a cautious man, unwilling to rock the boat, who really pushed the limits of what was permitted in that day.

"In the movie, my character is pushing and Father Grant is saying, `You have to go slow,' " Verrett says. "One of the unfortunate things in the movie is that Harold, for dramatic effect, he wanted a black protagonist. ... To do that, he really blended my personality and Father Grant's."

As it turned out, the game did not remain secret, because someone leaked it to the press, leading to "a month or two of real controversy," Verrett says.

"To this day I don't know who leaked the results of the game to the press," Verrett says. "But my best guess is Father Grant."

The next year, Grant filed suit challenging the segregated athletic leagues in federal court and won. St. Augustine was admitted to the Catholic league, and a later judge's order extended the integration to the entire state.

Grant died last year, on Feb. 7.

"It really is a shame that he is not here to see this," Verrett says. "He was one of the most single-minded proponents of integration and he had one of the keenest senses of what was just and what was unjust I've ever met in the Josephites.

"Bob was second to none in his insistence that the right thing had to be done."

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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