Enduring Spirit: Red-carpet event held for premiere of Perry Wallace documentary

Just three days after Perry Wallace, BE’70, died, hundreds of people—including family, friends, teammates and fans—gathered at Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium on Dec. 4 for the premiere of Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace, a documentary about the late Wallace’s courage and struggles as a student-athlete breaking the color barrier in the SEC.

“The film is called Triumph for a reason,” Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said in remarks. “Perry’s triumph in the classroom and out of it is a story that no one will ever forget.”

The red-carpet event hosted 300 special guests, including Wallace’s three sisters and other family members; Vanderbilt teammate Godfrey Dillard, ’70, who, with Wallace, also broke the color barrier in SEC sports; former NFL Tennessee Titan Eddie George; Shan Foster, BS’08, the all-time leading scorer for Vanderbilt basketball; and Chris Williams, BS’07, and Jovan Haye, BS’07, who both played in the NFL. Also attending was Buster Olney, BA’88, a columnist for ESPN and a member of Vanderbilt’s Student Media Hall of Fame.

The film, directed by Rich Gentile and narrated by Academy Award–winning actor Forest Whitaker, features commentary by Andrew Young, former United Nations ambassador and a leader in the American civil rights movement; Frank Deford, a sportswriter and novelist; and others. In a panel discussion after the screening, Zeppos noted that the work of reconciliation must continue, both on campus and in the greater community.

“We can say we’ve seen this movie and learned its lessons, but this work must go on every day,” he said. “A lot of healing has to happen, and it really must be a continuous commitment to make Vanderbilt better each time, to be done in a constant way and not just a historical way.”

Wallace’s experience is the subject of the New York Times best-selling book Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South (2014, Vanderbilt University Press) by Andrew Maraniss, BA’92, which has since been adapted into a young adult book of the same name. Strong Inside was selected as the Commons Reading for both the 2016–17 and 2017–18 academic years for all students living on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, Vanderbilt’s first-year residential community.

The movie and book events are part of a larger series of activities honoring Wallace and the 50th anniversary of the integration of SEC varsity sports. On Dec. 1, Wallace and Dillard were celebrated at the SEC football championship in Atlanta with the league’s Michael L. Slive Distinguished Service Award. Vanderbilt observed moments of silence to honor Wallace before the women’s basketball game Dec. 2 and the men’s game Dec. 3 in Memorial Gym, where Wallace’s nephew, James, who had represented him at the SEC Championship earlier in the weekend, and Dillard were in attendance. In addition, commemorative posters marking the 50th anniversary of SEC integration were handed out to fans.

Continuing the anniversary, Vanderbilt announced in early January that Wallace had been selected as recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award. And on Jan. 10, at an event in Washington, D.C., Zeppos unveiled plans to open a new center at Vanderbilt to explore the intersection of sports, race, gender and culture in society.

“Few activities capture popular attention like sports, where our society’s greatest successes and deepest failures play out. Perry’s and Godfrey’s stories underscore this and truly showcase the role that universities—for better and for worse—play in the fight for equality,” Zeppos said. “Given our history, Vanderbilt is uniquely positioned to be a convener for important conversations and study around the difficult issues at the intersection of sports and society.”


Watch a trailer for the film Triumph.